Seeing a five-star rating by AAA Diamond or Forbes Travel Guide on a hotel’s website signals the caliber of service and amenities guests can expect but leaves unanswered questions about other experiential aspects of a property.

These ratings may seem even more ambiguous with the surge of lifestyle hotels offering unique experiences that can’t be compared to a baseline. That’s why Preferred Hotels and Resorts, which has lifestyle brands under its umbrella, decided to abandon star ratings for its properties in March and instead try to convey the types of experiences it knows guests look for.

Besides fast and reliable Wi-Fi and proximity to attractions or a conventions center, guests also want to know if a hotel will satisfy their passions for fitness or fine dining, for example.

“What I think is desirable and what you think is desirable are two different things,” said Bob Van Ness, a spokesperson for Preferred Hotels and Resorts.

“There’s still value in Forbes and AAA ratings, but four or five-star ratings are now almost undefinable, and there are more than one rating too with some hotels. For our lifestyle brands, we broke down that word into ‘life’ and ‘style’ and besides telling guests about our style, which existing rating systems already do, we want to tell guests what kind of life experiences they can have at our properties.”

A hotel could have an AAA Five Diamond rating, for example, and also be rated four stars by Forbes Travel Guide, potentially creating confusion for guests, Van Ness adds.

On any property site for Preferred, an “Experiences” tab shows guests that particular hotel’s speciality. For the Hotel Metropole in Brussels, Belgium that’s family and wedding experiences. Preferred does, however, display a hotel’s TripAdvisor rating and link to guest reviews from that site, which other hotels like the Ocean House, an AAA Five Diamond-rated and Forbes five star-rated resort in Rhode Island, say aren’t as detailed or reliable as professional rating systems.

Do Guests Understand Star Ratings?

Ocean House feels its AAA Five Diamond and Forbes five-star ratings are the strongest indicators of the experiences guests can expect but many hotels are more flexible in their view of what constitutes reputable reviews.

The Grand Hyatt Playa del Carmen Resort, which opened in June, believes a five-star rating is relevant to some travelers alongside the information and amenities featured in the property description on the hotel’s site and TripAdvisor. As a new resort, the management team isn’t sure which travelers a star rating is most relevant to. So far it uses a TripAdvisor rating of four out of five stars and 47 guest reviews on that site.

Aside from relevancy, whether guests actually understand the meaning of star ratings is a budding question for some hoteliers. This is top of mind for Van Ness who believes the average guest doesn’t understand the full context of these ratings. Various facets of a stay are weighted differently for each rating system: the AAA Diamond ratings focus mainly on amenities and physical attributes of a hotel, while about 70% of a Forbes rating relates to service. Still, a five-star hotel is a five-star hotel, some argue.

“While many hotels throw around the term ‘five-star’ without actually being five-star, the term does have a certain amount of clout behind it and an average guest has a general understanding of what that means,” said Candice Traskos, a spokesperson for Ocean House.

“When a guest sees those designations, they know what level of service and luxury to expect, and it can help them justify the cost. The ratings separate us from the run-of-the-mill experience one has come to expect at most hotels.”

AAA and Forbes aren’t the only authorities on star ratings; other travel agencies and travel media also have their own ratings systems. Northstar Travel Media, which has offered professional hotel and cruise reviews for years, launched a service earlier this month letting travel agents’ clients compare these star ratings to separate agent and amenities ratings. This gives guests some level of clarity if they’re focusing on amenities, for example.

There is no one-size-fits all when it comes to star rankings and reviews, and ultimately some guests understand and relate better to user reviews than to professional ratings services from a respected brand, and vice versa.

Photo Credit: The hotel bar at the Hotel Metropole in Brussels, Belgium. Jenni Konrad / Flickr