Visiting India’s Varanasi and staying on the ghat is simultaneously an exquisitely beautiful and deeply confronting experience. It’s the holiest city in India. Pilgrims come from across the subcontinent with the embalmed bodies of their deceased loved ones to deliver them to the burning pyres and see that their ashes become one with the universe, and the River Ganges. I traveled there some years ago, and the place had a profound effect on me, not least because of where I chose to stay—right in the heart of what was happening here.
I found a guesthouse on the ghat, a small former palace with a patina of the ages overlooking the Ganges, and one of the most extraordinary displays of human ritual on Earth. Inside, every angle and corner revealed a vignette worthy of the cover of World of Interiors; the hospitality was beguiling and the rag-tag company found in the dining room was full of scholars, musicians and storytellers trading tales of how they arrived at this spiritual place. In short, the hotel was the essence of Varanasi, part of the full experience. It was also $14 a night—and, according to any industry rating system, worth one star.
Forty five minutes from the ghat and my exquisite guesthouse, through traffic and urban sprawl, was another hotel. Champagne on arrival, staff in corporate uniforms, plush rooms with beds of Italian linen, an international restaurant and CNN playing on big screen TVs. A “luxury” hotel at $450 per night that checked every box of amenities but was so removed from the experience of Varanasi, it could have been anywhere. Five stars.
I never paid much attention to the star rating system until I began to work in the industry rather than the media world that covered it. As a travel journalist, I would write about a hotel experience that distilled the essence of a certain place, whether that was a family-run riad in Morocco, a homely country house in Ireland, a beach motel in Australia or a Grand Dame luxury hotel in London with, yes, five stars. I judged criteria that had nothing to do with amenities and everything to do with identities. I don’t pretend to be in any way revolutionary in traveling this way; so many travelers have always and will continue to seek out the same. Yet somewhere along the way, stars and ratings systems have come to define quality; and when qualifying a place as ‘luxury’ or not, the approval might come down ridiculously to the existence, say, of an in room electronic safe.
So when we founded PRIOR, we were intent on ignoring that universe, despite most travelers and hoteliers putting so much weight on these stars—a system I think of as (and sometimes call) a “hospitality and cultural straightjacket.” One that is, in my opinion, arbitrary and entirely outdated.
It didn’t begin like that. The hotel rating system was one that was more of a practical guide to amenities for travelers. Does it have a laundry service? Yes. A gym? No. The kind of checklist that perfectly suits the business traveler but one that is often in opposition to the most, dare I say, authentic experience. What few realize however, is that they are overseen not by an objective global system but by a mishmash of local government agencies, random national associations and, bizarrely, automobile clubs and petrol conglomerates. In the last fifty or so years, there have been efforts to standardize certain regions; but country-to-country the standards still differ so widely that what you might expect in one place may be entirely different in another. I can’t remember when I first heard the term “six star hotel,” but I know it was either part of a rapidly deleted press release, a click-bait story or out of the mouth of an overzealous mayor touting the jewel in the city’s behemoth casino complex. It still makes me laugh, akin to taking an exam and getting an 11 out of 10. Nowadays, a handful of hotel properties have marketed themselves as seven star hotels, which only further underscores why the ridiculous system has become more about marketing and even more useless for travelers.
But this isn’t intended to be a polemic on the star system alone. I’d also like to help light a new way forward. Following the havoc that 2020 has wreaked on global hospitality, we have the opportunity to reimagine how we think about where we stay and why. Instead of lionizing “world-class” standards (read: globalization), now is the time to embrace and celebrate the nuance and uniqueness of a place at every level of accommodation.
Take a trope as simple as the ubiquitous hotel room fruit bowl: why a banana, kiwi and dragon fruit in Rome in June? Why not a spillover of apricots and cherries from the market on the nearby piazza at the peak of their ripeness? Instead of catering to all tastes at all times with amenities, hotels should create a richer experience for the traveler without the comforts of home. After all, that is entirely the point of memorable, impactful and unforgettable travel is made of moments that go out of that zone.
There are indeed hundreds of hotels around the world that do exactly that and have chosen to always exist in another system all their own. It is these properties, from palace to pensione, that PRIOR continues to work with and will spotlight with much more frequency and depth in our ongoing Checking-In, Checking-Out feature.
This moment in time has given us the chance to articulate what we are looking for in the future of the hotel experience: a property’s faithfulness to an architectural vernacular, embracing a certain zeitgeist or its place in history; a sense of stewardship to the community and the environment; and a style of hospitality that reflects local tradition. These attributes, not a checklist of amenities, sends a hotel to the moon. And those that truly make us see stars are ones that thoughtfully, lovingly hold a mirror up to that place and culture.
Co-Founder and CEO David Prior was formerly Contributing International Editor of Condé Nast Traveler and Contributing Editor at Vogue Living. David was named by Bloomberg Businessweek as “One to Watch” in 2018 as part of the publication’s prestigious Global 50: the people who defined business in 2017.