Is self-certification of your property enough? Deborah Heather, Quality in Tourism

UK: As businesses start to reopen and guests start to return, director of Quality in Tourism, Deborah Heather, addresses whether self-certification of one’s property is enough.

It’s fair to say that things have been pretty tough in hospitality in recent months and there’s a definite appetite to return to some sort of normality. In response, a number of accreditation schemes are being promoted, supporting businesses to make the necessary adaptations, and ‘reassuring’ guests about the safety of returning to the property. The problem is many of these schemes, while well-meaning, are in fact open to interpretation, and available to all and sundry so are they actually worth the paper they are written on?

Early in this pandemic, I warned that we might be entering the era of ‘clean-washing’ where brands use PR puffery to make claims about their cleanliness and safety that they simply cannot substantiate. At the time, Booking.com said they were introducing greater transparency around cleanliness, established from aggregated guest feedback, while Airbnb was introducing its own ‘certification’ for owners, enabling them to either commit to a set of standards, or introduce a ‘booking buffer’ so that the property is empty for a specified period between rentals.

These initiatives had two major problems: they were based on the feedback of people who aren’t cleaning experts i.e. guests; and they were self-certified, meaning there is little or no incentive for the operator to be truthful if it prevents them getting bookings. Now I will hasten to add, I am definitely not suggesting that operators are skimping on their client safety and making promises that they have no intention of delivering, but what I am saying is that this is a system easily exploited by unscrupulous operators, giving the rest of the industry and the scheme a bad name, and frankly that we cannot rely on guests to understand ‘cleanliness’ when their very definition is visible dirt, not invisible germs.

Since those questionable announcements, more initiatives have been released, including schemes from The AA and Visit Britain. While in principle we welcome centralised guidelines for operators, particularly from VisitBritain, we can’t help but wonder if self-certification is enough? It’s not about ‘gaps’ in the guidelines per se, but that they ask operators to interpret and implement core guidelines into their business, when every single business, operation and floor plan is different, and to implement them with negligible expert support and guidance. It is for exactly this reason that our Safe, Clean & Legal™ scheme, which we launched three years ago, has always had and continues to include, an independent inspection by an assessor. Our scheme members get full access to our expert advisors who can not only support with implementation, but can share best practice too.

So, does self-certification really matter?

I believe so, yes. Self-certification places responsibility on the operator and it is entirely based on trust, which also makes the operators the most vulnerable should something go wrong. Call me a cynic, but the good operators will try to be good anyway and the bad ones will just say that they are. How does self-certification support the safety of the guest, or the security of the operator? I also don’t think it will be long before certain insurance companies start voiding future claims on the grounds of ‘misinterpretation’ of the guidelines, but perhaps I’m overreaching in my pessimism here.

I think that there will also be a fallout with guests in the not too distant future. Self-certification is not necessarily transparent and can confuse customers. It is usually assumed that a logo or accreditation has substance, and therefore many will inherently assume properties are being visited and checked; that someone somewhere is enforcing the application of robust standards. How will they react when the inevitable happens and they find out that properties are literally marking their own homework? The buzz word of the moment is trust and it’s vital for our industry and its future, but we are potentially set on a path that unravels the advances that have been made in terms of reputation.

The government guidelines have only been available for a matter of weeks, but already we are seeing the realities of what a free scheme means. In principle, free is exactly what is needed to reboot the hospitality economy, but it also loses the sense of value and makes it open to all.

We’ve already read about examples of fraudsters using the ‘good to go’ logo to set up ‘businesses’ and accept bookings for properties that don’t exist; I’ve visited three properties local to me, two of which have self-certified and haven’t consistently applied the necessary changes across the whole property; and I’ve spoken to smaller operators than I care to think about who aren’t reopening this year at all because they fear they will get the guidelines wrong. Yes, there will always be exceptions to any rule, but getting this wrong now really could be a matter of life and death and it’s so easy for human error to creep in.

It’s exactly the reason that I believe this process needs to be inspected, and why I think post-pandemic safety goes far beyond a checklist, to create appropriate long-term adaptation of the property.

At Quality in Tourism, we started this journey over three years ago when we established our Safe, Clean & Legal TM scheme to independently assess businesses. Our goal was to ensure that operators meet minimum standards for guest safety and cleanliness and to provide some credibility in a somewhat unregulated marketplace. We foresaw a future where guests would demand more from the operators than they did then – although I will admit we didn’t predict a pandemic of this severity – and we wanted to support businesses to know that they are doing everything they can and should be to support their guests. These include, but are not limited to, cleanliness and hygiene practices, building and commercial regulations and fairness and transparency of practice, among others.

This is not a new thing, but something which we have been working on for years, which has a Primary Authority Partnership with Cornwall Council and is ratified by the Secretary of State. The scheme is already being sought by operators and agencies, including partnerships with Visit Cornwall, Silverdoor, Unique Home Stays and the STAA, and is in consideration in the English and Scottish Parliament for mandatory roll-out across the sector at the moment.

In light of the Covid-19 pandemic specifically, we have added additional specific guidance notes, and templates for risk assessment around protecting the customer and protecting the staff, to help ensure they consistently meet quality standards in these times.

It is my wish to see the industry move away from self-certification practices in the sector, to one of mandatory, fit-for-purpose accountability, that levels the playing field between operators and supersedes all the varied and outdated legislative burdens which don’t impact on businesses equally. Then, we will be left with an industry that is free to innovate and adapt, and is already equipped to handle future incidents like these, but in doing so, is not seeing the erosion of quality in the same way that we see it today.

Quality in Tourism assess thousands of accommodation providers globally each year. To find out more about its assessments, gradings and the future of registration, visit the website here.