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Thursday , March 23 2017
star ratings

Will the internet kill the hotel star?

Star-rated? Consumer rated? Or even self-rated? What is the state of affairs with accommodation rating in New Zealand tourism in 2017 and where are we headed?

There has been recent discussion in Australia around self-rated properties versus star ratings, which are obtained through a process of industry accreditation assessment.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, recent research pointed to continued consumer confidence in a verifiable star rating system for its transparency and reliability, but also to an appreciation of access to consumer reviews to verify the rating. While consumers might not grasp the exact criteria for the stamp of approval, they have the comfort of knowing that an industry body has compiled a list of important benchmarks, and the property has attained them.

According to Qualmark’s general manager Cameron Lawrence, “in New Zealand, it’s a very different conversation”.  The discussion is generally around star rating versus consumer rating. It appears that operators in New Zealand are less likely to blow their own trumpets without a solid base of consumer reviews to back them up. Whatever the reason for this cultural difference, a question remains. What is working better in New Zealand: formal accreditation with Qualmark or relying on consumer reviews?

In a world that is ruled by the world-wide web, online consumer reviews have become an influential force on ‘public perception’. And if indeed beauty (or hotel quality) is in the eye of the beholder, a certain subjectivity is inescapable. Individual guests are just that, individuals.  The result? An enormous level of variability in perception, each coloured by the person’s past experiences, preferences, and of course, their personal standards. But isn’t that how word of mouth works? Isn’t that how you get a clear appraisal unfettered by economic motivations and marketing? Yes, and no; that was what we heard when we took this question to the industry: ‘Star-rated vs. self-rated: which holds the most benefit for managers and why?’

With some exceptions, relying on consumer opinions to self-rate was not considered good enough. It was part of the puzzle and certainly added colour, but we heard that it should be complemented by a more definitive recommendation like a star rating or Qualmark registration. Among the responses however, there was some concern at an operator level about the relevance of the star rating system in a modern internet charged environment, and its ability to line up with international standards to adequately communicate level of quality and service.

So, does Qualmark have a defensible place in modern New Zealand tourism? Has our national accrediting agency moved with the times and reinvented itself like a 21st century entity with any hope of longevity must? AMG asked Cameron Lawrence for the low-down on how Qualmark fits in.

When Tourism New Zealand (TNZ) took full ownership of Qualmark in September 2015, they recognised that the market had changed significantly in the 23 years since Qualmark’s creation in 1993 as a government backed tourism quality assurance association. TNZ commenced a critical review that sought to determine whether the Qualmark platform could contribute to tourism in New Zealand. The process was informed by research conducted in an industry and consumer space.

The result is the new Qualmark ‘revitalised standard’. “We engaged specialists, who conducted best practice research; we also held focus groups with accommodation operators. Research told us to refresh not restart,” Cameron Lawrence indicated. “We found there was plenty worth keeping.”  The research revealed that a lot of what they were doing was appreciated in the industry, especially the business support that accompanied accreditation processes. Qualmark set about integrating the service into the overarching outcomes for TNZ. “It’s about helping that business to deliver a great product. Qualmark knows why visitors come to New Zealand and what they appreciate, so we have developed our new standard to cover that.”

There’s been a shift away from “previous hard quality criteria” of ticking boxes against a checklist, and the updated standard “also ensures that Qualmark checks what the consumer can’t see”. The assessors evaluate and provide feedback on the processes in the business, and according to Mr Lawrence, existing clients appreciate that Qualmark representatives provide business advice during the accreditation process.

Reportedly, the shift is towards assisting accommodation businesses in meeting consumer expectation. The concept of international opinion is an interesting question with regard to star ratings. “There isn’t one standard across the world for star ratings,” Cameron Lawrence confirmed. “That’s because those different markets deliver different products.”

In line with the mandate to advance the tourism industry in New Zealand, a focus on standards within New Zealand arguably makes sense. Comparing an Asian 5-star hotel to how the French do ‘5-star’ could very well disregard the cultural context. Perhaps in our more nuanced age of online discussion, the reliable deliverables of “Hiltonia” have become anachronistic?

The revitalised Qualmark standard definitely begins at home. Mr Lawrence explained that Qualmark has aligned with broader strategic goals for tourism in New Zealand, and is working to help accommodation businesses understand New Zealand’s unique offering.  “It’s about what makes New Zealand unique: warm and welcoming; safe to explore; beautiful nature; clean and unpolluted.”

The revised Qualmark is incorporating sustainability across all Qualmark assessments, building off the successful ‘Enviro Awards’ programme. All business are now initially assessed under the Sustainable Tourism criteria. The elements of the accreditation are based on a sense of ecological sustainability, as well as the social ecology of community within New Zealand, including engagement and contribution to local communities.

The captivating international image of the Kiwi nation aside, overall accommodation quality and service are addressed. The accommodation accreditation process also provides feedback on health and safety policy, and the business processes behind the scenes. Mr Lawrence emphasized that “although what consumers are saying about a property is recognized in our assessment, we also conduct an examination of ‘behind the front desk’ operations. “We are not just checking if the beds are cleaned; we are also interested in the cleaning program that delivered that clean bed.”

The assessment and accreditation involves professional support and opportunity for business improvement. “It gives a lot of assurance to operators and trade; knowing that we have checked all those things are in place.”

The research phase of the revamp confirmed the industry’s appreciation for these business services. “We understood from our focus groups, that it wasn’t just achieving the star that was important to our clients, it was the business advice and the relationship with the Qualmark representative.” One area of focus has been “amping up delivery of that assessor relationship”, and market research indicated that operators “really valued that opportunity to access advice on questions, such as ‘how do I prepare for change?’ and ‘how do I improve my business?’.

AdobeStock_128627943-300x200 Will the internet kill the hotel star?
Are you star or self rated? Let us know why in the comments below.

 

Cameron Lawrence has observed a pendulum style swing in the industry towards TripAdvisor, and then back towards the star ratings. “It really is just a personal observation”, he emphasised, “but there was a lot of talk a while ago that TripAdvisor would replace star ratings completely, but that commentary has gone quiet”.

The Qualmark general manager and former service and accounts manager attributes that to a growing appreciation of the complementary nature of the two entities.  “TripAdvisor delivers some great stuff in this space, but we have a unique deliverable for our industry. Consumers understand that we have different roles to play.”

So, it seems the prediction that TripAdvisor would signal the end of star ratings has turned out to be as accurate as digital media signalling the end of print. As online communities proliferate, the limitations of the online space become more apparent.

With verification of online content a challenge, and the impulsiveness of sharing characterised by the medium, it offers both advantages and challenges. Yet, with opinion overload a very real threat, as we check for online quality, we may just be gasping for a bit of something to cling to, something with an offer of substantiation. In the era of “fake news”… who could blame us?

Enough from us. Let’s hear it direct from industry voices: ‘Star-rated vs. self-rated: which holds the most benefit for managers and why?

Moira Penman, general manager, AA Tourism Publishing Limited trading as AA Traveller

“It’s not a one or the other situation and, in fact, limiting it to either or both in terms of importance doesn’t reflect reality. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, especially when we consider customers are very savvy in how they gather information and make their decisions. Never has there been easier access to a wide range of accommodation options.

A high-quality, audited, star-rating system such as Qualmark is an important way for customers to screen properties and develop a shortlist. Then it pretty much comes down to personal preference, which can be based on price, convenience, amenities, age, style – really, the list is endless – or a combination of all of those.

At this point self-rating becomes important. Assuming the property is presented well and the service is fantastic, it’s all about communication and ensuring potential customers have a good and consistent experience from the beginning, which starts with a listing on a website or and in print.”

Lesley Immink, chief executive, Tourism Export Council

“If I was going to give any sort of comment it is that our Qualmark star rating system sets international visitors up for disappointment when compared to the world stage. Our 5 star Qualmark rated hotels are not of 5-star global standard. We need to be realistic about our accommodation hotel inventory star ratings. In saying that, our quality motel and holiday park accommodation is probably some of the best in the world.”

Rachael Shadbolt, general manager, Accommodation NZ, Accommodation, Partnerships and Communication

“Operators say that going through a Qualmark assessment can be a time consuming and often stressful time but it is invaluable in taking a long hard look at a business, from its chattels, guest service and staff, through to its systems and processes.  At the end of an assessment feedback is provided and this gives the business opportunities for future improvement.

By comparison a self-rated property is very subjective based on the owner or operator’s assessment of the property.  It does not allow for external assessment and feedback.

The evolution of the online user generated reviews means that star ratings (self or assessed) are only one piece of information that guests use when selecting their accommodation.  While star ratings give a good indication of the level of stay someone might expect, it is the online reviews that gives the real-time feedback from people who have actually used the product.”

Sue Sullivan, chief executive, CINZ

“Travellers have moved from being reliant on a star-rating only to now referencing both star and self-ratings when booking accommodation. While accepting that a star-rating indicates a level of comfort, the expectation of large chains or internationals is that they are star-rated and there is a level of consistency across properties.

Self-rating comes into its own with smaller independent properties. While these properties may well carry a star-rating, self-rating becomes very important and something that is or should be closely followed. A star-rating combined with a good self-rating can swing a booking.”

Fergus Brown, chief executive, Holiday Accommodation Parks Association of New Zealand

“New Zealand is lucky to have Qualmark; it’s New Zealand official quality rating system, and I think there’s a lot of danger when it comes to self-rating because inconsistent subjective ratings can be hard to compare. That said, times are changing all the time, and these consumer generated ratings coming through trip advisor for example, are providing customers with a lot more tools for selecting which accommodation they want for themselves. We see Qualmark as a business development tool, it’s not all about the star rating. I’ve never been a big supporter of self- rating.”

Graham Yan, CEO, Heritage Hotel Management Ltd

“We take Qualmark star ratings seriously as we know these provide far more assurance than a self-rated system. We have worked with Qualmark for many years and we have always welcomed their rigorous inspection process and subsequent star-rating accreditation. Feedback from our customers tell us they prefer a recognised industry organisation rating system. It takes the guess work out of making a booking and ensures the guest gets exactly what they expected in standards and service on their stay.”

Sonya Rossiter, director of sales, marketing & distribution New Zealand & South Pacific Accor Hotels

“As an international hotel company, our brands are clearly positioned in the market, from budget through to luxury and each brand has a minimum must have in terms of product. We also have ongoing robust internal controls with third party companies conducting mystery guest product and service audits. What is inescapable today is the transparency of our guests’ experience. The most meaningful measurement of our guests’ experience that we use is what we call our Reputation Performance Score, this score is derived from our own guest satisfaction survey and online reviews drawn from over 300 sites in multiple languages. For our New Zealand hotels, the volume of reviews has grown by 132 percent year on year, thus it is very credible data that goes well beyond ticking a box.”

Oliver Faull, executive director, Swiss-Belhotel.

“Star rated is better than self rated and is supported by an official rating association or body while self rated is much more subjective and the hotel can obviously claim a certain rating even if not supported.

In saying that, the hotel world has changed greatly over recent years and due to the power of social media, including review sites such as Tripadvisor, there is much more transparency around the facilities and services offered by hotels and resorts. For example, a hotel can have a fantastic star rating or self rating but if it doesn’t meet or exceed the guest’s expectations s/he will simply give the hotel a poor rating, which everyone can see.”
Richard Ellerm, Tatahi Lodge Beach Resort

“Definitely self-rated which is based on customer/guest feedback, that is, OTAs’ rating scores and TripAdvisor.”

David Ovendale, CEO, Top 10 Holiday Parks

“Star rated every time for me. The benefit of a legitimate third party assessor vs. self-rating system, which is always open to questions of subjectivity, should not be undervalued. Consumers are savvy in today’s world and very quickly see through anything lacking authenticity and integrity. Having said that, today’s connected consumer values peer reviews very highly, and consumer generated reviews and recommendations trump both star and self-rating systems every time. There is a place for a credible star-rating system that allows consumers to better understand the accommodation product and classify properties but its relevance is being diminished by the online, real time, consumer review and recommendation culture we live in today.”

Lynley, Anatoki Lodge Motel

“In response to your question, it is not a straight forward issue.  We pulled out of a star rated scheme having stayed at motels which were nowhere near up to the standard of their rating. As we have high standards anyway we believe under those circumstances guests could well see the system as untrustworthy and even stay away from motels rated by this system. It is very apparent these places do the clean up when inspection is due. We hope word of mouth is a strong tool for us.”

Grant Kilby, general manager, Hahei Holiday Resort

“It’s a conundrum we face as multi-level (luxury villas to campsites) accommodation providers, as the star rated accreditation system looks at an overall picture, and yes, still holds credence with Kiwi holiday makers. However, it’s my view that international visitors take little or no heed of the NZ star rating when making a purchase decision. Peer review or self-rating sites give a far better indicator for the customer about what to expect when staying with us.”

Kathryn Officer, president Bed and Breakfast Association, New Zealand dedicated her industry column to the topic this issue.

It’s impossible to look at the pros and cons of this question from just the angle of a B&B owner without looking at it from a traveller’s perspective.

As every owner has different values, ideas and assessment process which makes up their self-rating, I believe the practice of self-rating has no value whatsoever and only confuses and at worst, often misleads. Stars should help travellers by giving an indication of the levels of comfort, facilities, service and even price however properties that self-rate almost always over estimate their rating!

Qualmark (to be or not to be)

Owned by Tourism New Zealand, Qualmark is the only official star rating system in New Zealand. A Qualmark star rated property is usually assessed and rated every two years with a key benefit being listed at the top of accommodation listings on Tourism New Zealand’s website.

Conversely, whilst the Bed & Breakfast Association New Zealand does not have a star rating system it offers a quality assurance programme as part of its membership. It is the only national association working exclusively to support bed and breakfast operators and represents members’ interests in areas such as advocacy, advice and support. We empower our members to provide first class services by the provision of best practice guidelines, business support and training.

The information we provide to members of the Bed & Breakfast Association about a Qualmark star rating, is that it is very much a personal choice and we recommend that our members talk to others in their region so that they can weigh up the benefits they are likely to gain. We believe that membership of the Bed & Breakfast Association is one way for B&Bs to get the ever-important quality assurance they need, as their membership is dependent upon a successful assessment. Those B&Bs that choose to have a Qualmark Licence are providing an additional assurance to their customers that they take their business seriously and that their B&B is a professional tourism business.

While I am a strong advocate for a star-rating system (particularly in terms of acting as a “health check” for the business) they don’t stack up on their own. While any star-rating system acts as a good guide to the level of comfort, facilities, service and quality a traveller requires, a traveller could risk disappointment if they rely solely on a star rating. They will get a better overall picture of the property they want to book by considering both a star rating as well as online reviews.

From a B&B owner’s perspective I can honestly say that being Qualmark Licenced does not give me bookings. While my Qualmark rating might be seen as important by prospective guests, and may guide them in their decision-making process, it does not make them push the BOOK NOW button. It is my online reputation that gives me bookings; it’s only when the traveller is satisfied by my online reviews that they proceed with a booking. The benefit I value the most from my Qualmark licence (as with membership of the Bed & Breakfast Association where my membership is dependent upon compliance with the rigorous assessment programme) is the assurance I get from meeting the requirements of providing high professional standards and that I comply with all the relevant laws, regulations and bylaws affecting home hosting. I look upon a Qualmark licence as my annual B&B health check. Just as I regard the annual cost of the Qualmark licence to be a very important business expense, so too is my annual subscription to the Bed & Breakfast Association NEW ZEALAND. Both offer valuable benefits that gives my business a greater chance of success. They both offer the vital ingredients that help maintain and improve business performance of my B&B. 

About Suzy Barry

Suzy Barry
Suzy Barry is the editor of Accom Management Guide, New Zealand. She brings over a decade of editing and journalism to the title, and has experience in wellness tourism.

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