Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Measuring Quality?

Qualmark, "New Zealand's official quality assurance organisation" has had many challenges and numerous barbs thrown at them along the way from the accommodation industry.

While Qualmark offers services to numerous tourism sectors, star grading the accommodation industry is what they are best known for and this is the backbone of their business.

Qualmark's resilience is to be commended. They have endured a major culture change that has included staff losses, a drastic cut in public funding, coping with reluctant shareholders (Government owned, Tourism NZ and privately owned, NZAA) while trying to clip the ticket of high maintenance tourism businesses including the dyslexic personality of the motel sector. 

It would seem that the passionate debate and hang-wringing over Qualmark's direction and service delivery has largely subsided - for now. From my observations, the two main camps of accommodation providers either view Qualmark as being irrelevant or see benefits in using their services as a nice-to-have quality control benchmarking system within accommodation marketing groups. 

Without a lifeline of corporate welfare imminent, Qualmark's challenge is to sell accommodation providers the benefits of a benchmarking system by offering a robust and compelling product with genuine value. In return, accommodation providers will need to pay a market price. For this to occur would mean a dramatic change of attitude within the various accommodation sectors and there appears to be no one willing to step-up to drive this.

Accommodation operator apathy, New Zealand's geographical spread, small economies of scale and high servicing costs, means that it is unlikely that Qualmark will ever be self-sustaining without a major change of direction.

Meanwhile it Australia, 10,000 properties offset a lot of administration costs and property assessment takes 30% less time. This makes running a star rating system across the ditch more of a viable proposition.

Peter Blackwell, is known in New Zealand in his role as GM of AA Tourism and is heading changes to the accommodation star rating system in Australia by AAA Tourism that came into effect from July 2011. 

In difficult economic times, AAA Tourism's new star rating system in Australia was overhauled to focus on three core categories of cleanliness, facilities and quality/ condition. Minimum requirements were dumped and replaced with a percentage score for each of the three core areas that are weighted towards the final star rating. 

While Kiwi accommodation providers seem to be reasonably nonchalant about recent modest tweaks in Qualmark's star rating systems, our Aussie cousins seem to be bristling for a fight after a major shift in their quality rating criteria.

We received an email from an Australian accommodation resort manager in Noosa that exposes some of the accommodation industry's reaction to AAA Tourism's new star rating system:
The AAA assessors are currently in Noosa and the new criteria are proving to be very tough or very subjective depending on the assessor's view. Most 4.5 star resorts are being told they are not up to standard despite the fact they have historically always passed the previous inspections.  This is not a matter of sour grapes, the new assessment system just doesn't have it right.

In our case we are currently #1 on Trip Advisor for Speciality Lodging in Noosa... if we were not delivering 4.5 Star standards our reviews would reflect it. Yet it seems customer satisfaction is not a consideration AAA factors into the assessment.

Noosa managers as meeting with Peter Blackwell to express their concerns on March 5th.
I wonder how that meeting went? A link to an article in the Noosa News HERE makes interesting reading. 

Guest review based systems such as TripAdvisor are becoming increasingly more relevant as a means for the travelling public to compare options and for accommodation providers to benchmark their performance in real-time. 

It may be ironic to some that AA New Zealand with a 40 percent shareholding in Qualmark have embarked upon their own guest review program. However official industry-speak is that online customer reviews are not a threat to the concept of recognised national assessment schemes that rely upon annual physical assessment from trained assessors. It is considered that online reviews and official star rating schemes can co-habitat well together and as if to prove this point, in a significant gesture, Tourism New Zealand have now included TripAdvisor reviews on their website.

It's debatable if online reviews and schemes that require a physical annual inspection are comparable. Both methods rank properties largely by the quality on offer, however the main difference would appear to be that online reviews measure a consumer's experience in context with the tariff they paid.

If one methodology of measuring quality will fail, it will be the customer that will decide. 

If I was to put money on it, I'd suspect that more and more consumer decisions will be based on a real-time ranking on websites such as TripAdvisor rather than a property's annual star rating by a government adjunct. 

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