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What is the Difference Between a Five-star
and a Six or Seven-star Hotel?
by Barry Napier, April 2007

In 2006 I outlined the new national star-rating system for UK Hotels, which ranges from one-star basic to five-star plush. In another article I quoted an hotel owner in the south of England, who said that the new system was a waste of time, because it did not align itself with the international system. So, she increased facilities and luxury until she met what she envisaged to be the ‘international system’. There is only one problem… what is the ‘international system’?

In 2007 I gave an overview of the only two five-star hotels in Istria, Croatia. We were left in no doubt that both establishments were in the five-star category, even though Croatia does not have a national system of hotel assessment. I know because I visited both establishments.

In this article I ask if it is really possible to keep increasing the number of stars for hotels without compromising reality? What is the real difference between a five-star and a six or seven-star hotel? Is there a genuine difference? Or is it all in the mind of the beholder?

It is said by scientists that if you keep increasing the spoonfuls of sugar you put in your tea or coffee, you will notice the greater sweetness up to four spoons. After that, they say, your beverage will have reached maximum sweetness. That is, you will be paying more for sugar and will ingest more, but the sweetness remains the same. So, what’s the point after four spoons?

Have hotels overdone themselves in the six and seven-star categories? Are their ultra-rich clients (or struggling pretenders) just that bit deluded? What are they really paying for? And is what they pay extra for really of value?

Like the majority of people I have slowly edged up the ladder from cold, scrappy mobile home-type holidays, to three star, then four star, and then, (rarely) five-star accommodations. The difference between a three-star and a four star is noticeable. There is an even greater jump from four to five-star. The UK system aptly describes what can be expected from each star-level. But six, or even seven-star? How do you describe plusher-than-plush?

As a millionaire once said, he didn’t go overboard buying food, because he can only eat so much at a time! There came a time when buying food was done for the sake of it, simply because he had the means to buy! He saw it was futile and stopped. Now, he only buys normal food at normal prices and in normal quantities. And he tends to wear ripped jeans. Like anyone else, he will splash out on occasions. Does the same principle apply to six and seven-star hotels? Do you ever reach a point at which luxury for the sake of it becomes rather meaningless?

Upping the Ante

One writer said “The amenities craze is causing some hoteliers to up the ante, hence the six star-hotel. The term is a bit of a misnomer since the hotels are declaring themselves six-star worthy rather than being awarded the title. Even existing ‘five-star’ chains such as the Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons hotels actually only rate four-stars from the Mobile Travel Guides.” (Source: ‘The Rise of the Six-Star Hotel’, Deidre Woollard, 16th December, 2004, luxist.com).

If hotel chains, or even individual hotels, can award themselves their own star rating, it might explain why many countries do not have standardised evaluations… draw people into the country under false pretences! 

The trouble is, without standardisation, your five-star hotel could very well be a no-star hovel. In Europe, for example, very few countries have standardised rating systems. Most have no system at all and leave it up to the hotels. This works fairly well with big chains, because they know the penalty for failing to live up to expectations. But, single hotels? Well, you “pays your dime and takes your chances! 

What’s extra in a six-star hotel? How about a butler, your own maid, an unshared swimming pool, and a whole host of extras not found even in a five-star? Personally, I love to see a professional waiter at work, with grace and a talent for looking aloof I wish I had. But I do not like someone taking off my coat, or putting it back on me again. In other words, there comes the moment when professionalism turns to servitude… and that does not sit well with me. Maybe it is okay for those born into money, but it is not for me. Likewise, can there be too much luxury in hotels? Or is it rather like a child stuffing himself stupid with chocolate?

Yes, a rich man can buy and use whatever he wishes. And there are businesses that cater to such riches. My question is more about ethics, I suppose. Whatever I think is irrelevant of course. That is why Ritz-Carlton opened a whole chain of six-star hotels in 2005. The amazing Burj Al Arab in Dubai is no longer the only new money-spinner on the block!

Vitriol – or Truth?

Interestingly, one visitor to the Burj Al Arab says “It’s not what I consider the best or the most exclusive hotel in the area. Apart from having only suites, and butler check-in on every level, there is nothing special about it. In fact there are budget chains in Europe having only suites – I don’t see why this should affect the rating. I consider the Burj over-rated and over-priced.”

This comment was made in 2005 and seems to suggest that anything over five stars may be a case of the ‘king’s new clothes’, where everyone thinks there is something special, but there is not. I cannot tell – the only way I could stay at a six or seven-star hotel is by invitation!

The same person says the Burj restaurants are ‘mediocre’, that it operates well below occupancy and that investors are disappointed in their returns. (I would be interested to know if these comments are fair and genuine – or are they made by someone with an axe to grind?). He says that the six-star rating is only “part of Dubai’s typical self-exaggerating marketing buzz”, but acknowledges that it works, because most people think it is the best hotel in the world. Is it?

Another commentator adds, with reference to a Colorado hotel, “there are places like the Broadmoor which have been awarded five-stars (2005) and five-diamonds from Mobil and the AAA since the awards started. And they have to earn those every year!”

A six-star hotel – the Park Hyatt - is to be opened this year in Macao, China, by the Stanley Ho family business. Investors have pumped in U.S. $1.5 billion and say they expect a full return on their capital no more than two years after opening. In anyone’s language, that is an amazing claim to make, especially as, according to our critic, Dubai appears to be struggling. 

To be fair, the Macao will be a much larger project with a vast array of attractions. In a sense, then, will any success of its other attractions (such as an underwater super-casino) mask any failure in the six-star hotel part of the whole scheme? 

The New York Times says “questions remain about Macao’s future. Will old Macao and its Portuguese charm disappear, or be swallowed by the tourist onslaught in Asia’s new sin city?” (NYT, Sept 11th, 2007). Back come my ethics again! 

If a six-star venture has to offer a huge list of novelties to satisfy people with money to burn, should it be allowed to devastate an area of beauty and culture? Does such a glossy feature finally become just rich-tacky? Surely such a venture could be sited in a desert or some other place with no known natural attraction? Las Vegas is okay where it is, but it can’t just be transferred to China, with its millennia-long culture and antiquity, without doing massive harm.

Why Says So?

I suppose the commentator on the Burj came to the crux of it – if you award yourself stars, is it just a matter of time before your standards slide downwards (because there is no other way to go)? 

In the UK every hotel has to be checked annually to see that it remains at the assessed star-rating level. In my home city, the highest-flying hotel, exclusive enough to offer beds to the likes of film stars, lost a star simply by not having one more member of staff. And its fate was determined not by its own investors, but by the new rating system. Who says Dubai or the new Macao is actually six-star? Is a self-accolade appropriate just because gold and butlers abound? When does gold become so obvious it loses its chic and starts to look more like a fake, tasteless, with no real charm?

Interestingly, despite the vitriol of the Burj’s critic, the hotel won the 2005 World Travel Awards, for world’s leading hotel, the leading all-suite hotel and the leading hotel of the Middle East. They have won this award several times, and its restaurants are said to be ‘fine’? It goes to show that beauty (and good food) is all in the eye of the beholder!

But wait… we have moved on! By the end of 2006, the Burj self-styled itself to be the “only seven star hotel in the world”. One writer (David Allen, Forbes, Nov 28th 2006) says that this “seems unlikely to be challenged, at least until someplace is imaginative enough to start calling itself an eight-star establishment.” But, you can’t just walk in to look around. You have to leave credit card details at the front desk, promising to spend a minimum of $100 at one of its seven restaurants. The writer describes the Burj as a “world of excess” (I must stomp on my ethics again!). Guests reach the Burj by helicopter or Rolls Royce… the cost hidden in the final invoice.

It is interesting that the writer asks the same questions: “When does a lot become too much? In the end, that’s for the guests to decide.” Even so – what changed at the Burj?  How did it go up yet another notch, to seven-star?

It is strange, what people like and don’t like. I do not mind a bit of luxury but, to be frank, I don’t really like paying for it! But that’s because I’m not rich.  As I go around this ever-shrinking world, I prefer to be anonymous, slipping in and out of an hotel without any fuss and eating good food without anyone fawning over me. Being professional is another matter. And good manners are expected.

So, who can enlighten me? What makes a six-star, or seven-star, hotel worth it? I mean, really worth it? Or is it all hype, smoke and mirrors? Is the Burj living up to its own award? And are the investors really getting their money back? Will Macao truly see a total return on investment within two years? Or is this hope embedded not just in the hotel but in the entire complex (in which case it is too easy to claim success for the hotel itself)?

The closer you look at these questions, the more questions arise!

© 2007 Barry Napier

Contact:

Barry Napier
barry.napier@ntlworld.com

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Also See: Dubai Boasts 22 Five-star Hotels / June 2006
British Hoteliers Voice Concerns Over the New Hotel Rating System; Diamonds Aren’t Forever! / Barry Napier / May 2006
The New UK Hotel Grading System Explained / Barry Napier / May 2006
Burj Al Arab in Dubai Prompts New Best Hotel in Asia Pacific Category / May 2001
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