Several years ago, the term “boutique hotel” arrived on the travel scene. Today, it seems like every second hotel is calling itself boutique, from 800-room properties to highway motels to mega chains. There are also boutique salons, ad agencies, law firms, hardware stores and pet stores. Everywhere, businesses are pilfering this precious term to distinguish themselves from the big-box-style retailers. And in the process, they’re ruining it for everyone.
We want our word back. It’s ours.
What exactly is a boutique hotel? Like the word “attractive” in personal ads, the term boutique is used loosely – and often generously – in the hotel industry. To me, a boutique hotel is defined by its size (200 rooms max), its ambience (intimate), its service (personalized), its independence (no chain affiliation) and its outlets (people actually use the restaurant and lounge). The design of a boutique hotel should reflect the city it’s in. And guests shouldn’t have to stumble through revolving doors to get in, or line up at the front desk behind hundreds of cruise ship passengers, or jostle with conventioneers wearing badges and silly hats. In a contemporary boutique hotel, brass and fussy floral arrangements should be banished, along with the music of Vivaldi and portraits of dead people.
When it comes to sullying the boutique name, there are no worse offenders than boutique hotels themselves. Many offer style or substance, but few provide both. Some are built around a hot lounge scene, but service is inconsistent and guestrooms feel like an afterthought (perhaps a deliberate ploy to keep guests out of rooms and in the lounge drinking). Others offer beautiful guestrooms and great service, but the lounge is about as lively as a public library. My favourite boutique hotels have style and substance. In the US they include Hotel Gansevoort and 60 Thompson in New York, The Mondrian and The Viceroy in LA, and Hotel Vitale and The Clift in San Francisco. While not technically boutiques, W hotels and a few of the Four Seasons also do this well.
One thing everyone seems to agree on is that boutique hotels are more expensive. This is partly quality related, partly market related: fewer rooms + high demand = higher rates. But it also has to do with economies of scale. Boutiques don’t order 50,000 bottles of shampoo at one time or serve 1,200 dinner guests. Uniqueness is part of the appeal, of course, and many travellers are willing to pay a premium for it. In the 1970s, the Holiday Inn’s slogan was “The Best Surprise Is No Surprise”. These days, travellers want surprises, as long as they don’t involve lost reservations or rodents scurrying across the floor.
Of course, not every hotel wants to be a boutique, and not every traveller wants to stay in a boutique hotel. Larger hotels can offer more space, better facilities, a more consistent product, and guest loyalty and frequent flier programs. At Opus we maintain that a traveller who chooses a hotel based on how many points she’ll collect toward an upgrade on her next car rental is probably not the best fit for us. There are plenty of other options in Vancouver.
Sometimes it’s fun to stay in big, grand hotels, landmark hotels, historic hotels – as long as they don’t smell musty. The largest hotel in the world is the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, with between 5,690 and 5,034 rooms, depending on the source (I’m not convinced management even knows). It comes with a sports arena, entertainment dome and wedding chapel. In fact, Vegas is home to 17 of the world’s 20 largest hotels. I stayed at The Venetian once (pictured above), which, at 4,027 suites averaging 700 square feet, ranks #4. Upon returning to the hotel each night (okay, each morning) it felt like I had to walk past all 4,000 suites to get to mine. A shuttle bus would have been nice. In Dubai, the upcoming Asia Asia Hotel plans to dethrone the MGM, with a whopping 6,500 rooms – a small city.
All this talk about big hotels is humbling, what with Opus’s mere 96 rooms, no sister properties, and no wedding chapel. Maybe we should become a boutique chain? This term is an oxymoron in my opinion. But some companies, like Kimpton and Joie de Vivre, have succeeded in building a collection while preserving each property’s individual personality. Buoyed by its success with W Hotels, Starwood has introduced aloft hotels, claiming on its website to be “re-imagining the classic American ‘On The Road’ tradition and giving rise to a hotel of new heights. A hotel so far above anything in its class that it can only be called by one name: aloft.” My rough translation: tarted-up motels for thrifty-but-cool travellers, with advertising copy written by a guy who used to write superhero movie trailers.
Now that the chains have stolen the word “boutique”, along with some of our best ideas, we in the boutique business better keep innovating. Fortunately, this is easier for us because we don’t have to wait for approval from corporate office. Stay tuned for advances in in-room technology, entertainment, amenities and environmentally friendly practices, along with even greater personalization.
And we best be finding another word for boutique.
posted by Daniel Edward Craig at 9:39 AM
Point very well taken – and with all do respect to your competitor the Sutton Place Vancouver, I can’t figure out how the “Best N.American Boutique Category” award went to such a property, even if it is five diamonds! (ie/over 200 rms, [small] chain affiliation etc.) Not sure if they wear funny hats though! If you like the Kor Hotel Group’s Viceroy in L.A., I wonder how you feel about some upcoming competition in Vancouver Kor’s new project?
Really enjoying your blog. Keep it up.
Hmm, Vancouver seems to be fascinating, but i want to say, i spent 2 weeks last autumn in Cyprus Four Seasons, it was really nice, also a lot of space im rooms. And by the way, Vivaldi is not so bad, but i prefer more Mozart and Bach, especially to relax after hard work…