Google ‘5-Star Hotel’ and you will find a wide range of offerings with vast differences in standards. At the moment, the words ‘5-Star’ and ‘luxury hotel’ have become so ubiquitous and over-used that they have lost much of their meaning. The luxury landscape is ever-changing and without a unified global rating system (such as Michelin stars for restaurants) and with the fairly recent advent of 6 and 7 star hotels, it’s all the more convoluted. And if it’s confusing for those of us in the industry – imagine what it’s like for the consumer.
There are of course, some overall standards. In the UK, 5 star hotels must offer extensive fitness and spa facilities, valet parking, butler services, concierge services, 24-hour reception and room service, and a full afternoon tea. Star ratings here place a heavy emphasis on customer service, whereas in France, the ratings focus more on rooms, lobbies and amenities and enforced by the French Government. In Spain, hotels are ranked regionally instead of nationally, while Italian accommodations emphasise cleanliness. In the US, Forbes distinguishes between a four and five star with the following criteria: arriving guests are greeted and assisted curbside within 60 seconds of arriving, wake-up calls are delivered within two minutes of the requested time, refills at restaurants are offered within 30 seconds of the guest’s beverage being empty and no telephone call is left on hold longer than 30 seconds.
But in terms of guest expectations, is there a criteria that can be agreed upon across borders? We polled a list of some of the UK’s top travel insiders, asking them ‘What defines a 5-Star hotel?” (It should be noted that all opinions here belong to the individuals alone – they are speaking for themselves and not their respective publications).
Says Tom Chesshyre, Travel Author and Journalist for The Times: “I do not even think in terms of ‘five-star’ or ‘luxury’ hotels. In fact I try never to use the terms in my writing as they are meaningless and always have been. I judge each hotel as I find it. I am looking for somewhere that’s in an interesting location, with an interesting background story, that’s comfortable, laid-back and fun.”
Spa aficionado Leo Bear who contributes to Conde Nast Traveller, Harpers Bazaar & Aspire:
“What defines a five-star hotel for me is not being asked the same question by all staff members eg. Is this your first time in the Maldives? A great turndown service (conducted when you are at breakfast and at dinner so as not to disturb), fresh milk in mini-bar, complimentary movies on demand, speedy room service and check in, healthy options on all the menus, a posh car with a well-informed driver for airport transfers, complimentary FAST wifi, complimentary water throughout resort – by pool, in spa, at gym and in-room.”
For The Sunday Times Digital Editor Alessia Horwich, it’s definitely the service. “Any hotel can put fancy furniture in the rooms and get nice sheets but to get service right is so difficult. And pace of service definitely makes a difference – I stayed in the Park Hyatt in Seoul and I wanted an iron and had to wait half an hour for it, but in a five star I don’t think you’d wait that long.
Everything works quickly and promptly because the kind of client they serve isn’t happy to wait and will make it known they are not impressed.”
In all of our experts’ minds, of course, there were stand-out hotels.
Square Meal Editor and Telegraph Luxury writer Ben McCormack says, “The most amazing hotel I stayed at recently was the Mandarin Oriental in Bodrum. It’s a big resort but it’s so well laid out that it felt completely private, and utterly relaxing. I was also very impressed by The Edition New York, for me that was five star because of the comfort: New York is so energising it felt great to be able to retreat back to a room that felt like a safe haven, with calming whites and creams, with luxury linens and pillows to the size of the bed and the Le Labo toiletries. I also loved the view of the Empire State Building, which gave such a sense of place. I could never have left my room, and still known I was in New York. ‘
And again, service rates high on the list.
Ben reflects, “At the Mandarin, there were many thoughtful touches – I left my book open and when I returned, it was closed with a Mandarin bookmark, similarly I had plugged in my adaptor and she had left open the European socket, which I hadn’t seen. Also there was no skimping on the luxury bath products, which were replaced every day – generosity for me is another hallmark of a 5 Star. The most incredible hotel I ever stayed at was The Peninsula in Tokyo, not just because it was amazingly luxurious but when I walked past the reception desk, the staff said ‘Hello, Mr McCormack’ – when they must have had at least 500 guests. That attention to detail and personal touch really impressed me and has stayed in my mind ever since.”
Tatler’s Fashion Director Sophie Goodwin says it’s about subtlety. “Five star hotels don’t sing or shout, they are elegant, discreet and anticipate your every need. It isn’t about gilt, marble and amuse-bouches but intimate, clever service – never having to ask for anything twice and feeling utterly spoiled. The best wine, food you could never cook at home, the most comfortable bed, and of course, beautiful views.”
For Small Luxury Hotels of the World CEO Filip Boyen it’s the simple things done right. “It ought to be a seamless experience which is neither obtrusive nor unnatural.”
He adds that flexibility is key and formality is dying. “If guests feel comfortable in the bar, they should be able to order food from any of the F&B outlets in the hotel. And it’s non-negotiable to not have a remarkable night’s sleep in a 5-star hotel, followed by a great shower. It’s important that hotels pay homage to their corner of the world and enable guests to discover the very best there is on offer, and I personally can’t stress the importance of a first class laundry service. It needs to be organised and fast – I love it when hotels provide collar stays as an amenity. This is a wonderful branding opportunity! And last but not least, connectivity needs to be seamless, free and unrestricted. To get on line should not require a password used to launch a nuclear weapon!”
Editor-in-Chief of Elite Traveler Richard Cree sums it up nicely. “In many ways it is easier to say what luxury isn’t. Bad service or travel disasters make for better stories and tend to stick in the memory. But a great hotel stay has the ability to take you away from the everyday and both surprise and delight. Having been blessed in doing a job that’s taken me to some of the world’s best hotels – and being a cynical old bugger to boot – this is an increasingly difficult trick to pull off. It used to be so much simpler. All we needed was an average restaurant, room service and a Corby Trouser Press and we were living the five-star dream. Today, alongside all the obvious, such as great service, an excellent bed (and yes, it’s the pillows that matter), a reasonable amount of cat-swinging space and a shower that’s at least as good as the one at home, there’s got to be some “wow factor”. So what does impress me? First, it’s those small moments where the genuinely human shines through the corporate hotel finishing school poise. And second, it’s the feeling of not getting fleeced. And don’t even start me on hotel wi-fi policies.