When it comes to choosing a holiday park, most travellers use a combination of personal experience, word-of-mouth recommendations and the stars. That’s not to say they get a slice of advice from a soothsayer gazing at the heavens. When it comes to advice on quality, it is star ratings that count and the universe of facts that support them.
Five decades ago, Australian accommodation-rating company Star Ratings started a system that is now used by travellers as a shorthand-guide to quality and as an essential marketing tool for caravan parks.
Star Ratings provides each participating caravan park with a simple graphic showing one to five stars, depending on the quality of their accommodation. The higher the standard – the more stars they get.
Over the years, almost one third of Australian parks have voluntarily taken on the Star Ratings scheme and about 85% of travellers refer to the rating of individual parks to help them make their accommodation choices.
Recently, Star Ratings became one of the first review systems worldwide to upgrade its service online by incorporating consumer ratings and reviews. Consequently, Star Ratings now has two complementary systems that include an independent star rating and a rating by Australian travellers. A complex algorithm means park operators can see what consumers think of them, thanks to data from many sources, such as Turu.com.au. It gives operators another tool on which they can base their management and decision-making.
The hope is that travellers will benefit, as operators will better shape parks to mirror travellers’ demands.
The star rating that each park receives is worth understanding, as there is more behind it than you might think.
The key to understanding a system that is recognised in 70 countries is to not write it off as just a reflection of the facilities on offer and nothing more.
As Star Ratings boss Damien Hanger explains, there is more here than meets the eye. For example, he said that getting a tick for having an amenities block or a pool was good enough in the past but, in about 2010, the accommodation industry realised that travellers weren’t just interested in the availability of a facility but also the quality and condition of those facilities. That change prompted the development of the current scheme.
“The 200 criteria now focus on quality and condition,” Damien says. “All of those criteria have been ranked by Australian travellers according to what’s important to them.”
Then, to make the ratings truly independent, Star Ratings uses trained independent assessors to rate each accommodation provider against each criterion to determine quality, condition and availability of facilities in on-site evaluations.
Damien says the caravan park sector, unlike other accommodation sectors, has two rating categories. The primary rating is for the park, including the amenities and the condition of the grounds. A secondary system rates the park accommodation – the cabins, motels and the like. When it comes to park cabins, the criteria with the most influence on star rating is the bedroom and bathroom, because they are the most important to consumers.
Damien is keen to point out that Star Ratings is confident in the validity of its system because it grew out of solid peer-reviewed research by the then-Centre for Tourism Research in Melbourne, Vic, to discover what mattered to travellers.
“We felt we needed that level of independent professionalism and expertise in order to drive the result,” he says.
The ratings are reviewed every three years so they can reflect changes that might happen, from new curtains to brand new infrastructure – amenities blocks, pools, ensuites, games and sports facilities.
On top of that periodic review, Damien says: “The consumers will absolutely let us know if the standard is not satisfactory and we’ll act on that with ‘mystery guests’, to revaluate the ratings at a random time.”
Damien insists this is why the Star Ratings voluntary system represents a ‘gateway to decision-making’.
“Because the system is voluntary, travellers can rest assured that Star Ratings’ strong representation in the industry means it rates the most reputable operators, because they’re willing to hold themselves to independent standards,” he says.
Bells Caravan Park is nestled a little back from the foreshore of Brisbane’s northern Moreton Bay community of Clontarf – a naturally picturesque corner of the world with simple old-world charm.
Park manager of this council-owned facility, Judy Samuels, helps run the three-star park as if it were her own.
While Bells is a simple park with an unadorned yet pleasant camp kitchen and two amenities blocks, this tiny park shares the same attention to cleanliness as the higher-rated Brisbane Holiday Village. That’s because Judy believes most people look for cleanliness and the park’s rating reflects her emphasis on that value. “We have a lot of return visitors. I like to keep it clean and that’s how I come across to the customers.”
While Judy reckons the star rating system is particularly worthwhile for inexperienced travellers, she thinks that sometimes the rating undersells the quality of the park. She says the new system that includes customer sentiments means a fairer result. However, she believes while star rating is important ‘word of mouth’ reputation is far more influential.
From time to time, we’ve all experienced that rare caravan park that hasn’t quite lived up to expectations. You know the sort – the advertised five star experience that feels more like a two star reality. Star Ratings believes it has that problem solved.
Damien says Star Ratings’ alliance with the Accommodation Association of Australia (AAA) means they have the ability to address ratings disputes when a park operator disagrees with the rating they’ve been awarded. He says, if necessary, the AAA might then find a resolution by working with the Caravan Industry Association of Australia to independently reassess the initial rating.
Similarly for the consumer, a complaint about any park may mean that Star Ratings will engage a ‘mystery guest’ via the AAA to visit the park at a random time to check the veracity of the complaint.
The upshot of that investigation might mean the accommodation’s rating is downgraded or, on matters of cleanliness, the park might be removed from the scheme.
To make sure its reviews are up to scratch, Star Ratings works with the AAA and the Caravan Industry Association of Australia to train reviewers in the latest standards and industry trends.
Damien says this means that Star Ratings are continually reflecting Australian standards.
Damien says Star Ratings was working to become the reliable source that will help caravanners start building a shortlist of potential caravan parks they’d like to visit.
“It will give you a little more confidence that of the sites you’ve picked, say in and around the Sunshine Coast, these represent the best of the best,” he says. “The really exciting opportunity in front of us is finding how to truly give the consumer a voice.”