It's Too Soon To Scrap Hotel Star-Ratings In Favor Of Traveler-Written Reviews

UK newspapers reported on Monday, January 24, 2011, that UK tourism minister John Penrose stated the government is considering phasing out government-sanctioned star-ratings of various lodging accommodations in favor of traveler-written reviews.

That's an idea ahead of its time.

Currently, representatives from various UK tourism authorities like VisitEngland, VisitScotland, and the Automobile Association (known in the UK as the AA) anonymously visit and assess hotels, B&Bs, and even campsites. These reviewers grade each establishment on a scale of one to five stars, using a process and criteria discussed here.

Tempting as it may be to use traveler-written ratings and reviews -- which the UK's Department for Culture, Media and Sport considers to be more "truthful '' -- it's too soon to abandon the government-set standards. Why?

  • Too few travelers write reviews now. Sites like TripAdvisor and have empowered consumers -- consumers are now the brand manager. Yet data from Forrester's European Technographics® Retail, Customer Experience, And Travel Online Survey, Q3 2010, shows very few UK travelers take the time to share their opinions. Only 6% of UK leisure hotel guests have written a review or rated any kind of travel product or service provider. Some may say that the government-based ratings depend on the opinions of individuals -- but the people who conduct these assessments use established criteria. Traveler-written ratings and reviews can be highly subjective. It's also possible for employees to heap fawning accolades on their hotels, while trashing a competitor -- neither one of which is acceptable business behavior. Plus, smaller lodging establishments may have few ratings/reviews (or none), or their ratings/reviews may not be regularly updated. That doesn't serve either the business or the traveler well.
  • Less than half of UK hotel guests currently read traveler-written ratings and reviews. TripAdvisor's home page states that it has "over 40 million trusted traveler reviews [and] opinions." Do travelers read them? According to our European Technographics® Retail, Customer Experience, And Travel Online Survey, Q3 2010, 42% of UK online leisure hotel guests said they read travel-related ratings or reviews online. That's certainly a critical mass of travelers -- and, for all we know, may far exceed the number of travelers who read the governments' own ratings -- but it is still a minority of UK online hotel guests. Clearly, lodging establishments need to elevate the visibility for whatever credible ratings and reviews that do exist for their businesses, along with the government-established star-rating they have earned.

More than seven in 10 online travelers in Europe and the US now participate in social media. Clearly, travelers are interested in sharing ideas, opinions, and information about all topics related to their trips via social media. As more travelers engage in social media -- and engage more often -- the creation, readership, and value of traveler-written ratings and reviews will increase. What the UK proposes may not be practical now, but three years from now -- 2014 -- provided there are an adequate number of travelers writing reviews, it may indeed be practical for the UK government to move from its own star-rating system to one based on traveler-written ratings and reviews. And this is clearly a wake-up call to other organizations, whether government or private-sector, that provide lodging ratings/reviews -- your days are numbered. One caveat: There must be a "fallback" procedure so smaller lodging establishments who receive no ratings/reviews, or businesses that don't receive a valid number of regularly updated reviews, have the ability to be graded by an accredited organization in order to remain competitive.

What do you think? Please share your thoughts in the "comments" field below. And, as always, thanks for your time.


Hi Henry- Good thoughts

Hi Henry-
Good thoughts regarding why UGR (user-generated reviews) might not yet be mature enough to fully replace formal/professional reviews. This important discussion can also be applied to how hotels use public reviews vs. their internal surveys, like Medallia -- the same principles apply: are the unstructured opinions of the masses trustworthy/structured/honest/detailed enough to replace the systems that hoteliers and guests use today?

There are no shortage of opinions on this topic, but the only valid way to answer the question is via an empirical study or survey. I'm working with clients to determine what kind of parallels exist between UGC and traditional surveys, for example. Our findings aren't final, but early results show a healthy correlation. I think the entire industry would benefit enormously if the UK Ministry of Tourism undertook a similar study. I would recommend the study be conducted every six months until we see enough parity to justify dropping the current system.

What do you think? Are you aware of any similar studies?

Thanks, Aaron. I'm not aware

Thanks, Aaron.

I'm not aware of any similar formal studies underway. Firms like Revinate or MarketMetrix may be able to provide a foundation of guest UGC data regarding hotel quality that could be contrasted against established, accepted star ratings.

Please keep us posted with what you learn!


Hello Henry, When I read this

Hello Henry,

When I read this piece of news yesterday via a twitter feed, I was puzzled. While I can see why UGC reviews appeal as a better approach than a star-rated system, I don't ever see a day when folks will agree to a set of standards and criteria. You mention 2014? I don't think that's going to happen. Not so soon, at least.

While the star-rated system has its flaws, it still gives a general idea of what one can expect, based on generally-accepted criteria: cleanliness, guest experience, in-room services, pool and other amenities, and so forth. One knows what to expect from a 5-star hotel versus a 3-star hotel, prices following (supposedly) accordingly. Where UGC comes in handy is in validating if a property maintains its quality standards or not over time, and whether one can associate with the comments and reviews.

One example? You may go to one hotel on a business trip, so you'll look at the reviews for this hotel from that perspective. The following week, you're returning to the same city, but with wife and kids. Your perspective is not the same, yet you'll read reviews with this in mind, and will make your decision combining reviews with the star-rated system. Therefore, both have a role to play.

To me, this debate is similar to that of social media vs news outlets. Some folks say twitter and facebook will replace media like cnn, conde nast, or other specialty outlets. I don't agree. I believe media outlets will struggle but will always have a role to play, while social networks will play a bigger role in relaying said information and content. Likewise, UGC content will play a bigger role in how we make travel decisions, but we will always need a trusted source to begin with. A government-approved, star-rated system has to play this role.

Expertise is appreciated and rewarded where it brings value. So long as star-rated systems are perceived as expertise that cannot be replicated or surpassed by wisdom of crowds, it will remain an essential part of travel industry. Time will tell.

My two cents. Cheers,

star-ratings are out of date..... however

Firest of all: my excuses for reacting so late to this article (I have been on holiday, but feel that a certain aspect of this has not been touched upon)

I think there are a couple of issues with both systems.
let's start with the fact that only certain types of people rate Hotels etc.
Take into account that when they do this, they do this on basis of the star ratings / price which is adverted as the standard price.
This implies to me that a user generated rating system alone can never be good enough to convey in what scale a hotel is.

However, the star scale as now used is completely outdated: for instance, to get a five star rating you need a phone on the toilet.
This stems from the time that there were no mobile phones.
How can such a rule still be in place?
Should there not be other things that are more important - how about wifi acces... or better still: free wifi access, enough powers sockets to load up your electronics, what do they do to lower their ecological footprint, etc. etc.

There are a plethora of things that we could come up with that the modern traveller finds interesting and/or what is important to the society in which this hotel is situated - which currently are not used at all. This discussion is due to the fact that this sector has not been able to innovate this system themselves. That is sad.
To make a new rating system by which on basis of this you can choose your hotel (and yes.... a dual rating system of x stars + an average review of 0 - 10 would be nice to have incorporated in there as well) is something that is long overdue, and hopefully this will be the catalyst for this discussion

TripAdvisor is not the only place one can read reviews - there are also the guidebooks you mention. I've written guide books and have seen people resort to threatening behaviour at the merest mention that their outfit is less than sublime. There are hoteliers who will rage and froth at every bad review, and there are those who will value the feedback and make a sincere attempt to improve their service.

At the end of the day, having a bunch of reviews from impartial visitors seems more democratic than being at the mercy of an arbitrary travel guide writer, especially if safeguards against attacks from the competition are built in. The initiative to make the comments attributable would be an extremely important one.