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The History Behind the Hotel Star System

Stars fall upon us, or at least on the places you might like to lay your head when traveling.

Whether you’re planning a business trip for a group of clients you’re trying to impress, or hoping to experience the vacation of a lifetime, mapping out the details of a trip can be tricky business. Once you’ve settled on the destination, it’s time to start selecting hotels and scrutinizing ratings. With so much to consider, selecting the perfect place can be difficult.

You might start by asking for recommendations from business associates, coworkers, friends, or even family members. Chances are, you’ll get mixed opinions. After all, different people—and different types of travelers—have varied criteria for what constitutes a “good” hotel and what makes a hotel unacceptable.

The History Behind the Hotel Star System

Your next logical research step might be to turn to the internet. Travel sites including KAYAK, Travelocity, Expedia, Orbitz, and TripAdvisor all offer rating systems. But do you know precisely what their ratings mean or where those stars (if they use them) came from? A little history on the hotel star system might come in handy.

In 1958, Mobil, the international oil and gas corporation, began funding a project that paid anonymous assessors to review restaurants, hotels, and spas. Thus, the five-star rating system and the Mobil Travel Guide were born. The guide devised the five-star system to help travelers determine where to eat and stay while traveling in the United States, thereby removing the guesswork out of U.S.-based travel.

Marion and Alden Stevens, authors of The Stevens America, a Traveler's Guide to the United States, published in 1950, contacted publishers Simon & Schuster about doing another travel book. Max L. Schuster, a fan of France’s Guide Michelin, offered the Stevenses an opportunity to create a Michelin-style guide for the United States. After much negotiation, Magnolia Oil (later incorporated into Mobil, which became ExxonMobil) agreed to finance the project. Since Magnolia’s territory covered Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico, the first pocket‐sized 1958‐59 Mobil Travel Guide covered that region.

Once the Stevenses signed on to produce the Mobil Travel Guide, they hired and trained nine people, paying them $1.75 per inspection. As the operation grew, field inspectors—generally teachers and graduate students who worked during their summer break—got a three‐day crash course and were sent on their merry way.1

In 2009, the original Mobil Travel Guide was relaunched as the Forbes Travel Guide. The guide stopped being published in print form in 2011 and the Forbes Travel Guide is now entirely online. Unlike user-generated review sites with inconsistent standards, the Forbes incognito inspectors visit nearly 1,000 hotels, restaurants, and spas around the world, using up to 900 standards to determine the ratings. The ratings are: 2

  • Five-Star: These are outstanding, often iconic properties with virtually flawless service and amazing facilities.
  • Four-Star: These are exceptional properties, offering high levels of service and quality of facility to match.
  • Recommended: These are excellent properties with consistently good service and facilities.

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