When Which? Magazine looked at Covid Safe “badge” schemes in the hospitality and airline industries they called into question the validity of some programmes, particularly those which required no more than a “tick box” by the operator. Perhaps it is time to consider just how valid rating schemes are in tourism and hospitality and whether it is actually time to reinvent the wheel.
The Common Standards, what we know so far:
When the AA ‘invented’ star ratings in 1912 the idea was not entirely new. In fact they took the idea of stars as an indication of quality from no other source than a bottle of French brandy.
It was almost a century later that the AA, RAC (at that time also operating an inspection scheme for accommodation) and the national tourist boards of the UK got together and decided to end years of confusion caused by each having their own criteria for ratings and agree a new set of rules that would be common to all of them. Thus, in 2006, “Common Standards” was born.
And so now in the 21st century, VisitEngland, VisitScotland, VisitWales, VisitNorthern Ireland and the AA (alas the RAC ceased to operate a scheme in 2006) subscribe to a set of criteria which they apply to hospitality products across the UK. The crown dependencies continue to operate schemes loosely based on the common standards but which have been amended to suite each of the islands.
There is, however a problem.
They are no longer relevant to the industry today and to customers.
- Use dated & prescriptive criteria.
- Use out of date designators.
- Are irrelevant to large parts of industry – having failed to move with the times and adapt to meet the industry evolution – and have not kept up with the blurring of product lines across the sector and other players joining the sector (temporarily or not).
- Lack both relevance and clarity to consumers.
- Adopt an “inspectorate” style application, much disparaged by industry.
- Actively discourage innovation and creativity due to the prescriptive nature of the criteria which results in uniform products of a corporate style (think Holiday Inn Express).
- Have not kept up with the need for adequate health and safety checks.
- Offered a poor solution for Covid-19, adopting a tick box exercise, and as we read from the Which? report, only managed to physically assess around 3% of businesses displaying the ‘Good to Go’ marque.
You could ask VisitScotland and VisitWales how satisfied they are with the current status of Common Standards and how they view the lack of revolution and evolution in a programme which is ultimately managed by VisitEngland and the AA.
There has been a legacy of under investment and poor promotion, e.g. the National Accessibility Scheme. And whilst the consumer has become very comfortable looking at review sites and ‘star rating’ schemes that have no connection to Common Standards the ‘national’ scheme has been haemorrhaging participating establishments and those in the VisitEngland programme see no actual marketing benefits – why pay to be in a scheme in which you are not even listed on a website for doing so?
Common Standards is now completely out of sync with sectors such as business travel, events and the new innovative operators in boutique properties, serviced apartments glamping etc. If it doesn’t fully conform it doesn’t get the rating it deserves. You have to ask yourself just how important some of the criteria are to a business traveller who is probably more interested in secure parking, a great broadband connection, effective shower and a comfortable space in which to catch up on emails than whether the room has one or two comfy chairs.
And whilst we call them Common Standards, they are in fact not. They are not applied equitability, there are differences between countries and brands e.g. AA Silver and Red star ratings, (circumnavigating the standards) and different schemes for food awards.
Today’s traveler is interested in Responsible, Sustainable, Accessible and Wellbeing. Like Broadband, none of this was even dreamed of when Common Standards were agreed and nothing much has happened since.
In these times where trust is revered and consumers need something transparent and recognisable, we could adopt a new way of working:
- Adopt a minimum health & safety style standard, equally applied across all of the sector
- Move to a non-prescriptive quality grading, after all an experienced “inspector” can tell their 4 star from 5 star from ambience, quality of fixtures and fittings, service and hospitality – without counting the cutlery, checking for a radio alarm or being met at the car if it doesn’t work for that particular property. Surely it is the properties’ obligation to be transparent to the consumer as to the services it offers.
On that topic, why should a property in the middle of a smart foodie town not be able to call itself a hotel if it doesn’t open its restaurant at night time or even at breakfast time, when it doesn’t make commercial sense as everyone goes out for dinner?
Shouldn’t quality be applied equally? Why should an operator get a better rating as a Park than in Self Catering?
Why should we apply the same rules for a product that needs to be fully ensuite to accommodate a group of friends when it may only be viable in the family market?
What is actually the difference between self-catering, short term rental, vacation rental and serviced apartment? We know the answer and it has nothing to do with star ratings.
There is an opportunity to evolve specialist schemes such as Responsible or Regenerative programmes, we are after all way past just ‘green’.
How, for example, does a hotel support guests with mental health issues? How are their teams supported? Are they paying them more than minimum wage? Are they training Mental Health First Aiders? It’s so much more than Investing in their people.
Finally, shouldn’t we celebrate the uncommon (or special) rather than the common? We’re the UK. We celebrate character and heritage and innovation. It’s time for a change. We are not uniform or common.