On the heels of Forbes Travel Guide’s foray into the Maltese Islands, I thought I would share some personal viewpoints as well as thoughts from local hoteliers.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Malta has been trying to make a concerted effort towards quality, never mind just luxury. It’s not that quality cannot be found in Malta. My other work with Exclusively Malta is a testament to that; we’ve been offering quality and luxury services to visitors for years now. The focus on quality is meant to be a wake-up call for an island nation that really can’t sustain going in the same direction for years on end. What’s the right direction? Well, it’s one that celebrates and respects history and culture; it's the type of travel experiences that keeps Malta unique. So it was inevitable that our tourism leaders would encourage sustainable and quality tourism. It has even become a sort of manifesto vis-à-vis the Recover, Rethink and Revitalize strategy championed by the Ministry of Tourism.
The concept of luxury tourism isn’t all that well understood in Malta. The word ‘luxury’ is often used to try to describe a product or service, and it’s thrown around like hot cakes. For Touchpoint Precision, luxury’s true definition lies in the personal relationship one has with a product or experience—making it highly subjective (and that’s a great thing). Our work is devoted to the hotel guest experience and how a hotel’s brand narrative is or is not engaging guests along the customer journey.
Malta has recently welcomed two major brands that are associated with luxury. We’re now on the Michelin map with five 1-Star Michelin restaurants, five Bib Gourmand restaurants and another batch of Plate or recommended restaurants. This has offered Malta a big push on quality; however, I would caution that although these restaurants are uniquely spectacular, those that follow a Maltese storyline from ingredient to local flair are far more sustainable. Alas, one needs to feel they are dining in Malta; the best of them need to have a sense of place. In addition, kudos goes out to the Malta Tourism Authority and the Malta Hotel and Restaurant Association for their partnership with Forbes Travel Guide. Much has been realized through this relationship, including the Winning training program that is geared to the hospitality industry as a means for upping their game. It’s a great program: I’m subscribed.
The relationship with Forbes Travel Guide has opened another opportunity through their star rating program. Star ratings are very controversial. You can check one locally accredited country list, compare it with another, and find that there are noticeable or even sizable differences. Why? It’s because there is no standardization worldwide for what is 5-, 4-, 3-star etc. Forbes has taken the bull by the horn by implementing an international standard for verifying luxury. Ask Mr. Chris Fradin, Senior VP of Partner Services of EMEA and Asia Pacific for Forbes Travel Guide, and he will proudly state that it’s not a pay-to-play system. Forbes Travel Guide hand picks hotels they want to inspect ‘incognito,’ and reports on those inspections to general managers, and with some of them translating to a star or recommended rating. Having had the opportunity to speak with Chris earlier this year, he emphasized that Malta would be treated like any other destination in the world. Their 900-plus criteria which is heavily weighted on service (75%), would be the same criteria deployed in Malta that is used worldwide. ‘Brilliant,’ I thought. I would be left waiting until April 26th to find out who was rated among the locally accredited 5-star hotels. No hints were offered.
My thoughts on star ratings in the Maltese Islands are quite mixed. On the one hand I can appreciate a local system; however, in considering US clients, for example, they may have a different view of what a 5-star hotel should be. Alas, under Exclusively Malta, we rarely communicate a star rating of a hotel, rather we share how one caters to the specific needs of a client. Otherwise we potentially become the victim of false pretenses. The same can be similarly said about my work at Touchpoint Precision.
I’ve asked the hospitality director of AX Group https://axgroup.mt/, Ms. Claire Zammit Xuereb for her opinion on the local rating system in relation to Forbes’ system and she offered this:
Both star rating systems are important, and we do not in any way see them as conflicting. The Malta star system is the official system which is based on a number of criteria set by the country’s tourism authorities, and which allows the industry to operate within a holistic framework . On the other hand, the Forbes Travel Rating is based on a different set of parameters, with special focus on the intangible and experiential aspects which are, of course, of primary importance within the sphere of luxury travel.
So April 26th, 2022 comes around and I can’t say that there were no surprises in the list—which, by the way, can be found here: https://www.forbestravelguide.com/destinations/malta-malta?show=hotels. One of the non-surprises was Iniala Harbour House https://inialamalta.com/.
Several years ago, businessman Mark Weingard came to Malta with a vision to establish Malta’s most spectacular hotel, among other interests. I remember being on the ground from day one with former general manager Danny Drinkwater and all the years leading up to its opening in late 2020. I was often walking through a building site trying to impress upon US luxury travel advisors that this hotel must be on their radar. I knew Inala would at least earn 4 stars, so I am very happy to see that they hit most of the high notes for Forbes. In speaking with general manager, Pascal Le Roux, just this past week, he offered his sentiments on the rating.
The Forbes Travel Rating gives us further global recognition and accreditation within an exclusive group of outstanding, often iconic properties with virtually flawless service and amazing facilities.
The great advantage that Iniala also has is the spectacular view of the Grand Harbour of Valletta and its 1-Star Michelin Restaurant, ION the Harbour. That being said, there are also other hotels housing a Michelin Star restaurant. They include Bahia at the Corinthia Palace Malta, De Mondion at the Xara Palace and Undergrain at Rosselli Boutique Hotel https://rossellimalta.com/. The Corinthia Palace Malta was the only 4-Star property rated by Forbes and Rosselli as Recommended. Commenting on Rosselli’s Forbes accreditation, Claire Zammit Xuereb, the visionary behind Rosselli, offered the following.
We are delighted to have been recognized as ‘Recommended’ , which in essence means an excellent property offering a consistent level of good service and facilities. This is another successful achievement which is reflective of our assurance in offering high levels of hospitality. We look forward to seeing Rosselli grow further within the Forbes Luxury Rating System.
I also reached out to Mark Vella, General Manager of the new Hyatt Regency https://tinyurl.com/ffpvumrx in St. Julians for his take on the list. Although not having earned a 5 or 4 Stars from Forbes, he was pretty ecstatic to be “Recommended.” He acknowledged that the list was quite surprising:
I’m so proud to be honest. I’m running around thanking everyone at the hotel.
Now we aim higher!
Asked about how hotels in Malta can up their game, Pascal Le Roux of Iniala Harbour House reports:
Hotels in Malta could perhaps focus more on providing personalized bespoke service and singular experiences which we know are what attracts luxury clients to a particular hotel or destination. The more luxury hotels, services and experiences we have to offer the more we can attract a wider luxury customer base.
Coming full circle and back to the topic of Malta as a quality or luxury destination, Claire Zammit Xuereb continues:
Malta needs to work hard to establish itself as a luxury destination on several levels, such as infrastructure, the product itself, marketing as well as affiliations. By creating affiliations with several entities which are synonymous with quality and luxury (such as the Forbes Travel Guide or the Michelin Guide) we will continue to get the required exposure and positioning within the sphere of luxury travel and quality tourism. Furthermore, we need to identify and focus on the destination’s uniqueness and authenticity which would allow us to offer experiential experiences, something highly sought after within the luxury segment. As hoteliers, we need to ensure the right investment is done to deliver excellence in both the intangible and tangible aspects—ensuring a quality experience during the client’s stay.
Surely most hotels in Malta will be eager to up their game. But what will it take? Most of them have now had at least a brush with Forbes Travel Guide. That’s enough to want to perk up. Their standards offer a roadmap for hotels to get to the next level if it is within their capabilities. My company, Touchpoint Precision https://www.touchpointprecision.com/ employs a different approach. We look at the heart and soul of a hotel to see if the brand narrative is reaching the guest. In this way, we take on what is most important to the hotel and ensure that all relevant touchpoints from the pre to post stay are in alignment with that narrative. The ultimate outcome of our process is increased guest satisfaction demonstrated by their loyalty, decreased price sensitivity, and increased profits for the hotel.
It’s an all-around exciting time in hospitality for the Maltese Islands and we are looking forward to being part of that success.