If you can remember life before the internet, you’ll also remember people searching through auto club guides to choose the best place to stay.
They were the trusted bibles for accommodation; a good or bad star rating could make or break a hotel.
It seems like ancient history and some would say that’s where traditional star ratings belong, but prepare for a serious attempt at a comeback.
Our auto clubs are preparing to throw $1 million a year at reinvigorating official star ratings, with the new model to integrate consumer reviews and rankings.
They want to convince us that official ratings are still the most reliable mark of standards – although I’m sure they recognise that it will be a battle.
Star ratings have never really gone away but they’ve certainly declined in importance in the age of TripAdvisor and rich internet content.
Some of our biggest accommodation providers have turned their backs on the official system, opting instead for schemes developed in other countries or for self-rating their properties.
Not all consumers will realise that many of the “star ratings” on internet bookings sites are provided by the hotels themselves; you have to look closely to see they’re using dots or other shapes in place of stars.
However Star Ratings Australia says research shows consumers are not ready to throw official ratings away.
“Stars are still relevant: 85 per cent of Australian travellers told us they use the stars when making a domestic booking,” says general manager Damien Hanger.
“They’re not the be-all and end-all but they are still a very valuable and trusted mark of quality.
“We understand that the consumer is still going to go off and look at TripAdvisor and multiple information sources… but star ratings give consumers greater confidence and choice when short-listing accommodation options.”
Hanger says he acknowledges there are emotive attributes, such as service and value for money, which cannot be measured by a star-ratings scheme.
“That’s where the consumer reviews come in: Only the consumer can determine those things,” he says.
Going back a few years, one of the biggest problems with star ratings was that they only measured a tick-box list of facilities and services, when what travellers most wanted to know was whether the room was clean and in a reasonable condition.
By failing to take into account grimy bathrooms or threadbare carpets, the star rating system left the door wide open for consumer review sites such as TripAdvisor.
This was addressed by adjusting the star ratings criteria to include cleanliness and quality, but the world had already moved on.
The official star ratings scheme has also been badly promoted, with consumers not given reasons to value it.
The new-look star ratings, which are expected to be released around September, will provide a blend of independent assessment, consumer rankings and consumer reviews, backed up by an awareness campaign.
“We’ll be heavily promoting the scheme, educating consumers about how star ratings are determined,” says Hanger.
A key challenge will be websites such as Wotif.com that allow hotels to self-rate their properties, with no single system of verification.
“Our goal is raise awareness of the star ratings; that people know they can trust the stars,” says Hanger.
“Self-ratings are exactly what they are: It’s the operator coming up with their own standard.”Hanger says the new star ratings model is based on a federally-funded research project with “robust mathematics” behind it.
The model weights different aspects of a hotel stay according to what consumers say they care about most.
For example, cleanliness gets the highest weighting for a bathroom, while the mattress and size of the bed are apparently the most-valued features of the room itself.
Official inspections of properties are currently carried out every 18-24 months and it is not known if this frequency will change under the new scheme.
However, consumer reviews will add an “ongoing evaluation of how a property is performing”.
Unfortunately, it is not possible for inspections to be done anonymously; the logistics and economics just don’t stack up when it comes to a 400-room hotel.
Hanger admits it might not be ideal to pre-announce visits but says star ratings inspectors look at 60 per cent of all available rooms, providing a much better picture than a “mystery shop” of a single room.
It will be no easy task to reclaim the credibility levels of the old auto club guides but I applaud any attempts to do so.
Consumer reviews play an important role, but there should always be a place for independent ratings.
Do you use star ratings when choosing accommodation? Can a good or bad star rating make or break a hotel? Leave a comment below.