by Lisa Grimaldi | May 01, 2008

illustrationThere are many criteria by which planners choose hotels, ranging from basics such as location and amount of meeting space to recommendations from peers. Then there are hotel ratings, a seemingly straightforward way to judge a property’s overall levels of comfort and service.

Only it’s not so straightforward. There are multiple rating systems vying for credibility with planners and consumers, and seldom do these systems reach a tidy consensus on the merits of a particular property. For example, the Monte Carlo Resort & Casino in Las Vegas garners four diamonds from AAA and three stars from Mobil Travel Guide; Expedia bestows a 3.5-star rating and a 4.0 “traveler opinion” rating, and Trip-Advisor weighs in with three stars and 3.5 “owls”; Travelocity gives the resort four stars and 3.5 “smiley faces.”

Outside North America, the problem can be even more confusing when a country’s own hotel ratings are added to the mix (See “Distant Star Systems” on page 62). Some hotels (at least one in Italy and several in Dubai) boast as many as seven stars, though M&C can’t find a governing body that confers more than five.

If all of this seems perplexing, many planners concur. In an M&C reader survey (see “Going to the Source,” page 60), 47 percent of respondents admitted they are somewhat or very confused by the topic.

Ultimately, there are dozens of rating systems meeting professionals can tap into, and each has its own judging criteria. What’s not available -- and very much needed, according to 68 percent of respondents to our poll -- is a consistent, universal ratings code.

But we’re not likely to see one anytime soon. None of the leading industry groups -- the Travel Industry Association and American Hotel & Lodging Associations, both based in Washington, D.C., and the Paris-based International Hotel & Restaurant Association -- backs the idea.

If there is a note of agreement in the world of hotel ratings, it is that Mobile Travel Guide and AAA are in a class by themselves. They are “the most established ratings systems in the United States,” according to a spokesperson for the AHLA, which lauds the two systems “because they are based primarily on objective criteria.”

What follows is a roundup of the most popular hotel rating systems available today, along with details on how the assessments are made.

Mobil Travel Guide

Mobil Travel Guide is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. The Chicago-based company, after going through two owners in the past two years, is now a stand-alone entity. MTG has its own field staff of 50 that annually rates approximately 9,000 properties in the United States, Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean on a scale of one to five stars.

The star level is derived via two lines of inquiry. First, facility inspections evaluate a property’s cleanliness, physical condition and location, resulting in a one- to three-star rating. Based on the facility inspection, properties that might qualify for a prestigious four- or five-star certification move on to the second level, a service inspection. Here, one of MTG’s incognito service inspectors visits the hotel for three days/two nights, during which he or she interacts with staff, orders room service, visits the spa and engages in other typical guest activities. These inspectors evaluate properties in more than 500 areas, ranging from staff appearance, behavior and skill level, to food quality, housekeeping, concierge service and luggage delivery within 10 minutes of check-in, along with making general observations of facility, staff and how other guests are being treated.

Star ratings are defined as follows.

* One star: A clean, comfortable and reliable establishment with limited services and amenities.

* Two stars: Expanded services including a full-service restaurant.

* Three stars: Well-appointed establishments that feature a full-service restaurant and expanded amenities and services such as room service and a fitness center.

* Four stars: An outstanding establishment in a distinctive setting with expanded amenities and exceptional service, including valet parking and 24-hour room service.

* Five stars: Properties with an exceptionally distinctive luxury environment offering all of the above and consistently outstanding service.

As of this year, MTG will begin to review properties in destinations outside North America, beginning with Beijing in April, followed by Hong Kong and Macau in the fall. A London guide will be forthcoming next year.

Mobil’s hotel ratings are available free via the company’s website; hard copies of Mobil Travel Guide publications are available for purchase.