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Reaching for the stars

What’s all this fuss about star ratings for hotels and resorts?

The issue is currently broiling after Plantation Bay Holdings Corp., owner of Plantation Bay Resort and Spa in Mactan Island, filed a case before the Ombudsman for the arbitrary and capricious implementation of a star grading system for local tourism establishments.

Under fire are top officials of the Department of Tourism and foreign consultants accused of underhandedly downgrading Plantation Bay’s rating from 5-star to 4-star, which will be cast in stone at the end of the year if things run to schedule.

The issue has gotten a little muddled up with periphery stakeholders getting into the fray. Several questions have cropped up, which should be good to tackle in this issue. But let’s begin with first things first.

If Plantation Bay feels there is an element of corruption when its status was downgraded, then it is free to file a case with the Ombudsman. Let’s then wait for the official reply from that office, but let’s not muddle this with other issues that have surfaced.

However, since it subjected itself to the process two years ago when the project to revitalize the rating system for local hotels and restaurants started, it seems bound to accept the new rating – unless, of course, the court rules there has been partiality in the DOT’s rating decision.

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To rate or not to rate

Should we continue to utilize a rating system? Currently, the Philippines has in place an old and dated classification system that uses Economy, Standard, First-Class and Deluxe for hotels, and A, AA and AAA for resorts. Definitely, this has to go.

Should we then replace this with a new system – or should we just let Internet-based travel advisories provide the reference that travellers will ultimately look for when planning for their trip? Apparently, to date, there are countries that have done away with the system, while there are others that have kept or improved on theirs.

For sure, though, there should be a rating system in place that will give prospective travellers a relatively accurate picture of what kind of facility they will book with for the duration of their out-of-town stay.

In our case, this issue had been decided on two years ago when a project was started by the DOT to change our old classification system to something that better conforms with today’s rating system. This involved approximately 730 establishments, Plantation Bay including.

The plan to shift to a star rating system had been conveyed even earlier to respective stakeholders, and since the industry as a whole did not raise a fuss then, there’s no point in debating now. We should focus on ensuring the ratings given to establishments are fair and reflect the agreed standards.

Point system

The DOT says they will utilize a point system for the star classification: one star (251 to 400 points), two stars (401 to 550 points), three stars (551 to 700 points), four stars (701 to 850 points), and five stars (851 to 1,000 points).

Measurements will include the availability of facilities and services, condition and quality of a specific facility, as well as the quality of service as criterion. Offhand, it would be difficult to mess around with this kind of point system.

During the last two years when the ratings were being migrated from the old to the proposed star system, a process of redress was being followed that allowed establishments to improve on their rating.

When the new star ratings are formally announced later this year, a new set of validation starts. The plan is to constantly review the rating system every two years, which is really enough time for any of the “borderline” establishments to raise their status to the next higher notch.

Plantation Bay is accusing the DOT officials of being subjective about its ratings, although this is up to the Ombudsman to decide on. Arbitrarily, the Cebu-based resort and the Tourism department too may have some big issues on parts of the criteria, so much so the former had to rely on an external party to resolve the disagreements.

Let’s hope this case does not prejudice the implementation of the star rating system which so many members of the industry have worked hard for during the last two years. Otherwise, this becomes another laughable undertaking that can be found only in the Philippines.

Fair ratings

It is understandable why Plantation Bay is raising this ruckus about the downgrade it received. As a rule, higher ratings allow an establishment to charge higher fees, and consequently, better revenues lead to better profits.

However, star ratings are still considered an authoritative gauge by travellers on what to expect. True, ratings may vary from one rater to another, but they give a relatively grounded statement of the kind of service and facility the prospective guest would have to pay for.

What is important for our Tourism department is to be seen as fair in its judgment. And let’s face it, one serious complaint from 730 establishments is a relatively good gauge the process is proceeding without too much prejudice.

Ratings as tool for improving offerings

For the Philippines, the star rating should also be seen as a means for our tourism establishments to improve the services and facilities they offer. We have too many mediocre hotels, especially in the provinces, that claim to be top-notch, but only disappoint their customers.

It’s time to call a spade a spade. If a visitor books for a one-star room, he should not complain of having to wake up to crowing roosters or cold tap water that is not even coming out of a showerhead for his morning bath. In the same breath, if it’s a five-star hotel room, then a customer expects only the best for the big bucks he’s paying.

For the smaller inns that want to improve on their services, there should be a program in place that can help them upgrade – and this means not just coaching in the quality of service, but also having access to loans to upgrade their facilities.

Then too, this must be seen in conjunction with a coordinated approach to giving the customer the best experience. This includes total package from arriving to leaving the country: transportation, sightseeing, recreation, shopping, communication facilities, food, etc.

It’s fine to have a good rating system, but it would be better if there is also a program that helps upgrade our tourism partners’ capabilities so that tourists and visitors that leave the country can tell their friends and family, with full conviction, that it’s really fun to be in the Philippines.

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Should you wish to share any insights, write me at Link Edge, 25th Floor, 139 Corporate Center, Valero Street, Salcedo Village, 1227 Makati City. Or e-mail me at reydgamboa@yahoo.com. For a compilation of previous articles, visit www.BizlinksPhilippines.net.

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