michelin guide

Photo: Michelin Guide

The Michelin Guide has been synonymous with rating restaurants with its renowned stars system for the past 123 years. In early 2024, the guide by the French tyre company will expand beyond the gastronomy sphere; it will also review hotels and accommodation options, from ryokans to surf houses, and recognise them with the Key distinction. Hotels in Japan will be among the first in the world to receive the accolade when the inaugural list is revealed.

Speaking to The Peak in Tokyo, Gwendal Poullennec, International Director of the Michelin Guides, says that rating hotels is a natural extension, with dining out and travel experiences being closely intertwined.

He says: “Part of the Michelin Guide’s responsibility is helping people make the best choices in lifestyle experiences, and the Key selection is about giving independent advice on where to stay for high-end and discerning travellers.”

michelin guide
Photo: Michelin Guide

Reviewing hotels has long been part of the Michelin Guide’s DNA, Poullennec reminds us, with hotel selections published in European and some Asian editions of the guide for decades. However, it has now integrated hotel recommendations with a reservation system, complete with user-generated reviews and a 24/7 concierge that is staffed by humans who can provide travel advice and on-the-ground assistance. 

This move comes after the guide acquired New York-headquartered online travel agency Tablet in late 2018. Over the past four years, the guide has built up its hotel selection, comprising about 5,300 listings in 120 countries, spanning the Maldives to Sweden. The hotel selection, which has been put together by its famously anonymous inspectors, also serves as the shortlist for the upcoming Key awardees.

Over 20 boutique and luxury hotels in Singapore are listed on the guide’s hotel platform, including The Serangoon House, Maxwell Reserve and Raffles Hotel.

While Michelin declines to share if the Keys would be tiered similar to the stars system for restaurants, awarding the distinction will be based on five criteria for now. Each hotel must contribute to the local experience, showcase excellent interior design and architecture, provide consistent, quality service, offer good value in terms of price and experience, and display a unique identity. Special attention will also be given to hotels that offer high-quality dining experiences. 

An independent perspective 

What makes the Michelin Guide’s Key selection stand out in a travel landscape saturated with reservation platforms and accolades? “Our independence,” states the Frenchman, who has worked at Michelin for two decades, emphatically, “There isn’t a truly independent and authentic hotel curation available, with most of them being hotel networks, user-generated content platforms, and e-commerce sites.”

Michelin Guide
Photo: Michelin Guide

He asserts that Michelin Guide’s inspectors are “truly independent and have no relationship with any kind of business”. He says: “Our business model allows us to be independent, as Michelin gets a small commission fee for hotel bookings on our platform. We have the flexibility of adding and removing places in the Key selection, regardless of brands and association with tourism classification.” 

Striving to be customer-centric, the selection, he says, “isn’t like an e-commerce platform, where the higher the commission rate is, the more chances you have to be at the top of the booking search.” He reveals that the hotel list is regularly updated — about 500 hotels were removed, and the same number was added to the selection last year. The platform also lists the hotel’s sustainability measures and certifications.       

We have the flexibility of adding and removing places in the Key selection, regardless of brands and association with tourism classification.

Gwendal Poullennec, International Director of the Michelin Guides

Although the hotel selection is integrated with the Guide’s global listing of around 16,000 restaurants, Poullennec shares that the evaluation of restaurants and hotels remains independent. He says: “It takes specialised skills to recognise the quality of food in restaurants, and evaluating hotels also requires a specific approach.” 

Inspectors from the hospitality industry

michelin guide
Photo: Michelin Guide

So, who are the all-important inspectors, who are full-time employees of 25 nationalities deployed to over 45 countries? Given that the guide has been publishing hotel selections, Poullennec lets in that some inspectors used to work in the management and service sectors of the hospitality industry. Besides its pool of inspectors, it also taps on “hotel curators” from Tablet.

He says: “We are expanding our footprint and will continue to invest in recruiting more people and upskilling our people.” He also reveals that the decision to award a Key is not made individually; establishments will be inspected at least twice by different inspectors, who have to discuss their findings.

Japan was chosen as the first country in Asia to receive Key-rated hotels as “it is where the guide truly took off as a global reference and paved the way for Japanese chefs worldwide,” Poullennec says. This is coupled with the fact that about 400 out of 3,500 starred restaurants in the world are in Japan. Singapore and Thailand, which are two important tourist hubs in Asia, will not be left behind. He says: “Both destinations have a lot to offer, and with a consistent selection of hotels, I am sure that they will both follow quickly after the launch.”

A sojourn at Tokyo and Kyoto’s top hotels

We stayed at three Japanese hotels that are listed in the Michelin Guide’s hotel selection.

The Capitol Hotel Tokyu

Michelin Guide
Photo: Kenneth SZ Goh

This time-honoured hotel in Tokyo’s bustling Akasaka district brims with a classic Japanese aesthetic, from the lobby’s stunning ikebana centrepiece and shoji paper door screens to wallpaper that adorns each of the 251 rooms. Its indoor pool, which overlooks the Imperial Palace grounds, is a must-visit. 

The Tokyo Edition, Toranomon

Michelin Guide
Photo: Kenneth SZ Goh

Designed by famed Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, this downtown hotel occupies the top few levels of a 36-storey skyscraper. The Tokyo Edition hotel is the epitome of boutique chic. Overlooking Tokyo Tower or Tokyo Bay, each of the 206 guest rooms boasts minimalist sophistication with a warm wooden touch and neutral colour tones. Look out for a cosy faux fur strewn across the bed, an Edition signature.  

The Mitsui Kyoto

Michelin Guide
Photo: Kenneth SZ Goh

Located opposite the storied Nijo castle is this exquisite hotel, which is built on the estate of one of Japan’s most influential families that runs the Mitsui conglomerate. Designed by a team led by famed Hong Kong-born architect Andre Fu, each of the hotel’s 161 rooms is a tranquil reimagination of a traditional Japanese tearoom, with wood panelling and stone soaking tubs that allude to its natural onsen sourced from an onsite spring.