When an Inspector Calls - What makes 5 Star truly 5 Star?

In Hotel Owner, Deborah Heather recently talked about what actually makes a 5 Star establishment, an actual 5 Star. Read more on here. 

What makes 5 Star truly 5 Star? Does an establishment need to ‘tick all the boxes’ or should we be evaluating its heart and soul? Can we place an experiential stamp on hotel grading, or should we stick to the objective that everyone can evaluate like-for-like? Deborah Heather, Director of Quality in Tourism reflects on a trip to France and questions when is 5 Star, no longer 5 Star.

Dipping into the Sunday Times earlier this month (Sunday 5th May to be precise), I rapidly became embroiled in an article by Marina O’Loughlin, whose experience in Bordeaux eerily echoes my own. O’Loughlin was reviewing the world-famous La Tupina restaurant in Bordeaux; a restaurant I visited about eight years ago for perhaps one of the most glorious meals of my life. On a summer day when it was “hoying it down” - that’s heavy rain for those non Geordie speakers – we were in the unenviable position of it being stiflingly hot and muggy while raining, so we were wet through. We arrived, en famille for lunch at La Tupina and were seated in a little booth, shutters open wide to the elements, but us warm and dry inside. It was an absolutely fantastic meal and the atmosphere was second-to-none; meat and duck hanging by a roaring fire; incredible smells permeating in tantalising wafts from the kitchen; an exquisite starter of tender squid; plates of beef and goose fat cooked chips; and a meal to remember for the rest of my life. Ultimately, perfect!

O’Loughlin did much the same, visiting almost a decade ago to leave behind an exceptional review and a promise to return. Return she did this month, (as we also returned three years ago), in a bid to recreate those moments of perfection. Perhaps we were both naïve; or perhaps we were just hopeful that the restaurant we remembered would stand the test of time. O’Loughlin reports much the same as we did; the building was the same, right down to the roaring fire and the hanging meats, but the heart and soul of the place was gone. Somehow, the atmosphere had become contrived and kitsch, the service wasn’t as good, and mon dieu, what should have been its saving grace wasn’t as even the food had gone downhill. We wished we’d never returned and had kept the wonderful memory sacred, but when you’re travelling nearby, it’s too tempting to resist.

The article, along with my own reflections, started me thinking about what is going on in the supposed top echelons of the hotel industry and what makes a 5 Star property 5 Star. Or perhaps what the question should be is, when is a 5 Star no longer 5 Star? I stayed recently with some colleagues at a hotel promoting itself as 5 Star. I was travelling for business, it was a Tuesday in May so not peak but not off peak either, and my colleagues joined me for dinner. The main restaurant was closed, so we ate in the more relaxed brasserie style restaurant. We weren’t alone; there seemed to be some guests touring from the US, taking advantage of the hotel’s participation in Pride of Britain and Virtuoso, along with a few other individuals, possibly corporate travellers like myself. The Brasserie was comfortable, the menu interesting and the service, well that was interesting too.

Let’s dub this experience a ‘mixed bag of disappointment’ with average food and service. Starting with “Whitebait served with roasted limes” sounded excellent on paper, but the Whitebait wasn’t great quality and the meal was clearly bought in prepared and ready to heat and serve. This is a restaurant that boasts fresh ingredients and local Cotswold produce, and while I’m not naïve enough to think you can catch fish in The Cotswolds, I do expect dishes prepared fresh using quality ingredients when that is what you boast and you are 5 star. The limes couldn’t be squeezed, forked or in any way manipulated to give up juice, even a drop let alone lashings and frankly no foodie has tested or tasted this dish! They didn’t make up for it in the service either; we had one outstanding young barman who used us as taste-testers for small but brilliant cocktails, but otherwise the service was corporate, food delivery focussed with absolutely no personality or engagement. I’d be forgiven for thinking these were badly programmed robots with the humour module missing.

The whole product felt like it wasn’t a 5 star stay. If you picked up the Common Standards and wandered round doing an assessment, or indeed if the Hotel self-assessed against these standards, it would most likely be awarded a 5 star. The facilities, physical space, cleanliness and condition of the property do warrant a ‘5 Star’, but we all know that hospitality is not solely or in fact much about the physical space you find yourself in. The memories and reviews, good and bad, focus on the experience and the atmosphere, the service and the personal touch, so really with an experience as lacklustre as this, can this hotel truly be called 5 Star?

I think I probably know why we’re seeing these diminishing experiences at the top end. I paid £111.60 through a well-known online booking platform which included breakfast and my overnight stay. Using my napkin and some very rough figures, the hotel got roughly £63.43 for my bedroom – not enough for a 5 Star provider to operate on. This does beg a bigger question of whether the 5 Star model is right, if you can’t deliver for the price you actually sell at, nor can you command the price that you need to sell at, but that’s an in-depth topic for another day!

Accommodation and perhaps more accurately hospitality in the true sense of the word has, in my view, been dumbed down for years by the out of date Common Standards; two bedside tables, a bed, a desk, a place to eat for two people with room and therefore for two chairs, have all resulted in characterless properties reminiscent of my grandmother’s bedroom. Times have changed! Even the modern day nods towards quality, which go beyond the Common Standards, including all singing coffee machines, simply aren’t enough. Today’s travellers want experiences, and frankly mine felt corporate and faceless, which on reflection it was. Ever since the big corporate hotel groups followed the common standards to achieve 3, 4 or 5 Star to create their brands.

The property broke the mould a little with an outdoor heated swimming pool which I fancied treating myself to, early in the morning. Then the early morning sadly followed the worst night’s sleep I’ve had in a while, thanks to a zip and link bed. I awoke more than once to find the zip digging in as though I had been dragged into the middle thanks to unexpected sag, even without my other half in attendance. Now unless you’re in the hen and stag do market, why have zip and link beds in a 5 Star establishment? Particularly as I don’t know a significant number of five star stag and hen places.

All hotels are in danger these days, from a dumbing down of staff and knowledge, lack of investment in training and novel contracts with benefits to encourage staff members to stay. Without pointing out the obvious risk of our European friends leaving the country, our Non-European friends also risk not being let in without exceptionally high and probably inappropriate levels of qualification, and that’s if they even want to, given the international reputation that the UK market is a far from ideal career move. Hotels need to be embracing innovation with their people plans.

Anecdotally a colleague of mine has a talented Chef son, who was told by teacher when he expressed his desire to become a Chef, “well if you want to make sandwiches for the rest of your life…” All round, we aren’t doing what’s needed to promote our 5 Star or any Star reputable industry. What happened to the heydays when hotels and accommodation in the UK was heralded as the must-stay Destination location? I’m not sure even London can command this particularly at the moment.  

Brands are clearly being damaged both by promoting themselves online at unsustainable prices, and by a lack of focus on the ‘immeasurable’ subjective aspects that make a stay quality. You can’t attract in the most part the right customers, and the ones that are right are experiencing an inferior product. I remember a recent tale from a long in the tooth hotelier from the South West, berating the fact that times were changing and he no longer got the whole extended family for a week-long stay in the summer anymore. In fact he had to fill with guests from OTA’s on shoulder nights at inappropriate prices, with people who didn’t understand the concept of the property, and didn’t enjoy themselves – they wanted something else for their £111.60; not top end 5 star luxury. Add to this the negative feedback they got from their stalwart guests about the change in personnel and you’re not winning.

If you can’t sell at the price you need to function as a quality property, then your model is wrong and your focus needs to be on making the model sustainable, or looking to upsell. I remember the days when no matter where I stayed, the first thing I was asked was whether I would like to book on for dinner that night, if I wanted to take advantage of any facilities upgrades (massages and spa treatments, rounds of Golf, or partner experiences) and I’d usually leave having spent significantly more than my £111.60. I can’t remember the last time a reception staff member tried to upsell my stay and I’m not sure it’s me getting stingy as I age. In fact, a treatment in the spa would have gone down brilliantly that day if I’d stopped and thought about it or known there was availability.

The brand of a hotel has to be embedded, reputations have to be earned and delivery needs to be consistent. Investment needs to be consistent every year too, across your people, product and promotion, and let’s face it appropriate too. It’s not just bedrooms, old fashioned food and accolades mean nothing to customers, only Chefs; just think how much that brigade is costing you to deliver something that you aren’t even sure your guests want to eat?

So should 5 Star really be 5 Star? Perhaps some of them, yes. Yet, perhaps there are some 4 Star properties that are due a 5 Star accolade too when it comes to hospitality. Alternatively, maybe the Stars are out of date and it’s time to create a new way to describe who we are and what we do, but it certainly can’t carry on in the vein of ‘mixed bags of disappointment’.

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