(Interesting stuff for tourists? In case you were wondering TRM dumped their Qualmark star rating with Golden Chain about ten years ago. Instead of star rating the motel, SWMBO rates the guests – aka inmates. Much more fun… So how do you rate?)
There has been recent discussion in Australia around self-rated properties versus star ratings, which are obtained through a process of industry accreditation assessment. Perhaps unsurprisingly, recent research pointed to continued consumer confidence in a verifiable star rating system for its transparency and reliability, but also to an appreciation of access to consumer reviews to verify the rating.
While consumers might not grasp the exact criteria for the stamp of approval, they have the comfort of knowing that an industry body has compiled a list of important benchmarks, and the property has attained them.
According to Qualmark’s general manager Cameron Lawrence, “in New Zealand, it’s a very different conversation”.
The discussion is generally around star rating versus consumer rating. It appears that operators in New Zealand are less likely to blow their own trumpets without a solid base of consumer reviews to back them up. Whatever the reason for this cultural difference, a question remains. What is working better in New Zealand: formal accreditation with Qualmark or relying on consumer reviews?
In a world that is ruled by the world-wide web, online consumer reviews have become an influential force on ‘public perception’. And if indeed beauty (or hotel quality) is in the eye of the beholder, a certain subjectivity is inescapable. Individual guests are just that, individuals.
The result? An enormous level of variability in perception, each coloured by the person’s past experiences, preferences, and of course, their personal standards. But isn’t that how word of mouth works? Isn’t that how you get a clear appraisal unfettered by economic motivations and marketing? Yes, and no; that was what we heard when we took this question to the industry: ‘Star-rated vs. self-rated: which holds the most benefit for managers and why?’
With some exceptions, relying on consumer opinions to self-rate was not considered good enough. It was part of the puzzle and certainly added colour, but we heard that it should be complemented by a more definitive recommendation like a star rating or Qualmark registration. Among the responses however, there was some concern at an operator level about the relevance of the star rating system in a modern internet charged environment, and its ability to line up with international standards to adequately communicate level of quality and service.
So, does Qualmark have a defensible place in modern New Zealand tourism? Has our national accrediting agency moved with the times and reinvented itself like a 21st century entity with any hope of longevity must? AMG asked Cameron Lawrence for the low-down on how Qualmark fits in.
When Tourism New Zealand (TNZ) took full ownership of Qualmark in September 2015, they recognised that the market had changed significantly in the 23 years since Qualmark’s creation in 1993 as a government backed tourism quality assurance association. TNZ commenced a critical review that sought to determine whether the Qualmark platform could contribute to tourism in New Zealand. The process was informed by research conducted in an industry and consumer space.
The result is the new Qualmark ‘revitalised standard’. “We engaged specialists, who conducted best practice research; we also held focus groups with accommodation operators. Research told us to refresh not restart,” Cameron Lawrence indicated. “We found there was plenty worth keeping.”
The research revealed that a lot of what they were doing was appreciated in the industry, especially the business support that accompanied accreditation processes. Qualmark set about integrating the service into the overarching outcomes for TNZ. “It’s about helping that business to deliver a great product. Qualmark knows why visitors come to New Zealand and what they appreciate, so we have developed our new standard to cover that.”
There’s been a shift away from “previous hard quality criteria” of ticking boxes against a checklist, and the updated standard “also ensures that Qualmark checks what the consumer can’t see”. The assessors evaluate and provide feedback on the processes in the business, and according to Mr Lawrence, existing clients appreciate that Qualmark representatives provide business advice during the accreditation process.
Reportedly, the shift is towards assisting accommodation businesses in meeting consumer expectation. The concept of international opinion is an interesting question with regard to star ratings. “There isn’t one standard across the world for star ratings,” Cameron Lawrence confirmed. “That’s because those different markets deliver different products.”
In line with the mandate to advance the tourism industry in New Zealand, a focus on standards within New Zealand arguably makes sense. Comparing an Asian 5-star hotel to how the French do ‘5-star’ could very well disregard the cultural context. Perhaps in our more nuanced age of online discussion, the reliable deliverables of “Hiltonia” have become anachronistic?
The revitalised Qualmark standard definitely begins at home. Mr Lawrence explained that Qualmark has aligned with broader strategic goals for tourism in New Zealand, and is working to help accommodation businesses understand New Zealand’s unique offering. “It’s about what makes New Zealand unique: warm and welcoming; safe to explore; beautiful nature; clean and unpolluted.”
All business are now initially assessed under the Sustainable Tourism criteria. The elements of the accreditation are based on a sense of ecological sustainability, as well as the social ecology of community within New Zealand, including engagement and contribution to local communities.
The captivating international image of the Kiwi nation aside, overall accommodation quality and service are addressed. The accommodation accreditation process also provides feedback on health and safety policy, and the business processes behind the scenes.
Mr Lawrence emphasized that “although what consumers are saying about a property is recognized in our assessment, we also conduct an examination of ‘behind the front desk’ operations. “We are not just checking if the beds are cleaned; we are also interested in the cleaning program that delivered that clean bed.”
The assessment and accreditation involves professional support and opportunity for business improvement. “It gives a lot of assurance to operators and trade; knowing that we have checked all those things are in place.”
The research phase of the revamp confirmed the industry’s appreciation for these business services. “We understood from our focus groups, that it wasn’t just achieving the star that was important to our clients, it was the business advice and the relationship with the Qualmark representative.”
One area of focus has been “amping up delivery of that assessor relationship”, and market research indicated that operators “really valued that opportunity to access advice on questions, such as ‘how do I prepare for change?’ and ‘how do I improve my business?’.
Cameron Lawrence has observed a pendulum style swing in the industry towards TripAdvisor, and then back towards the star ratings. “It really is just a personal observation”, he emphasised, “but there was a lot of talk a while ago that TripAdvisor would replace star ratings completely, but that commentary has gone quiet”.
The Qualmark general manager and former service and accounts manager attributes that to a growing appreciation of the complementary nature of the two entities. “TripAdvisor delivers some great stuff in this space, but we have a unique deliverable for our industry. Consumers understand that we have different roles to play.”
So, it seems the prediction that TripAdvisor would signal the end of star ratings has turned out to be as accurate as digital media signalling the end of print. As online communities proliferate, the limitations of the online space become more apparent.
With verification of online content a challenge, and the impulsiveness of sharing characterised by the medium, it offers both advantages and challenges. Yet, with opinion overload a very real threat, as we check for online quality, we may just be gasping for a bit of something to cling to, something with an offer of substantiation. In the era of “fake news”… who could blame us?
Enough from us. Let’s hear it direct from industry voices: ‘Star-rated vs. self-rated: which holds the most benefit for managers and why?’
Moira Penman, general manager, AA Tourism Publishing Limited trading as AA Traveller
“It’s not a one or the other situation and, in fact, limiting it to either or both in terms of importance doesn’t reflect reality. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, especially when we consider customers are very savvy in how they gather information and make their decisions. Never has there been easier access to a wide range of accommodation options.
A high-quality, audited, star-rating system such as Qualmark is an important way for customers to screen properties and develop a shortlist. Then it pretty much comes down to personal preference, which can be based on price, convenience, amenities, age, style – really, the list is endless – or a combination of all of those.
At this point self-rating becomes important. Assuming the property is presented well and the service is fantastic, it’s all about communication and ensuring potential customers have a good and consistent experience from the beginning, which starts with a listing on a website or and in print.”
Lesley Immink, chief executive, Tourism Export Council