When hotels wish upon a star ...

04 March 2012 - 02:15 By Megan Power

Lodge's 'belief' in its own worth not quite the same as a star-grading

Megan Power
Megan Power
Image: Sunday Times

I Have never had reason to doubt the star rating of accommodation in South Africa and, like most consumers, have always taken the star grading advertised by hotels and lodges at face value.

But this can be a costly and stressful mistake, as reader Claire Marketos discovered.

The Johannesburg educational consultant has spent the past six months trying to hold someone accountable for the awful experience she had at the so-called four-star Mabula Game Lodge in Limpopo last July.

"The advertising stated four-star accommodation and food," said Marketos. "It wasn't four-star ... I want a refund," she said.

Feeling fobbed off by Mabula as well as her booking agent, last-minute accommodation website mtbeds.co.za, Marketos lodged a complaint with the National Consumer Commission last year.

Growing impatient, she e-mailed me for help. Her story shows just how easily travellers can be duped by misleading and ambiguous advertising and marketing spin.

So when is a four-star lodge not a four-star lodge? When it's never been star graded.

Which is the case with Mabula, it turns out.

The basis of Marketos's complaint was that she'd forked out thousands for her family's stay because she expected four-star accommodation, cuisine and service.

Instead, her family of four got old mattresses, ill-fitting bed linen, a damaged toilet seat, faulty air-conditioning, a blocked shower, cold food and uninterested, no-can-do staff.

"When we arrived, there was no assistance provided for our luggage, no key for our patio door nor chairs to put on the patio," said Marketos. It went downhill from there.

The lodge didn't serve milkshakes in the dining room, food needed reheating more than once and the toaster didn't work.

"We paid R10152 for three nights and did not receive accommodation and food to that value. It is the same as buying an expensive TV, opening the box and getting a cheap TV," Marketos said.

"A discounted rate [through mtbeds.co.za] does not mean that discount accommodation and food can be delivered.

"If it hadn't been my son's first safari, I'd have packed my bags the first day and left."

Mabula spokesperson Michelle Whittemore said Marketos's complaints and requests had been addressed during her stay and the lodge was satisfied that staff had done their best.

Mabula is owned by Kingfisher Resorts, a subsidiary of India's United Breweries Group.

Whittemore said a "special arrangement" had been made to provide patio furniture; a patio door key was supplied; the mattress replaced; aircon repaired; and shower unblocked. The lodge also supplied compli mentary wine, cool drinks and snacks.

"We would also like to reiterate the many lengths and measures taken to address the client's numerous requests during her stay. As this matter is now subject to the processes initiated by the consumer commission, Mabula needs to respect those processes," she said. Mabula had no record of Marketos's feedback form, Whittemore said.

I asked the Tourism Grading Council of South Africa (TGCSA) to check Mabula's credentials. It turns out it's not star graded and never has been.

Why, then, do almost all online references to Mabula, except its own website, show four stars?

Said Whittemore: "Mabula Game Lodge positions itself within a four-star market. At no time has it claimed, or indicated to be, TGCSA-rated."

Confused? Well, according to Mabula, there's a difference between a star "rating" and a star "grading."

"A four-star grading would be the official grading from the tourism council, while a four-star rating is rate specific. Based upon the lodge's facilities and in comparison to competitors' offerings and rate structures, we believe Mabula Game Lodge is of a four-star standard."

So the four-star status linked to Mabula is actually self-awarded. And how would consumers know this? They wouldn't, which is why only TGCSA-graded establishments are entitled to use any star grading/rating in relation to accommodation.

Comair-owned mtbeds.co.za, meanwhile, has another explanation for the star slip-up.

It said that, when Mabula was controlled by the Three Cities Group, fact sheets had shown four stars. When Kingfisher Resorts took over, the website updated its information from Mabula's online fact sheet which showed the lodge as five-star. But mtbeds.co.za kept it four-star.

Said its travel operations manager, Samantha Mitchell: "I assumed a star rating mentioned on a property website was an official star rating."

The company has removed the stars from its Mabula web page and will now audit all game lodges listed on its site.

Mitchell denies personally receiving Marketos's e-mail complaint and said her staff never heard back from Marketos after requesting complaint details from her, a claim Marketos rejects.

The company has since offered Marketos a R1000 refund and 10% discount on two future mtbeds.co.za bookings.

Marketos has rejected the offer and is holding out for the commission's ruling.

  • Visit www.tourismgrading.co.za or call 0118953000 for official star-graded accommodation.

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