It doesn’t take long for terms to become overused in the travel business. Take ‘boutique hotel’ for example. The descriptor was coined less than 30 years ago as American hoteliers like Bill Klimpton and Ian Schrager created intimate, luxurious, properties. The concept caught on, especially among the ‘far too hip for the Holiday Inn crowd.’
Boutique hotels represented a welcome alternative to the cookie-cutter sameness of chain hotels, which take a McDonalds-style approach of delivering bland consistency even in foreign settings. Boutique hotels started out as everything the chains weren’t – individual, personalized, bold, artsy and experiential.
But as an old philosophy teacher once told me, capitalism destroys with an embrace, and the chain side of the lodging industry has taken the term ‘boutique hotel’ into a fierce bear-hug and tacked the word ‘brand’ on the end of it. At one time, ‘boutique hotel brand’ would have been a contradiction in terms.
In today’s lodging industry, everybody wants to be boutique. Hotel giants like Hyatt, Starwood, Sol Melia, Sofitel, IHG and others all have boutique brands now, with names developed in close consultation with branding consultants and focus groups – among them are Aloft, W, Indigo, So, Me, Andaz, Edition and Element.
Travel + Leisure magazine laments what it calls “the please-make-it-stop trend of the boutique hotel.” Saying that the phrase originally only meant a small hotel, Travel + Leisure believes the meaning is now obscured by pretenders. “Just as every beer wants to be a microbrew—hello, American Ale from Budweiser!—every corporate hotel now wants to be a boutique. Even a 250-room Hyatt can qualify, so long as it has hot bellboys and a cool logo.”
But while it can be a little bit cloying for chains to describe themselves in terms like “experience-based personality hotels,” is it such a bad thing that chains are at least trying to provide relief from predictability and creating hotels that speak to the uniqueness of their setting and the desires of their guests?
As the New York Times puts it, “the boutique concept has become so successful that despite some backlash against the term, hoteliers of all sizes and price ranges are rushing to develop boutique brands…also referred to as lifestyle or design hotels, the new brands represent a movement away from the sameness that has long characterized hotel chains in favour of properties meant for a specific location or demographic. “
Whether you’re looking for cheap and chic, cute and kitschy, funky and fashion-forward or artsy and expensive, there’s a boutique hotel for you. And they’re popping up everywhere, from Toronto to Tofino, Iceland to Indonesia.
As with any business trend, the jury is still out on the success of boutique hotel brands. As industry analyst David Loeb told Bloomberg: “True luxury boutique hotels with impeccable service will come out as the winners, while those that look like luxury boutique hotels but are staffed with young, hip 20-something year-olds who are dressed in black and are indifferent to customers won’t.”
I am sometimes surprised by the companies that want to be listed as boutique hotels on this site. Hotels that think that just because you have plasma TVs, that makes you into a boutique hotel.