Forty years ago, an article in the Observer gave birth to the Good Hotel Guide. Hilary Rubinstein, a literary agent who had had a long association with the paper, lamented that advice on where to stay was sparse. To help him launch his new guide, he asked for recommendations from the Observer’s readers. ‘A hotel with character,’ he noted, ‘needs all the encouragement it can get; it thrives on recommendations, it dies from neglect.’ More than 100 readers responded with enthusiasm.
The Observer headlined his piece: ‘And now the Good Hotel Guide.’ Not only the title, but also the way the new guide was to work, was stolen unashamedly from the Good Food Guide, which since its publication shortly after World War 2, had transformed the quality of British restaurants. It did so by soliciting reviews from readers and then cross-checking them against other recommendations. As Raymond Postgate, the GFG’s founder, remarked: ‘‘You can corrupt one man, you can’t bribe an army.’
Hilary’s aims were ambitious. He wanted his new guide to be a trusted source of information on good hotels not just in Britain but also for western Europe, North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean…’where most of us are likely to be taking our holidays’. It was a gigantic task, but the new guide began modestly in its first edition with just over 300 entries. Four of these initial recommendations have stood the test of time and had an entry in every edition of the Guide since then. We call them the ‘Golden oldies’. Ballymaloe House charged all of £6.25 for B&B, Rothay Manor offered a five-course dinner for £6.25, Lastingham Grange £11.50 for dinner, bed and breakfast and Currarevagh House £13 for full board.
Hilary may have bitten off (geographically) more than he could chew, but his skills were considerable. Distinguished literary, political and acting contributors, including Nadime Gordimer, Sir Geoffrey Howe, Claire Bloom, Freddie Raphael (no relation) and Jan Morris, were persuaded to pen reviews for him. A fair writer himself, he was an even better teacher. One day shortly before publication of the Guide’s first edition, he met my wife Caroline—we lived in the same west London street—and asked her whether she wanted a part-time job. So began a long association which ended with us taking over the Guide when Hilary retired in 1996.
Much has changed in the intervening years. The guide began before personal computers were available; the internet was a mystery known to a handful of boffins. The early editions, combining reviews of both British and Continental European hotels, were laboriously typewritten on five carbon copies. Hilary’s brother, Michael, dubbed by Private Eye as ‘the world’s worst lawyer’–an honour coming from that source– read every review as a precaution against libel. All in all, It was a labour of love with little return. Hotels were not charged for an entry. The Guide’s only revenue came from its sales, which were modest. But readers and the media liked it. The Guardian called the Guide ‘squeaky clean’ because of its policy of recommending hotels and B&Bs only on merit.
Would Hilary approve of what the Guide has now become? I hope so, though he might be dubious about some of our more commercially inspired changes. The GHG’s new website (www.goodhotelguide.com), with more than 1,200 British and Continental European entries would possibly have baffled him. As no doubt would the Guide’s growing presence on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. But I believe he would have endorsed these and other initiatives as necessary for the future. Certainly, his philosophy that a good hotel is where the guest comes first remains our ethos and is printed on the first page of every print edition. We also stick to his policy that the Guide is independent, will never take money for an entry or accept hospitality or freebies. And we depend, as we always have done, on reviews generously sent to us by our many thousands of readers. It is still the word of mouth in print for reviews are the lifeblood of the Guide.
So please continue to send us a review about every hotel you visit. An email to email@example.com would be fine or a post card or letter to 50 Addison Avenue, London W11 4QP. We would be delighted to hear from you; you will receive a personal acknowledgement every time you write to us, and you will also qualify as a possible prize winner for Report of the Month in which a free hotel night’s stay with dinner and breakfast is given as a prize. There are also twelve winners of our Report of the Year competition, the prize for which is an invitation to our launch party and a free copy of the Guide.