Australia hotel ratings: Does a 'six star' rating actually mean anything?

Sydney is already home to Australia's only claimed "six star" hotel in Crown Sydney but if all goes to plan, it will soon be home to a second.

Award-winning developers Built and joint venture partner, Irongate Group plan to begin construction next year on an $800 million property on Phillip Street that would afford panoramic, never-to-be-built-out, harbour views, including a "six star" hotel.

The development will include 52 Phillip Street, which Built already owns, and the next-door heritage-listed 50 Phillip Street, owned by the NSW Government and which would be availed to the joint venture partners on a long-term lease.

Built development director Jono Cottee said while the intended design for the site put it in the highest category of luxury, it would transcend to "six-star" because of its remarkable position and views.

But with official hotel ratings systems only going up to five stars, what does "six star" really mean?

Not much, say pundits – although it does put the spotlight on the woolliness of both Australia's star system and those of other parts of the world.

Star ratings are internationally recognised – by consumers, at least – as representing the level of quality in a hotel, five being the ultimate in luxury. They are more reliable in some countries than others: in New Zealand and France, for instance, they are government-run.

But even then, they can run into murky waters.

Google recently was fined €1.1 million ($A1.7 million), when, following a number of complaints by hoteliers, the French national consumer watchdog investigated and found the tech giant had replaced the standard classification system of the public tourist board (Atout France) with its own star rating system based on algorithms — and had applied it to more than 7500 hotels.

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Australia's official system, run by Star Ratings Australia, owned by the Australian Tourism Industry Council, mostly applies to motels and similar properties. ATIC bought the rights from the Australian Motoring Clubs, including NRMA and RACV. The clubs had run it since the 1950s, when the Australian hotel scene as we know it was pretty much non-existent.

In closing their version of the system in 2017, Michael Reed, chief executive of Australian Motoring Services said, "In a digital world, where consumers can provide online reviews, and with more accommodation providers choosing to self-rate, the Star Ratings scheme has found its independent review model increasingly unsustainable."

Dean Long, CEO of the Accommodation Association of Australia, which includes many of the largest chains, agrees that it is guests, not the hotel industry, that now determines star ratings. 

"The rise of user generated content and social media reviews mean customers decide what is truly five stars and hotels invest and innovate to maintain their ratings," he said.

There are other hotels in the world that officially go beyond five-star; in France, for instance, the government ministry of tourism can bestow a "Palace" designation on a property to signify its transcendence.

Meanwhile, in Dubai, the Burj Al Arab continues to proudly tout "seven stars" thanks to one journalist branding it as such when it opened in 1999, her way of describing it as above and beyond.

To make matters more complicated, there is an international back-end system of hotel rating called STR (short for Smith Travel Research) which provides the industry and investors with benchmarks for valuations. There are seven "scale groups": Luxury, Upper Upscale, Upscale, Midscale with F&B, Midscale without F&B, Economy and Independent.

But STR's Pacific regional manager, Matthew Burke, says many of Australia's hotels solely rely on their brand name to speak to consumers about where they are on the luxury scale.

Similarly he says, hotels use terms such as "six star" purely for marketing purposes – to attract the beautiful and Instagrammable. He points to "six-star" Crown Sydney as a hangout for the hip, for influencers and celebrities and as being an urban resort, rather than a classic luxury hotel.

But consultant Rodger Powell of Tourism and Hospitality Services AustralAsia says the reality is that "a six-star rating simply doesn't exist. The star rating systems, and there are many worldwide, only measure one to five. Five is always the best, most luxurious. Saying something is six is a developer's way of saying it's better than the best."

Even the developers at Phillip Street are using the six-star tag as aspirational.

"There is no system in Australia," says Built's Jono Cottee. "Six is funny because the ratings have traditionally only gone up to five and now we've got this thing to insinuate 'best in class'. In our situation it's the location that sets it apart, because of the views of the Opera House, harbour and the Heads in the distance, the heritage building and nearby Botanic Gardens."

Semantics aside, the reality of whether the hotel achieves its high-end aims or not depends on attracting the right hoteliers.

Cottee says international chains Accor and Marriott have both expressed interest and would be looking to brand it respectively as an ultra-luxurious Raffles or St Regis.

All up, the opportunity is out to "20 groups at the moment that all fit the criteria", including super high-end single-brand companies such as One & Only.

All going well, it's expected to open in 2025.

See also: 'Dazzling': Our verdict on Crown Sydney's 'six-star' hotel

See also: How to get entry to the 'business class' section of hotels

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