In the U.S., Mobil Travel Guides and the American Automobile Association conduct regular inspections and issue annual guidebooks listing accommodations on one- to five-star or diamond scales. Those ratings reflect specific written standards regarding facilities and services.

Ratings of hotels in other countries, if they exist, come from a variety of sources, including the government, tourism groups, sometimes even the operators themselves. And while affiliation with an international brand name improves the chances that a hotel will adhere to certain standards, it's no guarantee of consistency.

In Latin America, for example, “the quality of audiovisual, facilities, equipment, and assistance is all over the map,” says Roger Titley, vice president and director of development and asset management for Latin America, Six Continent Hotels. “But for those companies that have very strict standards and specifications, room sizes and amenities will be virtually the same worldwide,” he adds.

Here, then, is a guide to help navigate some of the better-known rankings used around the world.

Europe: No Two Stars Alike

Individual countries in Europe look at accommodations differently, so it's wise to do a little digging before selecting a hotel based on four or five stars. “A star rating in Germany is totally different from the same rating in France,” says Welf Ebeling, executive vice president and COO of Leading Hotels of the World, based in New York.

In the U.K., the Automobile Association, Royal Auto Club, and English Tourism Council agreed to adopt a standardized rating system to rank its member properties. (The tourist boards in Wales and Scotland aren't cooperating.) Properties are scored on cleanliness and housekeeping; service and hospitality; guest rooms; bathrooms; food quality and service; public rooms; safety and security; and exterior and interior appearance and upkeep. Hotels are rated one to five stars. Four-star hotels have the basic creature comforts, including private baths, in addition to a strong emphasis on food and beverage and 24-hour room service. Five-star hotels are considered “amongst the best in the industry.”

Travelers to France can expect hotels to display federal government-sanctioned star ratings, ranging from one star for a simple inn to four for a deluxe hotel. The ratings formula takes into account room size, facilities, plumbing, elevators, dining options, renovations, and more. Four-star hotels are the only ones guaranteed to have adequate services and facilities for most meeting planners. But for tax reasons, some four-star hotels have elected to take a lower rating, which the government allows, so it might pay to dig a little deeper into those ratings.

The Michelin Red Guides, which rank French hotels according to such subjective qualities as their comfort and views, “are quite good,” says Tim Zagat, chairman and CEO of the Zagat Surveys, which publishes its own guides to U.S. and international hotels.

Hotels in Germany and a handful of Scandinavian countries are given one to five stars, and by law they can only promote those standings for only three years before the government requires a new inspection. As a result, “I would be careful when an Italian hotel says it has a three-star rating — but in Germany, a hotel with a three-star rating is totally safe,” says Alexandra Lorenson, assistant vice president with Business Travel International, a hotel reservations specialist headquartered in Dusseldorf, Germany. She says four- or five-star properties throughout Europe are the likeliest sites for most meetings and incentive travel.

In general, meeting planners should expect less standardization throughout Europe, partly because about 70 percent of the hotels there are independently operated (in the U.S., about the same proportion are chain-affiliated), and partly because the definition of lodging is a bit broader.

“Some hotels are part of former estates that have been transformed into meeting facilities,” says Lorenson. She says some U.S.-based clients must be convinced that the stunning setting or the personalized attention will outweigh the lack of standardization at such a facility.

Lorenson also points out that certain requests that U.S. meeting planners take for granted — non-smoking rooms or king-size beds, for example — aren't customary in many European hotels. Access for guests with disabilities isn't widespread, although new construction and major renovation projects generally are required to include it. And meeting room equipment will vary in quality, although any hotel that focuses on meetings is likely to keep up with the latest technology. The best policy, she suggests, is to do homework and ask a lot of questions — before you get on site.

Latin America: Ratings for Life

Hotels across Latin America carry government-sanctioned star rankings from their respective ministries of tourism. “Hotels are inspected when they open and are granted from no stars to five stars,” says Six Continents' Titley. Mexico's system adds an additional star for gran turismo or luxury hotels. And some hotels rate themselves, resulting in meaningless designations as high as seven stars.

However, Titley adds, too often those government ratings stick for life, even for hotels that have declined in quality.

Fortunately, many U.S. chains have strongholds in Latin America, so meeting planners looking for a product comparable to what they would find at home should have little trouble. Titley says hotel chains that cater to business travelers — generally those at the four- and five-star level — enforce strict standards regarding room sizes, amenities, audiovisual equipment, technology, accessibility, and more. And most parts of Latin America are requiring new and renovated hotels to include access for travelers with disabilities.

Asia: Uncharted Territory

“In Asia, there is no common rating system,” says Leading Hotels' Ebeling. “For most hotels, probably the most widely accepted ratings system is the Institutional Investor system, which doesn't cover many hotels. It only tells you which of the hotels are really the world-class properties.”

The Chinese government does rank hotels on a star system; five-star hotels are comparable to international luxury hotels, while four-star properties lack some features such as swimming pools. Both provide English-speaking staff.

Hotels in Singapore and elsewhere are also ranked by stars, although as in Europe, definitions vary markedly. Hong Kong hotels aredivided into high tariff, medium tariff, and hostels or guesthouses. In many cases, price is the most accurate indication of quality.

Throughout Asia, hotels will have higher staffing levels because of relatively low wages. “Anyplace where you have a low labor cost, you will have a higher ratio of staff per available room or guest,” observes Marshall Calder, senior vice president with Leading Hotels.

At the four- or five-star level, aside from notable or outstanding architecture, the guest experience should be similar to what it is in the U.S., even down to the technology.

“In most places that are primary destinations, hotels are relatively sophisticated, and they will also have a staff that is pretty sophisticated in using technology,” Calder says.

Selected International Hotel Operators

Chain-affiliated hotels are much more common in the U.S. than elsewhere, but a variety of less-familiar lodging companies operate primarily overseas, including:

Finding Overseas Accommodations

  • Work with a local contact, such as a destination management company or national tourist office, that is familiar with the market. “Anytime you're talking about more than 50 people, I would either work with someone I trusted or I would hotfoot it over there,” says Tim Zagat, chairman and CEO of the Zagat Surveys.
  • Take guidebook advice and ratings with a grain of salt; many guides don't budget for inspectors to stay overnight or experience a hotel, and even government-imposed stars may be dated. Leading Hotels, for example, gives inspectors 48 hours in each property and applies the same standards in all 75 countries where it has hotels. Follow-up visits occur every 18 months. The Zagat guides reflect the opinions of travelers who've spent time in a hotel, not the results of an inspector who “for sure is not sleeping in the beds, swimming in the pools, playing golf, and doing the things that are part of the experience,” says Zagat.
  • Think outside the box. Some ratings systems rely too heavily on physical qualities of a property while overlooking its less-definable but important qualities or its service. “You can have a wonderful little gem of a hotel…with the highest service levels, but because it doesn't have all these facilities, it would never be seen as a deluxe hotel,” observes Welf Ebeling, executive vice president and COO of Leading Hotels of the World.