11 Aug 2011

My 5 Star Rating - Should I Dump It?

If you run a B'n'B and have questions over the validity of the Star Rating Schemes, Quality Assessments, Tourism Board Membership, Tourism Awards and their value for money then read this article (and comments). 

I have read this article several times and whilst I'd like to write a piece on the identical topic there is no way that I can improve on the original. A balanced, honest and practical assessment of the Star Rating system, its costs and its benefits (or not). Please read on...

I have been sitting on this blog post for several months unable to publish it for a couple of reasons. The first is that it’s rather self-indulgent and about my business and I prefer my posts to be about helping other business owners. It’s also a bit rambling. The second reason is that it could be contentious and may upset people and I’m really not in the business of treading on toes. However events today have focussed my thinking & I’ve spoken to several other B&B owners who are having similar thoughts. I’ve also spoken to other B&B owners who think I’m stark raving mad.

So here we go…..

There are a few things that are likely to strike fear into, all but the most hardened, B&B landlady’s heart ( I know there are B&B landlords out there too but for ease of reading I shall refer to you all as landladies and I know you all look so lovely in pink ;0)

The first is the arrival, in the inbox, of the email titled “You have a new Tripadvisor Review” and the second is the arrival, on the doorstep, of a single man/woman, smartly dressed carrying a suitcase and overnight bag.

There are a lot of B&Bs out there, who take business guests, and who greet these types of people everyday. However my market is almost 100% couples ( married, unmarried, gay, straight – all positively
welcomed ) here on a few days away to enjoy a country break in comfy surroundings. I just don’t get single men here on business wearing a suit and being flexible about their dates. “Oh you’re full Tuesday, well can you do Wednesday I can rearrange my meeting” What meeting? A KPI session with the local bull? So I know that this man is going to be “THE HOTEL INSPECTOR”

Actually they’re called Quality Assessors these days but calling the hotel inspectors is more fun and reminds everyone of Fawlty Towers.

So I had my inspection last night. It did become slight Fawlty Tower-esque as he read my report out to me propped up on kitchen units whilst I rushed around preparing a late breakfast for guests who had both
ordered poached eggs at the last minute (another B&B landlady nightmare – poached eggs). Apart from a couple of comments such as putting brown sugar in the rooms & offering warm milk with coffee, we have passed with flying colours and it’s been recommended that we keep our 5 star gold rating.”Yeeha”
you say. Or maybe not?

There have been rumblings in the press & on the internet in recent months claiming that the government are planning to withdraw support for the UK Quality Assessment scheme as it believes customer reviews
are the way forward.

I’ve been thinking about the Quality Assessment scheme for a few years now, and wondering how much value my own business actually gets from it. Unfortunately I don’t know if there is a right answer, which as a
mathematician pains me greatly. I much prefer the 2+2=4 approach to life, just don’t get me started on Schrödinger’s cat.

So here are my thoughts.

To set the scene, our own B&B has a 5 star Gold award rating from VisitBritain. We started off with a 4 star silver and have gradually improved & updated the B&B as the years go by.

I never aimed for this rating as a goal in itself. I just want to give my guests the best possible B&B experience they can have. I love food & I’ve been lucky enough to travel all over the world & stay in luxury hotels. So the rating has been a bit of a by product of this. Actually I would prefer that people didn’t choose the B&B because of our rating and the aim of my online marketing; my tweeting, facebooking and
blogging is a bit contra that rating.

I want people coming to stay because they can relax and indulge and have great food and a smile, not because they just want to stay at 5 star B&B.

Before I go on, I do need to say that, on my B&B courses I always recommend potential B&Bers to join either the AA or the VisitBritain rating system when they first start up. It gives them standards to work towards, ensures nothing is missed and I believe that being assessed by a professional assessor is very valuable for a young business. It also provides potential customers with reassurance that they can expect a certain level of quality when staying in that establishment, whilst the B&B builds up its reputation and marketing efforts.

I also think that if you’re one of a lot of B&Bs in a town or city, then your grading can help differentiate you and make you stand out from the crowd.

However I’m not a young business and there are not hundred of B&Bs locally to compete with. I’ve been immersed in running a B&B for 7 years and have been running my B&B courses for 5 years. I’ve met, and shared ideas with lots of other B&B owners over the years. I have a fab website produced by the wonderful Perfect Arc and optimised beautifully (with lots of help over the years from Helen Mitchell at Ascendancy marketing) so I appear in the top 3 or 4 on Google for all the search terms I want to be found with. I know it’s a great website because of the huge number of people who have complimented me on it and said it was their reason for staying with us.

These are the facts. In 2010:
  • 0.002 % of visitors to my website were referred by VisitEngland or Enjoyengland
  • 0.001% of people who came via Google Organic had searched for 5 star B&B or an equivalent keyword phrase
Don’t you just love Google Analytics?

As an established business (here’s the mathematician bit) I work on allocating 5% of my turnover to my marketing budget. So every £1 I spend on marketing or advertising should generate £20 in turnover. For a 3 room B&B that charges £80 a night for single occupancy the fee for belonging to the VB scheme is £480. So playing by my own rules that £480 should generate £9600. I don’t believe, for my own business, that it does that. For £480 I could buy an iPAD and generate a lot more business myself whilst watching Glee.

And, whilst I appreciated the advice of the Quality Assessor when I first set up, it now really bugs me to have someone come and go through a tick box exercise and tell me how to improve my business. I KNOW what I’m good at and I KNOW what my flaws are. Actually I hadn’t considered the brown sugar thing so that’s £480 well spent…….Grumpy old Landlady syndrome?

So, what’s stopping you leaving the scheme right now? I hear you ask.

This is where the circular argument in my head kicks in. In Shropshire, anyway, you can’t advertise in the tourist information centre, belong to Shropshire Tourism, belong to local networking groups like the Shropshire Farm Holiday Group or be eligible for any grants unless you are assessed. You essentially become a non person in the local tourism industry.

I’ve actually already left Shropshire Tourism and the Farm Holiday Group. The latter due to lack of time.

If you’re not assessed you can’t participate in the Enjoy England Excellence awards. Not that I have entered since 2007. I won B&B of the year for the West Midlands and, to be honest, didn’t get a lot of new
business as a result. I’ve had far more business from a photo & short piece in Woman & Home.

I do wonder how many people come to my website by other means and their decision is helped by the fact it says 5 star gold on the front page. I think we’re getting into Schrödinger’s cat territory here. So For a bit of fun, I’ve taken the large 5 star & gold award badges off the front page of website to see what happens and my bookings have actually gone up. Not everybody is comfortable booking into what they think a 5 star B&B will be.

But on the other hand the Occupancy Survey Results clearly show that higher rated properties have higher occupancy levels.

What about the proposal that we just rely on customer reviews. There is one huge flaw in this suggestion and that one flaw is the customer themselves. The quality assessor is meant to be objective, clearly measuring your business against a common set of standards. A customer is very rarely objective. They are measuring your business against their own expectations. If, for example, they are used to staying in 2 star B&Bs they
may well give a 2 star B&B 5/5 on Tripadvisor. Whilst a 5 star guest may give a 5 star B&B (of much higher quality than the 2 star) 3/5 because the towels weren’t soft enough and their breakfast sausage wasn’t to their liking.

My main problem is that I don’t really see myself as 5 star B&B landlady. I’ve been waiting for 4 years for the Hotel Inspector to find me out. I just want people to come here and love the views and the food and the birds and the wildflower meadow and be really comfortable and have long baths and have a bit of giggle.

And the answer is…………………….I really don’t know.

What would be great is if you can comment on this blog and share your thoughts. Whether you’re in the tourism business yourself or just someone who goes on holiday.

Thank you for getting this far.

I should also mention that the author, Karen Thorne runs her own 5 Star B'n'B in South Shropshire called Hopton House - I've never stayed but it's on my 'list' for when I'm next down that way.