It was the Egyptians who first used the symbol of a five-pointed star in hieroglyphs. Since then, stars have remained an object of fascination and aspiration, emerging as a powerful symbol of luxury and status. However, from Hollywood to hotels, the term "star" has increasingly been tossed around carefully.
In the hotel business alone, just under 100,000 properties are identified by the World Tourism Travel Council as luxury; yet customers still struggle to discern the genuine from the fakes. The rise of user-generated review websites was supposed to bring transparency to the market, but instead, simply created more confusion. For consumers, it has never been harder to determine what makes a good hotel great, and an excellent hotel exceptional.
However, one hotel rating system has taken on the task of delivering transparency, meritocracy and meaning to the hotel-based star rating system: the Forbes Travel Guide.
The only independent global ranking system for luxury hotels, restaurants and spas, the Forbes Travel Guide anonymously evaluates hotels using a meticulous five-star rating system.
"Plenty of people call themselves five-star, but really, are they? This is an actual process," says Forbes Travel Guide CEO and industry legend, Gerard J. Inzerillo.
First established in print in 1958 as the Mobil Travel Guide, in 2011 the Five-Star system was rebranded online as the Forbes Travel Guide and has now gone global, encompassing 50 destinations.
Under the Forbes Travel Guide system, hotels, restaurants and spas are scrutinised on up to 900 objective standards that cover everything from facilities to graciousness. Anonymous reviewers visit properties for a minimum two-day stay, and hotels are rewarded either a Recommended, Four-Star or Five-Star rating based on their visit.
In 2017, The Darling at The Star Sydney emerged as Sydney's first hotel to be awarded the prestigious Forbes Five-Star rating (with the honour bestowed again earlier this year at the 2018 Star Awards). What makes this accolade more remarkable is that The Darling is one of only 199 hotels to be awarded so globally - with other notables including The Ritz-Carlton New York, Central Park and The Rosewood Beijing.
"Being awarded five stars by Forbes Travel Guide is such an achievement and puts The Darling among the most reputable in the world," says Greg Hawkins, managing director at The Star Sydney. "The team at The Darling has worked incredibly hard to create a level of guest service that is truly first-class. They are committed, enthusiastic and, most importantly, fully understanding of the service levels required to ensure our guests enjoy an unforgettable stay."
Service is at the heart of the Five-Star system. Hotels are assessed using a proprietary algorithm that weighs service at 75 per cent and facilities at 25 percent. "People ask all the time: is there a common denominator between your 199 Five-Stars around the world? Because how can you compare a hotel like the Little Nell in Aspen with some of the Five-Star operations in Macau?" Inzerillo says.
The answer, according to Inzerillo, is achieving alignment between government, the private sector and hotel management, which ultimately creates a culture of service that is dedicated to the guests. "That's when you get the highest performing hotels in the world. That's what distinguishes those 199," he says.
Of course, the standards used to rank the hotels are not static. Inzerillo gives an example of a standard where for years, you couldn't have a Five-Star unless you had a tablecloth in the restaurant; a standard now retired to reflect a different time.
Other parts of the review process require environmental and cultural flexibility. How you greet a guest in Bahrain, for example, may be different to how you greet someone in Tokyo. "But the cleanliness of the guest room in Moscow must be the same as cleanliness of guest room in Vienna," Inzerillo maintains.
As well as using anonymous evaluators, the integrity and transparency of the process is sustained by publishing the standards for the industry, and consulting with the Standards Advisory Committee. The council of 31 hospitality experts (including representatives from the prestigious concierge organisation, Les Clefs D'or, and The Darling Gold Coast's general manager, John Autelitano), serve a two-year term and offer an industry perspective on the rating process.
However, the core of the process remains service. "Of course, we have some very black-and-white standards. Did they smile? Did they make eye contact? Those are very simple," says Amanda J Frasier, senior vice president of Ratings and custodian of the evaluation system. "But we also have some standards that are a little more specialist. Was there something unique or memorable, or particularly creative or inventive? It varies ever so slightly based on the area [of service] that we're looking at, but what we're looking for is that 'thing' that made it a little more special for you, more memorable for you."
Inzerillo, who began his career in hospitality as a 13-year-old bellboy from Brooklyn, believes the dignity that drives service is a critical part of a hotel's success. "In my world, service is nobility of thinking. It's nobility of doing, because you're enriching what the great archbishop of South Africa, Desmond Tutu, calls ubuntu - the humanity that draws us all together," says Inzerillo in his inaugural TedX talk. "We feel very deeply that a quest experience is not defined by the square footage of a bathroom or light fixtures or how much marble a hotel has, but how you feel."
And if you're staying in one of the 199 Five-Star hotels, chances are you're feeling good.
Happy Hour is an extract from The Star, a magazine highlighting the thrilling experiences on offer to domestic and international guests, and our local communities, at our Sydney, Gold Coast and Brisbane properties.