So-Called ‘Boutique’ Hotels Losing Their Charm

Boutique hotels used to be the renegades of the hospitality industry. These sleekly designed places oozed with chic intimacy and offered unique lodging experiences that couldn’t be found at a typical big-name chain.

Now, as the big-name chains — and everyone else, it seems — scurry to open boutique properties, many in the industry think that the designation has become so mainstream that it’s no longer meaningful.

“I don’t use that terminology,” says Crist Inman, founder and managing director of La Paz Group, a company that develops and manages specialty resorts, about half of which could be considered boutique. “As more and more developers put the word ‘boutique’ on the sign, that is somehow a killer feel,” Inman says in an interview over Skype. “I think the word is overused and even abused.”

What’s a discerning traveler — or prospective hotel owner — to do? In hopes of setting some standards and offering guidance, Frances Kiradjian formed the Boutique and Lifestyle Lodging Association in 2009.

“People were confused,” Kiradjian says. “There are some who overused the name and were no more boutique than a Motel 6.”

A boutique, according to the association’s criteria, has 100 rooms or fewer, a unique design, upscale food and beverage and personalized services, such as butler services and special menu requests. A lifestyle property has similar characteristics but is bigger — as large as 300 rooms “Boutique properties are intimate, distinctive, quirky, cutting-edge, avant-garde, trendy, funky, classic, and luxurious,” says the association’s website. “They go by different names to express their unique amenities: lifestyle hotels, bed and breakfasts, inns, villas, boutique resorts, boutique hotels, spa hotels, wellness hotels, designer hotels, signature hotels, or trendy hotels, to name only a few.”

Got that?

Maybe not, says Sandra Vivas, general manager of the Keating Hotel in San Diego, Calif. “I think the word lifestyle is being confused with the word boutique,” she notes.

A true boutique has an intimate feel and unique characteristics, says Vivas. The Keating, for instance, has only 35 rooms in a distinctive building erected in 1890, and an interior designed by Pininfarina, a company best known for designing car models for Ferrari. Lifestyle hotels, she says, are usually larger and less intimate.

Whatever they’re called, large hotel companies have been staking a claim in this market.

Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide opened the first W hotel in 1998, the start of what it calls its lifestyle brand. The chain has been expanded rapidly over the past few years and currently has 40 hotels worldwide. At least 10 new hotels are slated to open in the next four years, according to Starwood’s website.

Even Ian Schrager, who opened Morgans and the Royalton in New York City in the 1980s and is generally credited as the pioneer of the boutique, has moved on to “lifestyle” properties. He’s partnered with Marriott International to launch a new brand, Edition Hotels. The first Edition opened in October in Waikiki, Hawaii. A second hotel launches in Istanbul in March.

It’s an interesting approach, but some question whether a large hotel chain can replicate the independent feel and nature of a boutique hotel — no matter what name it’s given.

“I still believe it will be difficult for properties of big brands to show that they are truly independent thinking,” says Kiradjian. The main obstacle for the chain companies, she believes, is their tradition of franchising and imposing rigid sets of regulations that take away some of the qualities that make boutiques feel unique.

Analysts also wonder if brands with several similar properties, such as the W, are still the unique entities they claim to be.

“Are they really competing with the same product?” asks Steve Hennis, director of Smith Travel Research Analytics, which compiles data and does research for the hotel industry.

Aware of this issue, Marriott has also created a partnership with independent hoteliers and formed the Autograph Collection — a group of 14 boutique hotels that remain independently-owned but that pay a fee to access the Marriott sales and reservation channels.

“The Autograph Collection is the best of both worlds — a powerful combination of the independent boutique hotel experience coupled with the breadth of Marriott’s worldwide sales and reservations channels,” Kip Vreeland, vice president of the Autograph Collection, writes in an e-mail. Vreeland believes the autonomy awarded to the boutique hotels in the collection, which includes keeping their logo, design, service strategy and marketing, coupled with the power of Marriott is the “perfect combination” for both parties to grow their business.

In the end, most of the boutique designations are probably irrelevant, Inman of La Paz group would argue. To him, a hotel’s label is no substitute for the actual experience it provides to guests. “The vocabulary isn’t so important,” he says.