Arts and Living: Travel

Ranking the Hotels: Five Top Reviewers

The calculus for hotel rankings doesn't always add up: One reviewer's three-star property is another's five-star. Absent a universal standard for evaluating properties, a variety of entities have formulated their own criteria and judging techniques. The result for the traveler: mostly confusion. For a better read on the stars (and diamonds and pearls), we dissected the reviewing systems of five major players.

The American Automobile Association released its first stand-alone hotel directory in 1917 and started field inspections in 1937. A formal rating system (outstanding, excellent, very good and good) appeared in 1963 and morphed into one to five diamonds in 1977. Ratings appear on AAA's Web site and in its TourBook guides and TripTik.
Founded in 1995 as a division of Microsoft, the travel booking Web site was spun off in 1999 and is now part of the Expedia Inc. family, which also includes TripAdvisor. The trifecta rating system comprises stars (one to five), consumer reviews (started in 2004) and Insiders' Select (2007), top picks culled from consumer input.
Established in 1958, Mobil Travel Guide was the progenitor of the star rating system. The Mobil brand name changed to Forbes on Oct. 1. The company plans to expand in Europe, Asia and the Middle East and will add consumer reviews and experiences this year. Findings are published in its guidebooks and (partially) online.
Since 1939, the company has been compiling its Hotel and Travel Index for the professional travel community. In 2002, it created a more simplified guide for consumers: a five-tier structure that uses crowns or stars to signify quality. The rankings are licensed for use by major travel companies (which, due to confidentiality clauses, can't be named).
The hotel review Web site launched in late June. Rankings are one to five pearls.
37,000 properties in the United States, Mexico, Canada and the Caribbean. More than 100,000 properties in 1,000-plus cities worldwide. 5,000 in the United States, Canada and Asia. 52,000 hotels worldwide. By mid-January, about 1,000 in 13 desinations, including San Francisco, Miami and the Bahamas.
Properties are eligible for a diamond rating only after passing a preliminary screening with its own set of requirements. Inspectors arrive unannounced, asking to see several rooms and to tour the property. The criteria cover six key areas, such as guest room decor, ambiance and amenities. Anonymous experts stay overnight only at four- and five-diamond hotels. Properties are reevaluated every year. For domestic hotels, Expedia uses its own star system based on secondhand data. (Inspectors visit properties that have changed drastically or raise concerns.) For foreign lodgings, it uses a given country's standardized system. For consumer reviews, only proven guests can post experiences, submitted via a template. Insiders' Select distills consumer reviews and chooses the top 1 percent (about 800 places). Professional inspectors review all properties on a 12- to 18-month cycle. Facility evaluations feature surprise visits that last one to two hours; anonymous service evaluations held over two nights are arranged for fourand five-star candidates only. Results are based on the answers to more than 500 questions, plus supporting data. The index, overseen by HTI editors, takes into account the full hotel experience. The process combines a thorough review of the hotel's services, facilities, amenities, etc., with information collected from social media sites, candid photos and comparative ratings systems. On-site inspections are performed at only 20 percent of the properties. Professional journalists anonymously critique the properties using 70 "dimensions," such as location and level of service. Pearls are supplemented by a 1,000- to 2,000-word review and unadulterated photos. Reviewers follow up if a property undergoes renovations or extensions.
Consumer reviews attached to many property profiles. A variety of trip-planning tools, such as TripTik, TourBook travel guides and last-minute package deals. Highlights last-minute hotel deals. Photos and virtual tours of the properties. Booking functions. The guidebook provides additional information on the destination/region: restaurants (also starred), attractions, special events, maps, etc. On the HTI Web site, you can search for a hotel by destination, airport or attraction. The site also features travel deals and highlights new or renovated hotels. Photo Fakeout compares reviewer photos with the hotel's. A blog covers such categories as Amenities and Obscenities, and Stay Here, Not There. Links to booking agents.
City Suites Hotel in Chicago, three diamonds. "An elegant, intimate boutique hotel, the property offers limited public areas but makes up for it with spacious rooms, including many one-bedroom suites. Be ready to walk a couple of blocks to access the hotel's parking lot." Chateau Beauvallon in Quebec's Mont Tremblant, four stars and a 99.99 score for Insiders' Select. Review by a traveler from Ulster County, N.Y.: "Had a lovely time, would definitely go back . . . and we are very picky." Conrad Hong Kong, four stars. "It seems that the Conrad wanted to share the wealth when it added gold to the color scheme in its recently refurbished rooms. . . . Though the hotel is in the middle of the city, it could pass for a country retreat." Argonaut Hotel in San Francisco, Moderate Deluxe (8 of 10 in the HTI Hotel Class) and four stars (agent rating). Shutters on the Beach in Santa Monica, Calif., 412 pearls. "Its large rooms belong in a billionaire's beach house and the doting staff remembers guests by name. But a more intimate beachfront hideaway experience with similar amenities exists at Casa del Mar for less."
DESIGN: Noel Smart; WEB EDITOR: Sarah Marston