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Boutique Hotels, everyone wants a bite of the winning concept

There is no textbook definition of a boutique hotel, such a device would defy the whole meaning of one but some critics believe that the term has become abused or perhaps too frivolous. After years of success in the boutique industry many, including youth hostels and budget hotels, were claiming to be boutique when they were just funky and expensive. Thus the budding of the lifestyle hotel, another umbrella term that emerged on the market to separate themselves from cheap imitations.

Segmentation is also a matter of definition. And the frontiers of the boutique hotel segment are may be one of the most difficult to draw. Terms like edgy, stylish, unique, artistic and caustic are often used but then again anybody can say that on a website and call themselves as “boutique” or “lifestyle”. But are they really and what are they? “The term is often abused”, says Dr.Bjorn Hanson, professor at the Preston Robert Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism and Sports Management at New York University. “You’re looking at a hotel that has a design and services different than traditional-appeal to all demand segments- hotels.” They possess features that go above and beyond the call of a standard chain hotel and cater with an intense personal touch to the guest but are on a different path than the traditional palatial luxury hotels. Such features as living room lobbies that are void of front desks and instead offer personalized check-in with a pocket Pc while sitting down with a cup of coffee or done directly in the room, mood lighting, rotating art exhibitions, decor and menus that evolve with the seasons are also common features.The non-aligned boutique hotels don't think that they're dead either but aren't exactly happy about the flood of competition. “Of course it bothers us that they have entered the market but all the better. It will push us to work even harder and we will be better as a result,” says Renaud of the Murano Urban Resort. Even Ian Schrager once said that it annoyed him to see the boutique hotel idea being copied by others but felt that it gave him credibility to what he has done. But in January 2008 at a glitzy gala in Beverly Hills, Schrager, godfather of the boutique hotel concept and former owner of the lavacious Studio 54, joined forces with 75 year-old Bill Marriott, the patriarch of tradition and global standardization, who is also a devout Mormon, to create their new boutique hotel chain, Edition. The new chain will create hotels in destinations across the globe that have a semblance of familiarity? But each 150200 room Edition hotel should also assimilate into the style of the local surroundings and give off a younger buzz. Edition will open its first hotel in Paris in 2010 with nine others to follow shortly and plans for many more in cities across the world.The idea was not conceived by hallmark hoteliers like Bill Marriott or Conrad Hilton but by people outside of the industry like Ian Schrager, the creator of the Studio 54 nightclub, who opened Morgans Hotel in New York in 1984 with the idea of creating a hotel that he would want to stay in and not something that his parents did. Morgans stretched the look of the hotel by having a “lived-in feel” throughout. Guestrooms have specially commissioned Robert Maplethorpe prints and the lobby's furniture was taken from Paris top .ea markets and still contains a library.Another example is Bill Kimpton, an investment banker turned founder of the 43hotel Kimpton group. Kimpton restored older buildings in major U.S. cities and converted them into his boutique hotels by giving them each their own story and theme such as the 140 room Hotel Triton in San Francisco which focuses on Art, Music and Ecology. Rooms in the Triton have been designed by Jerry Garcia, Carlos Santana and even the ice cream manufacturer Haagen-Dazs who designed the Tritons “Sweet Suite” that contains ice cream scented candles and a designer freezer packed with the company's products.Chip Conley a former MBA graduate who started the Joie de Vivre group upon finishing business school in 1987 when he opened the Phoenix Hotel in San Francisco's Tenderloin district, one of the more piquant sections of the city, with a particular niche in mind: rock and roll. Conleys philosophy is to “create land-mark destinations full of soul and personality” and has since created over 30 hotels. The Joie de Vivre group has an online hotel matchmaker that examines guests preferences and finds the appropriate hotel for them.Out of the box thinking paid off and made the boutique hotel industry what it is. “These creative folks came along with the idea of going out of the basics. They saw a new market,” Hanson says.It is no surprise that with the level of personal services that the target audience for boutique hotels is somebody with money. Travellers in their early 20s to mid 50s with middle to upper incomes are most likely to stay in a boutique hotel. “Were offering a hotel for a new type of traveller,” Warrington says. “One who visits edgy, gateway cities, is media savvy and is young at heart.” The 52-room Murano Urban Resort in Paris shares the same philosophy with its audience. “We want to follow our clients,” says Elise Renaud. Most of the hotels guests are in fact trendy Parisians and as a result the hotels lowest season is summer when most of Paris leaves on vacation. “Were also very popular with the British and were hoping to attract Russians and people from the Middle East.” The Murano’s occupancy rate from September to June is between 65 and 70 per cent. “Guests know that Boutique won’t be standard and won't be troubled by this,” Hanson says. “A custom suit costs more than an off-the-rack suit. The same goes for a hotel.”Typically a boutique hotel will have a smaller number of rooms than a standard chain hotel and thus occupying those rooms is less of a hassle. Boutique hotels don't normally cater to the convention and meeting market and won’t have to fill dozens of rooms when a three-day seminar is finished. “Most of these hotels achieve premium rates,” says Hanson. “Boutique hotels take buildings that are not typical thus low cost and transform them. Their target is precise and as a result it's a pretty viable market.”As individual properties, they have to compete with the sales organisation of large hotel groups. That is the reason why Claus Sendlinger established Design Hotels AG in 1993, to represent and market a hand-selected collection of more than 150 hotels in over 40 countries around the globe.They are not often close to tourist centers. New York's Gansevoort, a 187-room hotel is not in Times Square but rather in the trendy Meatpacking district. The Murano in Paris is not overlooking the Louvre but instead tucked inside the city's third arrondissement not far from small shops and bars. Its sister hotel the Kube is even in a more austere location, just north of Gare du Nord station. Andaz, a “grand boutique hotel” and the latest development of the Hyatt Group, is on the periphery of London's East End. These hotels have a niche and a committed market and their guests will make a commitment to stay there.So its no surprise that with the revenue of the boutique hotel industry that the standard chains would want to get involved. Starwood Hotels and Resorts did it with the launch of W. Their collection of 26 hotels combines the individuality and style shown in a boutique hotel with the size and location of a large chain. The first W on 49th and Lexington opened with 720 rooms in December 1998 with a further 25 hotels in far-flung cities across the globe in the following years. The mass marketed boutique concept has proved to be such a success that W has launched a subsidiary of its own in 2008, dubbed Aloft, featuring 18 hotels in actual development and another 74 to come in the next three years. Aloft, which describes itself as “the new tWist in travel” could be considered a W-lite as it shares the same design concept with hightech rooms and an urban touch in like Charleston, South Carolina and Rancho Cucamunga, in California.“We found that highly standardized reliable is good but other travellers like or want something different and guests said this is worth trying,” Hanson says. Following in Ws footsteps and seeing a future in the market of boutique hotels for business travellers IHG launched Indigo in 2004 and currently has 15 hotels with another 59 in development.Indigo has locations in such gateway locations as Chicago and Atlanta but also in less urbane locations such as Buffalo, New York and Columbus, Ohio. Westin, with their eyes also on the business traveller market, conceived Element, a fusion of the long-stay and lifestyle/boutique concepts in 2006 and opened its doors with four locations in 2008 and plans for several more in the next few years.Hyatt opened its first Andaz late last year in London with another four hotels set to open in the U.S. Andaz, by the way, is Urdu for style. No feature is too crazy or far-fetched for a boutique hotel. “We hired Times columnist Damien Barr to stay with us for a month and read to guests”, says Simon Warrington. “If a guest wanted something read to him whether it be a play, Charles Dickens or the newspaper it was done.” Other groups such as Melia, So.tel, Mandarin Oriental and Four Seasons have also followed suit with “boutique” programmes.W turned a new page at the end of the 1990s with their concept and since that time the boutique hotel industry has departed from the long held axis of individuality that went through the gateway cities of London, New York, Miami, Los Angeles and San Francisco and departed onto another course that took the boutique idea off the road to places like Salt Lake City, Washington, DC, New Orleans and Honolulu. Globally the market is expanding to trendy locations as Marrakech, Maldives and the Middle East.Jumeirah International opened the Mina a Salam, a 300 room “grand boutique hotel”, in Dubai in 2003. The hotel along with another grand boutique hotel became part of the Madinat Jumeirah a resort city with a mix of “old Arabia” and “new luxury” with a combined total of 867 rooms and suites.But chain hotels are not the only ones who have jumped on the boutique bandwagon. Brand names have as well. Cuisinart, the renowned appliance manufacturer, opened a 93 room and suite resort in Anguilla offering “boutique” amenities such as food grown from its hydroponics and organic gardens. Giorgio Armani became a player with his Armani Hotels in Dubai and Milan and with Armani Residences in Dubai and a planned project in Marrassi, Egypt. Bulgari was not far behind Armani with the inception of its luxury boutique hotel in Milan done in partnership with Marriott.So if brand names can create a boutique hotel then why cant a boutique hotel create a brand name? After all, the one rule in this business is that there are no rules.W for instance created the W Hotels Store which sells designer t-shirts, accessories and jewellery, equipment for the home. Customers can order online or in selected hotels. The Murano Urban Resort in Paris hires local musicians to play weekly in the hotel and then twice a year puts out a CD with a compilation of the songs and sells them to the guests and at music stores in Paris. The hotel also has “Murano Nights” at hip nightclubs in the south of France and Corsica where the hotels logo adorns a packed club of jet setters.Since the introduction of the branded boutique concept began in 1998 with the launch of W thousands of rooms have flooded the market that was once considered sheltered and a niche in the industry. So is the concept of individuality and personal touch drowned by the flood of mass marketization? Far from it. “The idea of boutique hotels is emerging and becoming mainstream,” Hanson says. “We combine the boutique mindset with the operational know-how of a global chain and have expertise through 50 years of hotel operations behind us,” says Warrington of the Andaz Hotel. “If you want a club sandwich at three in the morning you've got it. That might be a bit of a problem in a typical boutique hotel.”The non-aligned boutique hotels don't think that they're dead either but aren't exactly happy about the flood of competition. “Of course it bothers us that they have entered the market but all the better. It will push us to work even harder and we will be better as a result,” says Renaud of the Murano Urban Resort. Even Ian Schrager once said that it annoyed him to see the boutique hotel idea being copied by others but felt that it gave him credibility to what he has done. But in January 2008 at a glitzy gala in Beverly Hills, Schrager, godfather of the boutique hotel concept and former owner of the lavacious Studio 54, joined forces with 75 year-old Bill Marriott, the patriarch of tradition and global standardization, who is also a devout Mormon, to create their new boutique hotel chain, Edition. The new chain will create hotels in destinations across the globe that have a semblance of familiarity? But each 150200 room Edition hotel should also assimilate into the style of the local surroundings and give off a younger buzz. Edition will open its first hotel in Paris in 2010 with nine others to follow shortly and plans for many more in cities across the world.

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