Today, a "5-star hotel" does not necessarily mean it's been graded by a particular hotel rating organization but more likely refers to its overall reputation as a luxury hotel.
Since the 1950s, Canada and the U.S. have primarily used the Forbes Travel Guide star ratings (formerly Mobil) and the CAA/AAA diamond ratings to indicate hotel class and quality. These ratings are based upon actual visits by paid inspectors who rate the hotel according to a long list of criteria.
Today, with the Internet and social media being major means of travel research, the validity of hotel ratings has been blurred because of the popularity of online hotel rating websites like Kayak, TripAdvisor and Expedia that offer their own user-submitter reviews that may or may not be legitimate.
How Do I Find a True 5-Star Hotel?
Look for a 5 diamond or 5 star rating on the hotel's website (note that a hotel may be 5-diamond, but not 5-star, but not likely vice versa). If they have it, you can be sure they'll flaunt it. However, look to see that the rating says where it comes from.
Leading Hotels of the World, Forbes or the Canadian Automobile Association (CAA) are all organizations that actually send inspectors to the hotel to rate it based on an extensive list of criteria. These ratings are objective and trustworthy.
Other hotel rating systems include those that rely on reader submitted reviews and ratings. These may be just as meaningful in deciding if a hotel is worthy of a stay, but may be loaded with fixed and biased submissions.
Five-Star or Luxury?
After talking to dozens of hotel managers, public relations people and other travel industry writers, I've concluded that 5-star hotel ratings are not what they used to be and can be somewhat arbitrarily designated - even by the hotel itself.
For example, according to the Forbes hotel rating website Startle, as of 2012 Canada had no 5-star hotels. But read any number of articles in reputable, national publications, and you see numerous 5-star hotels listed for Toronto alone. This discrepancy is because "luxury" hotels like the Ritz-Carlton, Trump Tower, and the Four Seasons have a luxury hotel, or 5-star reputation, which is enough for them to label themselves "5-star."
Luxury Hotel and 5-Star have become almost synonymous; however 4-star hotels may easily be considered "luxury" as well. Hotel ratings systems like Forbes and CAA are always there to confirm the exact hotel quality and standards. Other online hotel rating websites, like Kayak, TripAdvisor and Expedia are great resources as well to see what the people who have actually stayed there are saying. Of course, rumour has it that some hotels may load these sites with biased, positive reviews, so grain of salt required.
It's All About the Service
Five-star hotel criteria as defined by Forbes is extensive, including more than 500 items that are evaluated. A 5-star hotel should be outstanding physically, but even more so offer service that is essentially flawless. In fact, when I asked a staff member at the Ritz-Carlton, Toronto what the difference was between the Ritz and other hotels, his answer was, "Service."
Indeed, once it was pointed out, it became clear that staff at higher end hotels do not fold their arms, chit chat with other staff but are entirely focusing on you and anticipating what you need to make your stay the best it can be.
- Staff is extremely well spoken, polite and clear, avoids slang and phrase-fragments, does not have hands in pockets or folded in front, uses guests surname whenever possible; informed about requirements within their department; overall service is flawless from reservation call to departure service; guests are offered an escort to their rooms unless they specifically decline.
- Amenities include choice of at least two complimentary newspapers offered and distributed; welcome gift or amenity upon arrival; 24 hour room service, including hot food; during turndown service, something noteworthy and thoughtful is included in the presentation.
- At least two types of premium quality snacks are automatically offered and distinctly presented during bar and lounge service; all mixed drinks are presented with modified or full club service; any work undertaken by the staff is handled with complete professionalism, and returned to guests neatly, in folders or envelopes.
- Guest rooms should be clean and inviting. Nothing worn or broken. Bed should be inviting with numerous overstuffed pillows and high-quality linens.