The Trump International in Toronto gets five stars from Forbes but four diamonds from the Canadian Automobile Association. If you believe Expedia.ca, there are six five-star hotels in Toronto, four in Vancouver and two in Montreal. If you believe Forbes, there are only five in all of Canada.
As if the battlefield wasn't muddied enough, there's an increasing trend for hotels to rate themselves up to seven stars, including the Burj Al Arab in Dubai and a promised new resort in Orlando.
Part of the problem is who does the ratings. In some parts of the world, a hotel ranks itself. In other countries, including many parts of Europe, there are strict rules and government or independent agencies do the job.
"The existence of multiple systems worldwide is a challenge," reported a recent study by the United Nations World Tourism Organization. "There exist at least five different approaches, and within each approach there can be different practices and processes. This can confuse the consumer, particularly in a global market."
In North America, the CAA and American Automobile Association jointly patrol the hotel (and restaurant) scene, with 10 inspectors in Canada visiting about 1,200 properties each week.
I did a hotel inspection in Montreal with the CAA a few years ago and it was both fun and informative. The inspector checked under beds for left-behind unmentionables, noted the types of tile in the bathrooms and even examined the top of the inside of hotel-room microwaves.
The CAA and AAA have rigid sets of rules. Five-diamond hotels (the switch to diamonds from stars occurred after the organization's 75th anniversary a few years ago) need a certain number of wooden coat hangers, as well as a couple for silky fabrics. I also was told a five-star hotel doesn't bolt its hair dryers to the wall. Instead, a classy hotel that wants five-diamond status wraps the dryer up in a nice bag and places it on a very clean shelf in a very clean closet.
"Our ratings are based on professional inspections, and that's the value of them," CAA spokesman Ian Jack said. "There's nothing wrong with TripAdvisor or crowd-sourced reviews, but our ratings are based on professional inspectors, and somebody checks the properties every year to make sure the ratings are valid.
"We're also a non-profit agency. We have a tiny bit of advertising on our website and we'll sell a hotel room to you, but we're non-profit. Our business model isn't predicated on advertising," which allows the CAA and AAA to be independent.
The AAA website says a five-diamond hotel shows the following characteristics: "Ultimate luxury, sophistication and comfort with extraordinary physical attributes, meticulous personalized service, extensive amenities and impeccable standards of excellence."
If you read the Forbes website, it states a five-star hotel should have "virtually flawless service" and "intuitive, engaging and passionate staff." The website proclaims, with just a hit of hubris: "A Forbes Travel Guide Five Star property is a destination unto itself."
Guests at these hotels can expect to be greeted within 60 seconds of arrival, fresh flowers or plants in their rooms, overattentive and complimentary poolside service and, if required, no less than three detailed restaurant recommendations from the concierge.
Expedia explains that a five-star hotel would typically feature "gourmet dining," "luxury spas" and oversized bathrooms, often clad in marble. "Five-star resorts typically offer signature golf courses, tennis centres with choice of playing surfaces, health clubs with personal trainers, luxurious spas, cultural activities and children's day camps," the website claims.
It's more than a little amusing. But when you're paying big bucks for a high-end hotel you want to know if that four-star hotel in Vietnam is the same as a four-star in Vancouver.
Increasingly, some travellers aren't content with mere five-star status. Which is why Chicago businessman Abdul Mathin is building North America's first seven-star hotel in Orlando.
"My goal is to make this project one of a kind and to compete with the folks in Dubai and Hong Kong and Beijing," the chairman and CEO of the Blackmine Group told me in a phone interview. "We don't have that in North America. Here, we build a square box and call it a Four Seasons or a Marriott or a Hilton."
So what exactly can guests expect from Mathin's seven-star palace?
"We're going to have a helipad and we'll have people who can arrange a private jet for you. Every suite will have its own spa-pool and butler and security guards. We're going to have a beautiful mall with exclusive, high-end shops and an ice rink. We're going to create outstanding A-to-Z guest services, with special chefs who can cook every kind of food and make every kind of drink. Anything you want will be at your doorstep."
That level of service may be luxury to some, necessary to others, and downright overkill to many more. A seven-star hotel with a helipad sounds great, but most Canadians would be happy with a rating system they can understand.
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