Hotel Ratings – What Do They Mean?

Kimpton Seaside Resort

I’m going to take you back a few years, 10 in fact, to 2008 and the hit movie Ocean’s Thirteen. For those unfamiliar with the film, it was the third in the Ocean’s Trilogy and starred a Who’s Who of Hollywood talent—George Clooney (Danny Ocean), Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Don Cheadle, Andy Garcia, Julia Roberts and Bernie Mac. Added to the cast for “13” was the artistic mastery of Al Pacino and Ellen Barkin.

The plot centers on Ocean and his partners’ in crime seeking revenge on Las Vegas hotelier Willy Bank (Al Pacino) whose thugs coerced one of Ocean’s former partners into signing over his interests in a casino that eventually becomes “The Bank.” As the caper unfolds the resort is preparing for its grand opening. Team Ocean is determined to make sure Bank doesn’t achieve his ultimate goal, winning the Five Diamond Award. Bank is obsessed over the prospect of winning that prestigious award once again; so much so that one could practically feel him wiping the drool from his $5,000 tailored suits.

So what is a Five-Diamond or Five-Star and why always five? The resort above is an excellent example of a AAA rated Five-Diamond — The Kimpton Seafire Resort and Spa in Grand Cayman.

Forbes launched what many believe to be the original ratings system in 1958. The ensuing decades brought so many ratings systems it seemed that markets were saturated with hotelier claims of Five-Star or Five-Diamond status, earned or otherwise.

Mandarin Oriental Bangkok
Photo Courtesy Mandarin Oriental Bangkok – Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star Hotel

When I started traveling extensively I found myself somewhat confused by all the rating systems—American Automobile Association (AAA), Forbes and Conde Nast. What did they all mean? Do travelers truly pay attention to the ratings or are they more focused on brand names to guide their decisions.

Adding to the confusion among ratings agency is the evolution of the Internet. We’re being treated to more consumer driven evaluations like Trip Advisor or Expedia. What’s a traveler to do?

Like the ubiquitous use of the word “luxury,” in the travel industry, what’s truly a Five-Diamond or Five Star lends itself to abuse. However, hotel rating systems do have a place in your travel plans, but you need to understand the differences, and more importantly the source.

There is no universal ratings system. AAAs’ Five-Diamond rating is unique to North America and the Caribbean. Europeans use an entirely different platform, in some cases controlled by a government or governing body. We’ll cover international rating systems in a future post.

If a resort claims to be a Five-Diamond, is that a self-proclaimed designation or did it come from a reputable rating service like AAA? Resorts that have been recognized by ratings from prestigious platforms will proudly display their industry and consumer acceptance in their marketing materials.

To further complicate matters, AAA calls their ratings Diamond, whereas Forbes Travel Guide uses Star, both on a scale of one to five. At then end of the day, the difference is negligible and depends on your preferred source.

Willy Bank referred to the Five-Diamond Award, so what does that really mean. AAA does unannounced site inspections throughout North America. A Five-Diamond according to AAA is “ultimate luxury, in sophistication and comfort with extraordinary physical attributes, meticulous personalized service, extensive amenities, and impeccable standards of excellence.” Depending on the market, that level of excellence comes at a price.

Grand Luxxe Riviera Maya
Photo Courtesy Grand Luxxe Riviera Maya – AAA Rated Five-Diamond Resort

CLICK HERE to read our previous story on AAAs’ Five-Diamond Resorts.

Forbes’ is an independent rating system that uses slightly different criteria. Forbes emphasizes, “service because your experience at a hotel…goes beyond looks – how it makes you feel is what you will remember the most.“

In addition, Forbes rates properties globally. At last check their property list extended to places like London, Dubai, China, Costa Rica, Bali, Tokyo and more. CLICK HERE for a list of Forbes rated properties.

Conde Nast Traveler’s award recipients are more consumer-driven. Their annual Best Hotels of the World comes from their Readers’ Choice Award program as voted on by their travelers.

Trip Advisor on the other hand is almost entirely made up of user reviews. A sophisticated algorithm sorts out those reviews through bubble ratings provided by consumers combine with recent history giving more weight to recent reviews. They’ve become an industry leader in consumer-driven feedback and announce their award winners through their Readers Choice Awards program. Like Forbes’ their platform is global. HERE are their 2018 award winners.

The Tulemar Resort
Photo Courtesy The Tulemar Resort Costa Rica – Travelers’ Choice 2018 Top 25 Hotels

Regardless of who your trusted source is, beware of those who claim to be Five-Diamond or Five-Star recipients without independent verification.

For those who insist on booking their own travel without the services of a travel agent/advisor, we recommend your search include looking at each of the ratings platforms above. Quality properties are often recognized in multiple places.

Michael Gordon Bennett
Michael Gordon Bennett

Founder & CEO, Sepia Lifestyle

Bennett is an accomplished entrepreneur, journalist, television and radio producer, actor, speaker, noted travel expert and author of two books, including the critically acclaimed 7-10 Split. He has worked in both media, travel and tourism for over 20 years, and previously served as manager of the Travel Channel's west coast operations. He's written for numerous magazine and The Huffington Post.

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