Do travel awards mean anything?

It may be a good hotel - but how many awards has it won?

It may be a good hotel – but how many awards has it won?

And what about the airline – has it won many awards? Come to think of it, doesn’t the travel agent seem a tad lean in the awards department?

When we’re planning a holiday, is it really all that important to confirm that other people or organisations think our choice of lodging – or way of getting there – is great?

An informal straw poll among colleagues and friends reveals they think awards are over-rated and don’t significantly influence holiday choices.

But many in the travel industry – including those who bestow awards and those eligible to receive them – take an opposite view.

They argue awards are a wonderful way to identify providers of top-notch services.

Awards certainly generate publicity. Almost every day I receive emailed press releases on the topic. Many of these trigger stories in newspapers or on radio and television.

Typically, an announcement from the awarding organisation lands first, listing winners. Then it’s the turn of the victors themselves.

Gushing statements arrive, quoting company presidents or general managers, declaring they’re thrilled to receive such-and-such an award which reinforces their position of leadership in their industry.

Sometimes they remember to thank their superb teams.

But it’s not just the travel industry that seems obsessed with awards. Wine and beer labels commonly announce that a bottle’s contents has won a medal for excellence at some or other event.

As I pull a wrapper off a purchase of Turkish bread, I idly read printing on the cellophane to discover I am about to spread marmalade onto a product that has garnered several major prizes in its field.

I contemplate attending the Asia Luxury Travel Market in Shanghai. I pore over a file of literature I’ve collected about this travel show and spot an announcement that the event “has been honoured with the prestigious Five Star Diamond Award by the American Academy of Hospitality Sciences”. I manage to control my excitement.

The Airports Council International has awarded South Korea’s Incheon a “best airport worldwide” gong several times. Other award-givers decree airports in Singapore and Hong Kong are the world’s best. Still others decide the honour more fittingly belongs elsewhere.

Awards are doled out by national and regional tourism bodies, by various industry or other organisations, by magazines and newspapers, by travel websites large and small.

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Some are the result of popular votes, others are judged by panels of experts. Voting sounds the most democratic – but I’ve heard of awards resulting from fewer than 20 votes in readers’ polls. What’s more, an editor of an award-giving international publication confides that national pride plays a big part.

“Americans tend to vote for United States airlines or resorts while Aussies back Qantas and Singaporeans opt for Singapore Airlines,” he reveals. “It’s a kind of patriotism – even though the people involved deny it.”

Those giving awards swear it’s all worthwhile and not just a way to massage the egos of key players in the industry.

For instance, Australian Hotels Association spokeswoman Leone Cruden says awards “definitely showcase importance” and “are a way to find out who’s the best and most deserving of your business”.

She maintains awards are greatly valued because recipients know the public takes them seriously.

The AHA’s own awards are not based on simple voting by customers. A much more rigorous judging system is used.

Self-nominated winners of state-based awards go forward to compete in national awards. At both levels, different panels of invited judges – experts in their fields – determine winners of particular categories.

State and national tourism organisations operate similarly. Michael McCulkin, whose Broken Hill-based Tri State Safaris has won several state and national awards, says entering is time-consuming and hard work “but well worth it.

“They’re important,” he insists. “Potential customers take the best awards very seriously. We’ve definitely noticed that.”

But, he concedes, “it takes several hours to complete all the forms. You have to supply an awful lot of information in many categories. Why would we bother if we didn’t think it worthwhile?”

Awards with panels of judges, McCulkin adds, have more credibility than those based on simple voting “where an operator’s fans can skew things”.

Which awards should be taken seriously? Industry sources say those run by national and state-level tourism authorities, or large organisations such as the AHA, are the most reliable indicators of quality. Those based on reader polls or hosted by small publications and websites have less credibility.

An online exception: polls run by Skytrax, a London-based aviation research company. Its large sample of voters is widely viewed as a plus. Skytrax awards – covering airlines, airports and airport hotels – are highly prized in the travel industry.

With awards, it seems, importance depends very much on who’s handing them out.

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