• Other

The Boutique Hotel Bandwagon

6 minute read
Matthew Link

“Like art, a boutique hotel is hard to define,” explains Boutique Hotels Magazine, “but you’ll know one when you see it.”

And you’ll be seeing a lot more of this smaller, design-led and more personable style of hotels in the months to come — but not from the independent operators who have traditionally driven the sector. These days, the major brands want in. Nearly every big hotel chain has launched one or more boutique sub-brands in the past few years, absorbing into the hospitality mainstream a style of innkeeping that was once seen as daring and different.

(See 50 essential travel tips.)

This year, Ritz-Carlton launched its Reserve boutique brand with a 54-villa resort in Thailand, and already has Reserve properties planned for Costa Rica, Puerto Rico and three other destinations. Hyatt added three properties to its Andaz boutique arm in 2010 (including a high-profile property across the street from the New York Public Library in Manhattan) and has future Andaz hotels blueprinted for Texas, the Netherlands, India, China’s Hainan Island, and the Turks and Caicos islands.

Starwood’s Aloft has a whopping 20 properties slated to open in the next couple of years, to add to the seven they have opened so far in 2010. Asia is a major focus, with six Aloft properties planned for India and seven for China. Starwood’s other boutique brand, Element Hotels (it has a fashionable green theme), has four properties scheduled to open in the U.S., to add to the existing seven.

“New properties are opening in epic proportions in this sector,” says Frances Kiradjian, founder and chair of the Boutique & Lifestyle Lodging Association (BLLA). “The current economic climate has created a buyer’s market, and with many rooms to choose from, customers are being selective about their hotel choices.”

Gretchen Kelly, a correspondent for Luxury Travel Advisor and other travel trade and consumer publications, backs her up. “In today’s boutique-hotel landscape, you can’t see the forest for the trees,” she says. “So many hotels use the designation that it’s hard to define what it really means. Some properties assign that designation because a hotel is small or because they believe it has high design potential. Some attach it because they want to amp up the value on what is basically a small, quirky property.”

Before the 1950s and the advent of jet travel and mass tourism, nearly all hotels were boutique in nature, being mainly family-run and small in scale. Then, for most of the second half of the 20th century, the big chains held sway — but boutique offerings, as understood in the modern sense, became available as early as the 1980s. Trend-setting California can be credited with birthing the concept, when San Francisco-based Kimpton Hotels was founded in 1981 as an all-boutique venture. (Since then, Kimpton has given birth to two more boutique brands: Hotel Palomar and Hotel Monaco.) In 1987, when the 26-year-old founder of Joie de Vivre Hospitality, Chip Conley, renovated the once decrepit Phoenix Hotel in San Francisco’s seedy Tenderloin district, it quickly became an artsy, funky magnet, attracting guests like David Bowie and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. A year later, New York City’s Royalton Hotel — the first hotel designed by Philippe Starck — opened, and the boutique hotel had truly arrived.

As the line between boutique and chain-run hotels begins to blur, an identity crisis is inevitable, however. Take the new Fashion 26 property in New York City’s trendy Chelsea neighborhood. The Wyndham Hotel Group would like you to think of it as a boutique venture (“boutique feeling” is their term), but it has 280 rooms, 20 floors, and a choice of food and beverage outlets. Although not new, Hong Kong’s Cosmopolitan Hotel bills itself as boutique, but boasts even more rooms (454) and a function space big enough for 300 delegates. It’s clear that in cases like these, the term boutique is a marketing buzzword, there to catch a consumer’s eye much in the way that terms like sustainable or organic are used.

To protect their competitive advantage, small, funky independent hotels must agree on and rigorously apply the criteria by which a property can be properly described as boutique. But at the moment, vagueness rules. Even the BLLA speaks of the sector as “distinctive, yet extremely fragmented.” Beyond saying that boutique properties are generally under 100 rooms, it makes no attempt to define them. Boutique Hotels Magazine takes a stab, calling boutiques “unique in their style, décor, and character.” But as travel journalist Kelly cautions, “It’s important for consumers to adopt a buyer-beware attitude when booking a boutique property. Nowadays, everyone calls themselves boutique.”

For the BLLA’s Kiradjian it’s all about having a sense of place. “Larger hotel brands attempting to enter the boutique and lifestyle market are caught up in a bigger picture of a national or worldwide image, and can miss the local flair,” she says. But they can also capture it, sometimes expertly. Andaz London, for example, is housed in a 126-year-old Victorian building within walking distance of the Tower of London, and is giving guests an ample serving of local culture through hosting installations and events as part of the London Design Festival.

In the end, it isn’t that hard for the big operators to reach out to local cultural organizations, incorporate local style in the guestroom and restaurant decor and make sure that a few local ingredients appear on the cocktail menu. And that’s why they’re all doing it. In fact, the day is not far off when you’ll check into one of those behemoth hotels of the late 20th century — the ones with the vast, impersonal atrium lobbies and the internationalized cookie-cutter decor and the windowless coffee shops — and declare, “Wow! This is something really different!”

Got an awful travel gripe? The Avenger may be able to sort it out for you.

Click here to tell us your problem.

See Time.com/Travel for city guides, stories and advice.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com