Five Stars: How Destinations Really Earn Their Ratings

It’s lunchtime on a warm day and “Abby” is seated in a booth at an upscale West Hartford restaurant. She scans the menu for dishes she hasn’t already tried before a waiter, who has no idea that she’s anything but a casual diner, comes by to take her order.

Like many of her restaurant visits, Abby tries an assortment of items, including an appetizer, main course, dessert and, on this day, a specialty non-alcoholic drink too. While there she takes careful note of the cleanliness and condition of the restaurant, along with the staff, menus, food, service, décor and ambience for later consideration.

After lunch she drives to East Hartford, where she spends the better part of an hour going through various guest and public rooms at a local hotel. She looks over everything from how the beds are made to the integrity of the liner in the pool. Among other things, she notes some wear and tear on the hallway walls, some faintly worn carpet, a television remote that doesn’t work in one of the suites, and a few other issues that require attention.

To someone else those things might go unnoticed. But to Abby, who spends most of her days scrutinizing hotels and restaurants as a professional inspector for AAA in New England and New York, they are notable concerns. (Her real name can’t be used due to the nature of her job.)

Once she’s done, Abby spends an additional 15 to 20 minutes sitting in the parking lot filling out detailed reports on her computer to submit later AAA, which in turn will use them to provide its members with information to know about the destinations before visiting.

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After completing her assessment of the hotel, AAA "Inspector 84," at left, reviews a few details with Hazel Delgado, right, executive housekeeper at the Hampton Inn in East Hartford, to see if there are any amenities, such as microwaves or coffee makers, that have been added or dropped since her last visit a year ago for a quality ratings inspection.The procedure that AAA uses to determine the diamond ratings they assign — from one diamond to five — to their approved restaurants and lodgings is pretty complicated. The system uses strict guidelines to assist in categorizing the businesses into various tiers. So strict, in fact, that the lodging guidelines manual runs about 40 pages and the restaurant manual another 28. Included are a whole lot of things you’ve probably never thought about.

For example, the difference between a three-diamond restaurant and a four-diamond restaurant can come down to the type of material used in the tablecloths or the placement of garnish on a plate. The same holds true for lodgings. The discrepancy between two ratings can be as nuanced as the number of chairs in a guest room or whether it has a full-length mirror.

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Though the distinctions may seem slight, they factor into the overall assessment and help maintain consistency in how ratings are determined.

It’s important to note that for a restaurant or lodging to receive one or two diamonds doesn’t reflect a poor rating. Instead it just indicates the style or category it falls into. So a fast-food restaurant might qualify as one-diamond, while a restaurant where the waiters wear tuxedos might be closer to a five.

“The reason that AAA goes to the effort to conduct evaluations and maintains a staff of full-time inspectors is so that our members will have positive travel experiences,” said Abby, who added, “Most people are surprised to learn that AAA is the only entity in North America using trained professionals to apply consistent criteria in evaluating hotels based on consumer preferences.”

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In contrast to AAA’s precise guidelines for recommendations, Frommer’s takes a completely different approach.

With more than 300 guidebooks and a travel website, the prevailing philosophy is to let their writers conclude how a hotel or restaurant ranks, according to editorial director Pauline Frommer.

“We tell our authors that one star is a place that’s recommended. Two stars, highly recommended. Three stars means don’t miss,” she said. “And we let them make that calculation. We trust them; they’ve seen all the hotels and restaurants and know how to compare them.”

In part, that is because Frommer’s mostly employs local writers who know the destinations they are writing about, both inside and out. “They know what it means to do research,” Frommer said, “and to look at the things that really matter to visitors.”

Those can include how they are greeted at the front desk, whether the beds are comfortable and the rooms are quiet, along with a multitude of other factors that contribute to the overall appeal and value.

“We only have room for our top recommendations.” she said, “So we have to be selective.”

No less selective is Fodor’s, which also publishes hundreds of travel guidebooks and hosts a website. Unlike AAA or Frommer’s, however, Fodor’s largely bypasses specific ratings in favor of using inclusion as their preferred measure of worth.

“Anything we’re going to put in print or online, we consider worth doing,” said Fodor’s editorial director, Linda Cabasin, who went on to explain that in any given destination there could be hundreds, even thousands of restaurants.

From those, Fodor’s includes only the ones they consider to be the best in price, value, cuisine, atmosphere and other discriminating distinctions in their books and on their website. The same holds true for accommodations.

“We aren’t going to list things that we don’t feel are right for our travelers,” Cabasin said. “It’s a basic difference in approach; we are curated in terms of what we are selecting.”

Roughly 10 to 20 percent of their hotels, restaurants, and destinations receive special recognition as a “Fodor’s Choice,” which Cabasin said represents the best of the best. “It’s the ultimate rating in any category,” she said. And the lucky few selected for the distinction are noted with a single star to set them apart.

Occasionally, the decision to include or not include a particular place can be a delicate balancing act: A restaurant or hotel that’s been included one year may not make it the next for any number of reasons.

“If something does go downhill,” Cabasin said, “then sometimes you can’t list it again. You have to give people what you feel is the best selection, even if sentimental value says to hold on to it.”

And that’s not always easy, as some of those places can be very popular or well-loved. But, according to Cabasin, being honest is what it’s all about.

“That’s part of the business, and that’s what people are expecting you do to do.”

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