Boutique Hotel. Just the words get the imagination going. Even before I dog eared the pages of Herbert Ypma’s first Hip Hotels book I was fascinated by the world of boutique hotel properties. “How cool would it be to be the general manager of a cool boutique hotel?” I often found asking myself as I flipped through the pages of his magnificent photos. Working hard to make a career out of the hotel industry, I was convinced that I just had to be involved with a boutique hotel someday.
That someday came true, when in 2004 I was invited to be the general manager of what was and still is one of Palm Springs most hip boutique hotels. I left another huge opportunity just to be a part of this amazing world. The art, the design, the vibe. I had never really worked anywhere with a “vibe”. A year later and I knew, I knew what many in the hotel business do not…what it is really like to be the gm of a hip, cool boutique hotel. It’s not for everyone and amazing for many.
There is a mini storm brewing in the boutique hotel world, one I don’t think most involved in this industry are aware of. With more and more boutique hotel operators entering the playground, more and more bad hiring decisions are being made. The right General Mangers are working at the wrong hotels. Like a square peg and a round hole, some things just do not work. Who is to blame and what can be done?
The Boutique Hotel
First let me first tell you that I have a very narrow view of what really constitutes a boutique hotel. I think that the term “Boutique” when used to describe a hotel is often misapplied. A boutique hotel is not defined by simply a hot design, as many would argue.
In my opinion, a boutique hotel is a property that is uniquely significant in four ways:
1. Architecture and Design.
2. A high level of service. A property must not exceed hotelchain 150 guest rooms, enhancing the guest to staff ratio.
3. Sell to a specific demographic.
4. Are independently owned and operated (this is where some will disagree with me).
A boutique hotel must be an independent operation. The hotel must not be part of a collection that is more than say, 10 properties. Beyond this you get into having a corporate hierarchical management style that is required in running a large company and maintaining brand consistency. Take W Hotels for example. In my opinion these are not boutique hotels. They look like a boutique hotel, even feel like one. Many boutique hotels would strive to be as great as a W. But a W Hotel is run and managed by a massive corporation. The property level management makes very few decisions about what services are offered and how the property is run. A boutique hotel must be operated as close to the actual physical operation as possible. W’s and the like are amazing, but in my opinion don’t fit the definition of a boutique hotel. Boutique hotels are also constantly re-inventing themselves, making sure that their fickle guest never get bored and look to stay at the latest new, hip and cool property.
Boutique Hotel Guest
Travelers chose to stay at a boutique hotel because of the story, or the experience. The experience is very important and must be unique and somewhat cutting edge. The general demographics are individuals 20 to 50 years of age, work in more creative fields like advertising or entertainment and appreciate a higher level of service. When Ian Schrager entered the market with what many consider to be the first boutique hotel, this demographic discovered that they could use their travel budget get them a room at a cool, hip hotel rather than a generic mid-level branded property. And the boom started.
Boutique hotel guests enjoy experiences, unique architecture, cutting edge interior design and in some cases an urban location. The market is expanding and the demographic model explained earlier is beginning to bleed into others. You might very well find a Fortune 500 CEO staying at a boutique hotel. It is hard to ignore the hype.
Brands vs. Boutiques
Luxury hotel operators are scrambling to avoid losing market share to the boutique world. Some hotels are actually taking the “brand” off their marketing and streamlining their operations so that their properties are authentically boutique. Take the Kahala Mandarin Oriental for example. This famous luxury property recently took Mandarin Oriental away so that they could operate and compete in the new marketplace of more independent hotels. They are now simply “The Kahala” and are working hard to be authentically local and independent of a major brand identification. I think others will follow.