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For many in the luxury travel industry, February is awards season. During February, Forbes Travel Guide (FTG) publishes its annual list of recommended, Four-Star and Five-Star hotels, spas and restaurants around the world.
This year, the independent, global rating system celebrates 60 years with ratings for 1,609 properties in 50 countries — but the work has only just begun.
According to company CEO Gerard “Jerry” Inzerillo, FTG has big ambitions for the future. Currently in the works are plans to further develop its consumer-facing platforms (such as social media and editorial) as well as expand its annual list, which will include ratings for a staggering 100 countries in 2019. Newcomers will include properties from Bahrain; Belize; Doha, Qatar; Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; Istanbul; Nicaragua; Oman; Perth, Australia; the Swiss Alps (Andermatt, St. Moritz and Gstaad); Tel Aviv, Israel; and Uruguay.
So, how exactly does the company come up with its Star Awards ratings? Who are its inspectors? And how much integrity do the ratings really have?
Find out some essentials about Forbes Travel Guide — provided by both Inzerillo and Amanda Frasier, senior vice president of ratings for the company — below.
Is Forbes Travel Guide related to Forbes Media?FTG is an independent company. The guide’s use of the Forbes name is part of a licensing agreement. The guide began as Mobil Travel Guide (licensed by Mobil Gas stations) in 1958. It was originally published by Simon & Schuster.
What’s the difference between a Four-Star and a Five-Star rating?According to Inzerillo, achieving a Four-Star rating is equivalent to attaining a gold Olympic medal. The Five-Star rating? That’s an entirely different level of achievement.
“The Five-Star is Michael Phelps, Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro,” Inzerillo said. “It’s not even the Chanel bag — it’s the Birkin bag.”
Who are FTG’s inspectors?The guide’s 60 inspectors are mostly full-time employees, though even independent contractors are not allowed to publish stories about what they’re inspecting for anyone else.
Frasier says inspectors come from different work backgrounds, but typically have experience with luxury as well as some journalistic training. They hail from all around the world.
Inspectors undergo a six-week training that starts at Forbes’ Atlanta headquarters, and they receive ongoing instruction throughout the year.
What goes into a property inspection?During their visits — which are typically two-night, three-day stays, but sometimes longer — inspectors are analyzing the property against approximately 900 objective standards.
“Inspectors do everything themselves, from making their own reservation to conducting any post follow-up they have to do with the hotel,” said Frasier.
Inspectors do not determine the ratings. Once they submit their detailed, objective reports to FTG headquarters, a company algorithm — which puts major emphasis on service — is used to decide the final rating.
“The inspector finds out the rating when the list goes out to the public,” Frasier said.
Forbes 2018 Star Award winners include recommended, Four-Star and Five-Star hotels, restaurants and spas in 50 countries in the world. // © 2018 Royal Mansour Marrakech
The list includes 27 new Five-Star hotels including Four Seasons Hotel New York Downtown. // © 2018 Four Seasons Hotel New York Downtown
The list includes 70 new Four-Star hotels, including newcomer Las Alcobas, a Luxury Collection Hotel, Napa Valley. // © 2018 Las Alcobas, a Luxury Collection Hotel, Napa Valley
Belmond Hotel das Cataratas is South America’s first Five-Star rated hotel. // © 2018 Belmond Hotel das Cataratas
In its first year on the list, the Middle East snagged four Five-Star awards. // © 2018 Four Seasons Hotel Dubai International Financial Centre
Marrakech, Morocco, launched with two Five-Star hotels, including Mandarin Oriental, Marrakech. // © 2018 Mandarin Oriental, Marrakech
Kyoto got its first Five-Star nod with The Ritz-Carlton, Kyoto. // © 2018 The Ritz-Carlton, Kyoto
The new Waldorf Astoria Beverly Hills is Hilton’s first Five-Star hotel in the Western Hemisphere. // © 2018 Waldorf Astoria Beverly Hills
Meadowood Napa Valley is one of 13 hotels that achieved triple Five-Stars for their hotel, restaurant and spa. // © 2018 Meadowood Napa Valley
What happens after an inspector submits his or her report?A team back in Atlanta checks inspector reports for consistency and ensures that each inspector is reviewing per FTG’s standards.
“What’s most important is that the integrity of what we do is 100 percent adhered to in every single report,” Frasier said.
Are there any exceptions to Star Awards standards?FTG’s standards — such as aspects of service including making direct eye contact and smiling — are adjusted per cultural mores. Another example Frasier gives has to do with spas: Inspectors are supposed to report on coed relaxation rooms — except in the Middle East, where they’re permitted to mark “not applicable.”
“It’s really important to us that the inspectors are being culturally sensitive,” Frasier said. “We look at every report that comes in and make sure that the standards are being applied fairly.”
Does FTG try to make the standards for the ratings harder to achieve each year?Contrary to some hoteliers’ beliefs, FTG does not aim to make the Star Award standards more difficult every year.
“Our standards are driven by the industry and luxury operators,” Frasier said. “We see trends — what was once luxury might fade and evolve into something else. It’s my job that our standards are refined and redefined every year.”
In 2013, the company developed the Standards Advisory Committee, an advisory group made up of 31 individuals from top luxury hotel brands, along with three luxury experts outside of the hotel space.
What are some examples of how FTG maintains integrity?One year, FTG might send a North American business traveler to a property. To switch it up the next year, it might send a family of four from Europe to that same property.
“We deliberately change the profile of our guests each year because we’re looking for consistency in how they handle individuals,” Frasier said.
Inspectors do not hotel-hop in the same destination — so even though FTG might need to inspect on several hotels on the Las Vegas strip, it would never send one inspector to all hotels during a single visit.
“If we did that,” Frasier said, “what would be the point?”