Universal Access Grading for tourist establishments: Department of Tourism & Tourism Grading Council briefings

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Meeting Summary

The Department of Tourism and the Tourism Grading Council briefed the Committee on the criteria for grading of accommodation establishments. The Tourism Grading Council (TGC) would attend to assessing the venues, and provide a one to five star rating system, to ensure that the industry was internationally credible, comparable and competitive. However, in addition to this it had, since 2010, also been assessing venues in terms of their Universal Accessibility (UA), which looked at special access needs for those with disabilities, children, older people and pregnant women. UA assessed venues were given a separate and additional grading based on mobility, sight and hearing impairment access criteria, to guide consumers into whether a venue was likely to comply with their specific needs. TGC currently had a database of 5 800 venues, of which 801 had had a UA assessment, and TGC was seeking to promote those assessments, and would recruit more assessors to meet the increased demand. In addition, it had entered into an agreement with TripAdvisor, one of the biggest global customer review sites for tourism venues, in order to access its consumer reviews, which totalled over 57 000 for South Africa in the last year, to assess and cross reference its own assessor ratings. It was also looking at changing the criteria for awards so that they were more focused on customer feedback.

The current system was outlined. TGC had switched from a manual to an online assessment system, which attempted to be less subjective. 200 additional questions now related specifically to UA criteria. The UA score was intended to provide a basis for benchmarking and improvement. Some examples of modifications that assessors would be seeking were set out. There were some challenges with the current system, including default answers that would give a positive answer even if all questions were not answered, the need for inclusion of “not applicable” options, the extra time and workload placed on assessors, and the need to amend the service level agreements of independent assessors. Some of the standards were too high and some establishments had complained about the cost of meeting those standards. The next three year period for the UA criteria would run from 1 April 2013, and the Committee was asked to assist in disseminating the online surveys to as many stakeholders as possible. After the review process, the TGC would also introduce a UA Technical Guide for venues.

Members asked questions about the recruitment, qualifications and monitoring of assessors, the compatibility of UA criteria with current building regulations in South Africa, how rural venues were included in the rating assessments, and how information was forwarded to them and the engagement between provincial tourism authorities and TGC. Questions were also asked about the consumer feedback process and how complaints would be dealt with, how customers could ensure that the ratings displayed were current, what would happen if venues failed to maintain standards, and the promotion of grading systems to the industry. They were interested to know whether restaurants were currently included in the grading, whether there was a requirement to display menus and prices outside, and noted that the Tourism Bill would be proposing some changes.

Meeting report

Universal Access Grading for tourist establishments: SATour & Tourism Grading Council compliance
Mr Bekithemba Langalibalele, Director: Responsible Tourism, Department for Tourism,  provided a historical background for the work done by the Department of Tourism (DOT or the Department) on Universal Accessibility. He explained that as tourism in South Africa grew and developed, it was increasingly important to ensure that all tourist establishments and facilities were accessible to all, including the elderly, people with disabilities, children and pregnant women.

In 2002, the Department issued guidelines on responsible tourism, to assist service providers in implementing changes to make their venues more accessible. In 2008 it had launched an awareness campaign targeted at tourism establishments such as hotels and B&Bs, to promote improved accessibility. In 2012, the Department would be issuing a report detailing the achievements and direction of South Africa in widening access. During the current financial year, it would be reviewing the accessibility criteria used within the Universal Accessibility (UA) guides, consulting widely with the tourism and disabled communities, and this should lead to the drawing up of a universal action plan.

Ms Thembi Kunene, Chief Quality Assurance Officer, South African Tourism Grading Council (TGC), presented a progress report on the TGC’s work to grade venues according to UA guidelines.  The aim of the TGC was to ensure that the South African tourism industry was credible and globally recognised. It would do this by implementing a one to five star rating system for tourist accommodation, as well as the UA grading scheme.

She outlined some of the recent changes to the TGC standard rating system. The lowest grade had been renamed, from “fair” to “acceptable”. The number of accommodation categories was increased, to enable more accurate descriptions of services. The assessment criteria were improved, and stated in clearer and more stringent wording, setting a higher standard and leaving less scope for individual assessor flexibility.
The number of service areas that would be graded was increased from 43 to 63. The highest possible score that a venue could obtain was now 1 000, instead of 460. In addition, the TGC  had switched from a manual assessment system, which relied on assessor judgement, to an online system, called Quality in Tourism (QIT), that used specific questions with a yes/ no option that then generated an automatic score.

TGC had also introduced measurement of UA, using 200 additional questions, aimed at meeting internationally comparable standards. Venues would not be penalised by being down-graded, against these UA criteria at the moment, but the UA score was rather intended to provide a basis for benchmarking and improvement. Measurements were made in three areas, each comprising 33% of the overall score for UA. These three were accessibility for mobility, sight and hearing impaired guests.

She emphasised that this UA grading was in addition to the standard assessment, so that although a venue could have a 5-star overall rating, it might only have level 1 UA accreditation. The UA grading was indicated on a separate wall plaque, alongside the star rating.

Some of the examples of modifications that assessors would be seeking were set out. These might include doorbells and telephones with flashing light indicators, adequate distances between furniture for wheelchairs, prams and people with impaired mobility, the rounding of edges and corners of furniture and fixtures, to reduce injury, and the firm fixing of floor coverings and mats. Colour contrasting between cupboards and handles, and between different floor levels were another indicator, as well as accessibility of light controls and telephones from the bed.

TGC had assessed 801 properties, and set out a breakdown of the numbers by province and accommodation category (see attached presentation).

There were still some challenges presented by the UA grading system. The online questionnaire currently defaulted to “yes”, to ensure that assessors did undertake a full assessment, but it seemed that this was in fact in some instances giving false positive gradings when those default responses were not corrected. The questionnaire, whilst specifically designed to limit subjective assessments by allowing only for yes or no answers, also perhaps needed a “not applicable” option, if the nature of the services meant that some standards could not be met – for instance, if modifications were impossible. System faults allowed for confirmation of UA without all questions having been answered.

There were other challenges related to the assessors. There were 200 questions for UA, in addition to the standard assessment questions, which greatly increased the workload of the assessors. Some assessors had failed to fully complete UA assessments, but this was now being addressed through a stringent performance evaluation process, and was included in the assessor service level agreements. Some UA standards had been set too high for venues to meet, and these would be revised.

There were some IT issues, and these would be corrected by the end of September 2012.

Property owners had also voiced their concerns about the costs of meeting the UA standards. The UA grading UA grading criteria were reviewed every three years, with the next period to commence on 1 April 2013. A review process had already started, and a  user-friendly online survey would be launched within the next three weeks. Ms Kunene said that she would forward the link to this survey to the Chairperson, and asked Members to forward it on to as many stakeholder groups as they could. The survey would be sent to all 5 800 venues, both graded and ungraded, that were on the TGC database. The responses would determine the grading criteria to be used for the next three-year period. After the review process, the TGC would also introduce a UA Technical Guide for venues.

Other TG plans include the repetition of UA workshops for venue owners, which were introduced at the Indaba.  This was aimed at reducing concerns about meeting standards and making implementation of standards easier.

Discussion
Ms E Van Lingen (DA, Eastern Cape) advised that she had been working with the Department of Roads in the Eastern Cape to include similar accessibility symbols on the brown tourist destination boards displayed on the highways. She offered to put TGC in touch with this department since in the Eastern Cape venues were only included on the highway notices if they had been graded.

Ms van Lingen said that after three years, only 810 of the 5 800 venues (or 14%) had been graded, but the number indicated the potential for growth.

Ms van Lingen asked if the 200 UA questions were available on the website.

Ms van Lingen cited the extensive usage of braille in 5-star hotel folders in Sydney, Australia.

Ms van Lingen asked whether the number of hotels in the TGC database had decreased in recent years.

Ms van Lingen asked for an explanation of the acronym “MESE” in the presentation.

Ms Kunene noted that it stood for “Meetings, Exhibition Spaces and Special Events”.

Mr B Mnguni (ANC, Free State) asked whether there was any complaint process for consumers to follow if they wanted to question the star rating of a venue, or to report if they had found the service below expectations, and, if so, what was the procedure that followed the complaints.

Ms B Abrahams (DA, Gauteng) asked about the qualifications of assessors, how they were monitored.

Mr K Sinclair (COPE, Northern Cape) asked how assessors were appointed and how they engaged with provincial tourism authorities.

Ms Abrahams asked how potential customers could check when a venue was graded, and how current that grading was.

Ms Abrahams asked whether any consideration had been given to penalising luxury venues who had the financial resources to increase access to facilities, but had failed to do this.

Mr Sinclair said that Free State had very few venues listed, even less than Northern Cape, and asked whether this was correct.

Mr A Nyambi (ANC, Mpumalanga) commented that some venues were unaware of the grading system, and asked how TGC promoted the system.

Mr F Adams (ANC, Western Cape) asked what the TGC could do if a venue did not meet the expectations of the grade it was advertising, pointing out that he was concerned that venues may raise their standards during the assessor’s visits, but fail to maintain them.

The Chairperson asked for clarification on the UA criteria and the building regulations, and asked if the TGC had the capacity to undertake the work that would be needed for the grading. He wondered, as a side issue, whether South Africa’s readiness to host the Paralympic Games would be boosted.

The Chairperson asked how the rural areas would be targeted, pointing out that Eastern Cape had a large number of guesthouses and B&Bs. He asked what it was that attracted tourists to these venues, and what their UA grading was.

The Chairperson wanted to know whether any sanctions would apply if a venue did not comply with UA criteria.

Ms Kunene replied, in respect of the question on building regulations, that these regulations set specific limits, such as having 2 disabled-access rooms per 100. However, the UA was looking to something wider than that, which would provide a higher and more comprehensive standard, and one that would actually emphasis user-friendly systems. The owners of new venues would meet the building regulations requirements, but not necessarily the internationally competitive UA criteria. 

Ms Kunene noted that the TGC had no powers to punish venues that failed to meet UA criteria. However, it took the opposite approach of focusing on persuasion, and attempting to emphasise the benefits of meeting the UA criteria, such as increasing the potential customer base.

Ms Kunene responded to Mr Adam’s concerns by saying that it was not possible to avoid fore-warning venues of the fact that they would be graded, because the assessors had to book grading appointments in advance, to ensure that they were able to get access to rooms, kitchens and other areas. Although it was expected that the establishments would obviously try to be on their best behaviour during the visit, they were generally honest in their approach. TGC also had an  online feedback system where consumers could make comments and complaints. Assessors would raise any complaints received with the owners, during the next annual visit. In addition, TGC had recently entered into an agreement with Tripadvisor, which was one of the biggest global customer review sites for tourism venues.  This would become a core source of noting customer experiences. TGC was also considering a change to the Tourism Awards, so that in future they might be based on user feedback, rather than the current system, where the awards were based on committee site inspections, with an adjudication panel determining the winner.

Ms Kunene advised that TGC did not have sufficient funding for monitoring assessors or implementing a “mystery guest” programme. The relationship with Tripadvisor would, however, provide an innovative, low cost solution to such mystery shopper reviews. Last year TGC received 600 direct consumer comments, whereas Tripadvisor received 57 000 reviews of South African venues.

Ms Kunene requested support from as many stakeholders as possible, including Members of this Committee, to ensure that the UA Review reached rural communities, so that responses were fully reflective of the whole country.

Mr Langalibalele advised that the Department of Tourism had recently set up a group on which there was representation from the South African Disability Association.

Ms Kunene said that it was hoped that both the UA building regulations and the UA plans of the Department and TGC could contribute to South Africa meeting the standards required to host the Paralympic Games. TGC was actively promoting the grading system, via e-mail and telephone, using the SATour register of 18 000 establishments, of which only 5 800 were currently graded.

Ms Kunene responded to Mr Sinclair’s concerns by explaining that the Northern Cape Tourism Authority was working proactively with TGC, and had invited it to give presentations at industry events.  This may account for the higher number of venues that were reflected than in the Free State, as well as a more positive stance to ratings in the Northern Cape province. The statistics showed that Free State has a higher number of larger venues. In general, she commented that TGC had good relations with the provincial tourism authorities.  TGC could not organise provincial promotional events, but welcomed any opportunities to present at locally organised events.  Provincial tourism authorities could also inform TGC of venues to be graded. 

Ms Kunene then moved on to the questions around assessors. In 2007, TGC had 95 assessors, but this had now been reduced to 59, as the others did not meet the new requirements for assessors. At minimum, assessors must have a tertiary grade education in travel and tourism, and some work experience, and they were then provided with further TGC training.  Assessors were self-employed, under a very strict service provision agreement. They needed to be fairly assertive, and to be able to stand up to General Managers at venues, and advise them of their ratings. They were generally responsible for 200 venues each. The TGC was advertising for ten more assessors to increase capacity. All assessments were screened by a provincial Master Assessor, who checked that an assessor was not simply awarding every venue the same grade, and these assessments would also be subject to cross-checking against Tripadvisor. The Master Assessor could  reject assessments and in this case, the  rejections were noted as part of the assessor’s performance appraisal.

Mr Adams asked whether the TGC engaged with the guidelines that were in place for construction undertaken by the Department of Public Works. He suggested that more engagement was required on the development of building regulations, in order to better meet TGC criteria. He added that building regulations had been changed in South Africa, to cater for energy efficiency targets. This Committee would support any push for changes to incorporate UA criteria.

Ms Kunene replied that changes to building regulations could not be taken forward by the TGC, but by the Department of Tourism.

Mr Sinclair asked again that the venue figures for the Free State should  be investigated.

Ms Kunene replied that the number of venues in the Free State represented the paid- up members of the TGC and had been confirmed.

Mr Sinclair (COPE) clarified that his concern with the numbers of venues presented for the Free State was not an IT system error, but that there may be many venues not currently registered.

Mr Sinclair asked whether restaurants were included in the grading, and whether hospitality venues were also required to place menus and pricing outside their venue.

Ms Kunene responded that the TGC was only mandated to grade accommodation, although the Tourism Bill might introduce restaurant grading. Displaying the menu boards outside venues was a standard international practice.

Mr Langalibalele confirmed that the Tourism Bill would contain proposals for the extension of the grading mandate to all tourism establishments across the value chain.

Ms Kunene explained that ratings plaques were only issued once and not changed each year, which meant that if the rating changed they would be out of date. Venues received an annual certificate confirming their rating. Some venues registered in order to gain a plaque, but did not then afterwards renew their membership of the TGC. Consumers must check the certificates and report discrepancies.

Mr Langalibalele concluded that the implementation of the UA principles being undertaken by SAT and TGC had been inspired by the United Nations Code of Ethics.

Mr Adams, in closing and thanking the presenters, confirmed that tourism was a key driver for new jobs growth, and departments needed to work in collaboration to achieve this plan.

Other business
The Chairperson announced that the Committee had been invited to attend an international SMME conference in Johannesburg, on 15 and 16 September, where costs, except for transport, would be covered. The conference extended from 15 to 18 September.

The meeting was adjourned.

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