Why a five-star in India may not be five-star

Nestled among the embassies and consulates of New Delhi’s Chanakyapuri area, with a view of the sprawling Nehru Park on one side and the Prime Minister’s residence on the other, the Ashok Hotel has what it should take to be the quintessential five-star hotel. It is ranked at the country’s highest level: five-star deluxe.

Try telling that to its guest, Dienna Gunawan, a 24-year-old journalist from Indonesia who was in New Delhi on business. Gunawan said there were a lot of “little things” that put her off, such as the mould in the bathroom and the spots on the bed linen. “Globally, I don’t think this is a five-star hotel,” she said. Managers at the Ashok, run by the state-owned India Tourism Development Corporation, could not be reached for comment.

Like many other countries, India has a rating system for hotels, but despite its elaborateness, it isn’t popular with hoteliers, who claim it isn’t consistent with global norms. The rules are also flexible, with a senior bureaucrat at the ministry of tourism insisting that “allowances” be made for hotels located in smaller cities and towns.

The Indian rating system is not as stringent as those in other countries, according to Vimal Singh, managing director, Golden Tulip Hospitality Group’s South Asia joint venture. Some of the hotels his company plans to develop in India would be categorized three-star internationally, but will apply for a four-star rating in the country, he said.

Thomas Monahan, senior vice-president for acquisitions and development at Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide Inc.’s Asia Pacific arm, said he has seen a lot of variations in rating systems around the world, particularly when national bodies or industry associations take it upon themselves to establish their own.

The ratings are important because they give prospective customers a rough idea of what they can expect from the hotel. The ratings are also used for legislative purposes such as the tax incentives the government offers to developers of two-,three-,and four-star hotels in and around Delhi in an effort to build up room-capacity before the Commonwealth Games scheduled for 2010.

To have their hotels classified, hoteliers in India must apply—the star-rating system is voluntary—to the tourism ministry. A committee comprising ministry officials and representatives from the hospitality and tourism industries then assigns scores to the hotel being rated on 14 parameters, including cleanliness, quality of staff and rooms, safety and security, and facilities for the physically challenged. Properties that apply for a rating are inspected by the committee that is required to check everything from the number of rooms with air-conditioning to the availability of toiletries in the bathrooms to the thickness of mattresses. The committee then issues ratings ranging from one-star to five-star deluxe; the ministry has a separate classification scheme for heritage hotels. A hotel’s star rating is reviewed every five years and the committee can conduct surprise inspections.

The ratings may look fine on paper, but some hoteliers claim they are not as stringent as the ones in Europe and the US. “They’ve given five-star classification to a hotel that might not even fit three-star (internationally),” said Singh. And Nakul Anand, the head of ITC Ltd’s hotel division, said the tourism ministry needs to “re-look at” the criteria it uses to classify properties.

In the US, for instance, ratings are done by a number of private bodies, including the Mobil Travel Guide, which says it sends “inspectors” to look at several hundred criteria in the hotels it rates. For example, to be rated even a three-star by Mobil, a hotel in the US would have to provide room service, a fitness centre, and optional turndown service, to name just three criteria. According to Indian standards, room service of full meals is only required at the four-star level and beyond, a fitness centre at the five-star level, and turndown service at the three-star level and beyond.

M.N. Javed, a deputy director general at the tourism ministry, defended the system he helps administrate. “Our star system is recognized internationally,” he said, adding that it was important to take into account variations in “social standards” depending on the location of the hotel, and be flexible with hotels in smaller cities.

The unevenness of the Indian star rating system has encouraged some hotel chains to look beyond them. “That’s why we talk about luxury and upper up-scale (rather than a star rating),” said Monahan. He added Starwood would rely on the strength of its brands, such as Sheraton, to attract guests. And hotels that are part of The Leading Hotels of the World (some 430 hotels around the world are represented by this luxury hospitality organization) may have a star-rating, but seldom flaunt it.

With enough websites, many of them driven by user-generated content, providing reviews of hotels, not all travellers rely on the rating system. Ben Astley, a 38-year-old tourist from Hong Kong, said his decision to stay at the five-star deluxe Shangri-La Hotel in New Delhi had “more to do with the reviews” than the number of stars. He added that he thought the Shangri-La’s rating was slightly inflated, but that he considered the hotel “good value.” A representative from the hotel who declined to be named said the hotel maintained “the same standards internationally”.

Astley said he felt that the Shangri-La in Hong Kong was “slightly nicer” than the one in New Delhi. He changed rooms in the New Delhi Shangri-La because he thought his original room was too small and “looked a little bit worn”. According to the chain’s website, the smallest room at its Island Shangri-La in Hong Kong is 39 sq.m, a size that only 34, or about 11%, of the New Delhi Shangri-La’s 320 rooms match or exceed.

Some hoteliers say it’s time India moved to a classification scheme for hotels that is more in line with global standards. “In most areas we’re now getting very aligned with what’s going on in the rest of the world,” said Prabhat Pani, CEO, Roots Corporation Ltd, The Indian Hotels Company Ltd’s subsidiary that runs the Ginger chain of three-star hotels. “Why only hotel classifications?” he asked. “Benchmarking” applies “to every aspect of life.”

Published in Mint.