The Evolution of the Boutique Hotel

 

Ruthanne Terrero
Vice President—Content/Editorial Director, Ruthanne Terrero

You may notice that a number of the hot new hotels on our annual list are boutique properties, at least here in the U.S. That’s because the economic slowdown has also slowed down the development of new hotels (our report covers properties opened in the calendar year 2010). This economic environment is giving a wake-up call to experienced developers, who see this as a time to take on underperforming hotel properties that can be repositioned as three-and-a-half- and four-star lifestyle hotels.

Do you recall the late 1990s when the first boutique hotels made their way onto the landscape? Some were done well, others not so much. Inspired by the success of Ian Schrager, we began seeing newcomers to the business. Many turned office buildings into lodging establishments. Those who did it badly erred through laziness, thinking it doesn’t take much to run a hotel. They’d plant a bowl of green apples on their front desk as hip decor, and they’d dress their employees in black and not worry if they were rude to guests, because, as we all know, being rude is an imperative for being cool. The lights were usually quite dim, to hide a plethora of problems, namely, shabby interiors.

Fast forward to the present. Those who abused the “boutique hotel” moniker didn’t make it; those who used it well survived quite nicely and have even expanded their brands quite extensively. Think Kimpton, Joie de Vivre and W, all key players in today’s lodging arena. Newcomers are investing in their products in terms of the physical plant (thank goodness excellent bedding has become a norm in the business). They’re also investing in training staff to provide good service. Just because a hotel is smaller doesn’t mean that its guests need to experience erratic service; it should, in fact, be just the opposite. Treating the guest well should be intuitive, and having a smaller property in which to do that makes for a homier feel.

That consumers are now so demanding helps raise the bar on boutique hotels as well. They want an environment that is as nice or nicer than their homes; that means flat-screen TVs, Wi-Fi all around and sleek design that can be fun but should also make sense. The only thing I’m not sold on and never will be are how some are treating the bathroom layout, either with see-through glass walls or by breaking up the sink, shower and toilet into different parts of the room. Recently, I checked into a hotel that had this setup and in record time called down to the front desk to change rooms.

In the meantime, large-scale, new-build hotels abound in Asia, as we’ve reported in recent issues. For a glimpse of all that’s new in this region—and globally—turn to "Hot New Hotels" on page 26.