If you had to give yourself a rating — five stars being the best, one the worst — would you be a five-star work of art or a two-star work in progress?

Unfortunately, in the ratings game, the number of stars you give yourself doesn't matter much. What matters is the impression you make on others — specifically informed but unbiased evaluators. In other words, what your mother thinks of you doesn't count.

This system may seem unfair since it doesn't give you an opportunity to put your best foot forward or receive an E for effort, nor does it suspend judgment for bad-hair days. It is, however, the kind of unflinching appraisal that makes some star ratings so valuable to consumers and, therefore, priceless to property owners and managers.

It has only been in the past two years that the Mobil Travel Guide, the most recognizable rating system in the hospitality business, extended its star power to the spa business. The evaluators are anonymous, arriving at a spa unannounced in an effort to have the same experience as any other paying guests.

When Mobil first began rating spas separately from hotels, the major resort spa managers were hesitant to give the stars too much weight. Most already had strict internal guidelines for what facilities and services their spas needed to achieve. Of course, they all wanted to “make the grade,” but at the same time, the spa business is not a formula and to set any replicable criteria is a challenge. Is it the facility that's being rated or is it the service? What does a spa need to get a higher rating? Even the industry's most sophisticated spa consultants do not agree on precise criteria for three-, four- or five-star spas.

Mobil didn't make the situation any easier by failing to release the specific set of criteria used to rate spas, although their hotel-rating criteria is widely available. What's more, after receiving a Mobil star rating of three to five stars, the spas were unable to learn where they missed getting high marks. Mobil Travel Guide does not provide after-the-fact critiques to rated spas, although for $5,000 any spa can hire a Mobil Travel Guide consultant to evaluate their property.

Despite these legitimate concerns, I believe the awarding of Mobil Travel Guide stars to spa properties is a five-star occasion. In the past, spas were most often add-on amenities to a property. Now they stand alone and are judged accordingly. To merit our own constellation of stars is a positive indicator that we've matured into a robust, competitive industry.

However, we don't want to be star struck, so enamored with finding our place among the elite that we become easy prey to organizations willing to (indeed, making their living by) awarding stars — or statuettes, or a slot on a top-ten listing, or a ranking in a book or magazine — for a price.

Don't misunderstand. There's nothing wrong with buying your place in a magazine that claims to list only the best. Placement in such a publication may help you achieve greater exposure to potential customers — no small matter when so many spas are competing for clients. However, it's important to keep in mind that the listing may be nothing more than an advertisement. Consumers know the difference, which is precisely why the independent evaluations provided by such rating guides as Mobil's carry so much weight.

Of course, not every spa merits the attention of the Mobil Travel Guide, which is aimed at travelers and, therefore, focuses on hotel and resort spas. There is, however, a new rating organization, SpaQuality, that aims to provide evaluations of spas that fall below the Mobil radar. Julie Register, a principal in the new company, says spas pay her firm to evaluate their facilities and services according to a set of criteria. In return, her clients receive an in-depth critique they can use to improve their standards. SpaQuality doesn't specify how the improvements should be made; they simply describe what needs to change to match criteria. Spas that then rise to the standards set by SpaQuality receive an award and marketing kit.

Again, this service may add value by helping you to improve standards at your spa, always a good thing, but like paying to be placed on a “best of” list, the clout of winning an award you paid for is never going to carry the weight of a completely independent evaluation.

Nonetheless, while it's important to know the difference between stars that are awarded and those that are for sale, I believe all efforts to help establish and enhance standards in this industry should be applauded.

In fact, what we really need is more ratings.

I'd like to see spa consumers develop their own grassroots rating system that would grow up to provide the kind of comprehensive, global databank of information provided by the 250,000 contributors to Zagat Restaurant and Hotel Guide ratings. That's how we'd find out the actual, in-the-spa experience of people who are not being paid to have the experience of guests, but in fact are digging into their wallets to purchase our services for themselves. That's where we'll get the kind of information we can really take to the bank, something that's tough to do with stars, statuettes or numbers on a list.


Polly Johnson is vice president for SpaEquip Corporate Accounts Division. SpaEquip offers technical spa consultations during the design phase and are a FF&E and OS&E procurement company for many of the world's finest destination and resort spas.