The British travel industry is to unify the system of star ratings for accommodation under a new scheme agreed by tourist boards and motoring organisations. The move aims to ensure that hotel gradings from one-star to five-star mean the same thing throughout Great Britain, no matter which organization’s inspectors carry out the assessment.

VisitBritain, VisitScotland, the Wales Tourist Board have got together with the Automobile Association (AA) and Royal Automobile Club (RAC) to agree a set of common standards for all aspects of guest accommodation. From 2006, they will all work from the same criteria and guidelines to decide how many stars are awarded for tourist listings and sign boards.

One of the great mysteries of travel is knowing what to expect from the number of stars added to the name of a hotel. Two stars should mean something more than one star, but why are there so many differences in the types of hotel designated three-star, and what more do you get from going from four stars to a five-star hotel?

The unified scheme clarifies and simplifies the process of hotel grading and applies to standards of accommodation facilities offered, measured against a set of detailed tables in a 40-page workbook published jointly by the inspecting bodies. Additional marketing awards and recommendations for food, comfort and service are not affected.

The unified grading system aims to take the mystery out of what terms like three-star and four-star really mean for consumers and the travel trade. Some confusion arises from multiple signs and logos where some hotels currently are rated three-star by a tourist board and four-star by a motoring organization, or show stars from one organization, diamonds from another, thistles from a third and so on.

All the inspecting organizations have agreed to share data on categories and to accept each other’s ratings. The criteria tables have been assembled from requirements set by each organization, combined with research into the needs and expectations of visitors. Some exceptions are made, such as castles in Scotland that offer up-market guest accommodation but do not have lifts (elevators) and would have failed to achieve four- or five-star rating on that basis.

The Common Standards scheme has been welcomed by the British Hospitality Association. “There has been a general clamor for a unified system of grading, and attempts have been going on for years,” said Bob Bacon of the BHA.

“Visitors including people from abroad are bewildered by a plethora of stars, diamonds and crowns and other indicators. There is also controversy over guest houses that have the term ‘hotel’ in their trading name. Some so-called hotels are no more than bed and breakfast places. The new unified system of standards will clarify all that.”

To be rated as even a one-star hotel, the establishment must have a minimum of six letting rooms all with en-suite bathroom, a clearly defined reception area, with staff on call 24-hours, and a dining room offering an evening meal at least five days a week.

Guesthouses that call themselves hotels but do not meet the minimum requirements have two years to adapt. “Research in the industry and amongst consumers confirmed that the visitor expects a business that calls itself a hotel to be a hotel,” said Bob Bacon. “As a result of this any business that calls itself a hotel will only be able to be assessed against the hotel standards.”

There are tables of requirements for each aspect of a hotel business and the quality expected at each star level. To get two stars the hotel’s dining room must be open for breakfast service seven days a week, and for three stars the hotel must be able to offer additional room service of hot drinks and light snacks throughout the day and evening, and either continental breakfast or dinner in the room.

Four-star hotels must in addition have reception staff on duty 24 hours, a full service restaurant, and at least half the rooms equipped with a bathtub as well as a shower in the en suite facilities. To get a five-star rating, the hotel must offer enhanced services such as valet parking, escort to guest rooms, table service in bars and lounges, a concierge service, 24-hour room service, and full afternoon tea. Five-star establishments must also have additional services such a business centre, spa or leisure center, and a number of permanent luxury suites in the range of accommodation offered.

It has taken three years of talks to arrive at a common set of criteria for inspectors that cover all Great Britain. Northern Ireland accommodation is rated on criteria set for the whole of Ireland.

One of the problems in past attempts to unify the hotel grading system was that some hotel groups were reluctant to participate in inspections. They argued that their brand identity was stronger than any star rating. Groups such as Hilton have now agreed to participate in the new agreed ratings scheme from 2006.