Are Boutique Hotels Boutique Anymore?

Filed Under: Hotels

On Monday I posted about the news that IHG is acquiring Kimpton Hotels for $430 million. Yep, the world’s largest hotel chain is taking over the world’s first boutique hotel chain.

To me this was a really logical move, even though admittedly most Kimpton loyalists will be unhappy about it. As I explained, this probably isn’t good news for those that were loyal to Kimpton, though for people like me, it’s great news. I can be at least semi-loyal to IHG Rewards Club given how big their portfolio is, but I can’t really stay at Kimpton properties enough to be loyal to them, given their lack of a footprint… as much as I’d like to be. So for my personal travel patterns I’m happy about this takeover, even without taking into account the potential ramifications of this on loyalty programs.

Hotel La Jolla, California

Skift has a thought provoking article about how boutique hotels have “evolved” and come full circle, and questions what constitutes a boutique hotel nowadays.

The basis of the story is that boutique hotels have emerged because younger travelers don’t want a cookie cutter hotel experience:

The factors spurring this trend are manifold, beginning with rapidly changing demand from a younger, more well-educated and well-traveled consumer who actively avoids any type of generic travel experience. Only two decades ago, hotel brands marketed themselves based on product consistency, especially attractive to consumers traveling abroad in a rapidly globalizing marketplace with so many new emerging destinations.

Since then, brand consistency has shifted from a positive business driver to a toxic mark of shame, quickly.

Why don’t they want a cookie cutter experience? Largely because of the impact of social media, and how unique experiences play out better there:

Social media exposure has been a big reason behind the rise of so many suddenly trendy destinations from Vietnam and Morocco five years ago to Iceland and Bhutan today. The same is true for the rise of cult-like “tribes” slavishly loyal to lifestyle hospitality brands ranging from Ace to Airbnb.

How many people today make travel purchase decisions based on how their experience will play out on social among their personal and professional networks?

Yet really things are coming full circle, because boutique hotels are becoming more and more consistent as well, which is really making them just like the mega-chains they want to differentiate themselves from:

Because, W Singapore doesn’t really feel like an entirely different experience than W South Beach. You pretty much know what to expect at each property. In fact, the new W Bogota that opened this week is newsworthy because it’s in Bogota, not because it’s a W. The same thing could be said about a Kimpton in D.C. or San Francisco, or a ME in Cancun or Madrid, just as much as an InterContinental or Marriott in Prague or New York.

Meaning, these boutique brands that are so popular today are evolving into a reincarnation of the Hiltons and Hyatts from previous generations. Since the parent hotel groups are public companies, consistency is still all-important to their bottom line. All we’re talking about here is just a shift in room count and design.

W Singapore Sentosa Cove

In fairness to Kimpton, I do think they’re different and have stayed at least somewhat true to their “boutique” roots. That’s because the hotels really aren’t built like Andaz or W properties where they’re supposed to be consistent, but rather each property is unique while delivering at least some sort of consistent experience.

And I that’s what has made Kimpton so attractive to be acquired. They’re actually different. A large hotel chain probably couldn’t start as good of a portfolio from scratch. So if they can keep the core of what Kimpton does, I think this could work out quite well.

One interesting assertation is that boutique hotels are “spiritually bankrupt:”

“It’s no longer a stylistic benchmark or authority in experiential authenticity,” he said. “I would suggest that boutique hotels as they’re known in the asset class capacity have become spiritually bankrupt.”

Summing up, Brosh explained that “boutique” to him equates with independent hotels, versus properties developed by large brands, committees and traditional place-making techniques designed to increase returns for stakeholders.

I don’t think that boutique hotels are “spiritually bankrupt” necessarily, though I also don’t think that it’s right to suggest that chains like Andaz, W, etc., are actually “boutique.”

Andaz Wall Street, New York

What do you guys think — are Andaz, W, etc., fundamentally attempts by the “big” brands to compete in the boutique market? And for that matter, can a hotel that belongs to a big chain be boutique?

(Tip of the hat to Dennis)

  1. Sad to hear about Kimpton, frankly. As for W, Andaz, Edition and the like, I don’t know anyone outside of people who work for marketing at Starwood, Hyatt and Marriott who would consider those hotels “boutiques.”

    For me the future of boutique hotel chainlets is Ace, which is doing a fantastic job of building a loyal clientele of people who want genuine quirk from their properties. The Ace Palm Springs has a hippie vibe, the Portland Ace has a grungey vibe, and the New York Ace has a glam, hip vibe that few other NYC hotels can replicate. The newest Aces – in L.A. and Panama – are actually full blown luxury hotels, too. The only requirement for an Ace seems to be that they be in genuinely historic buildings, or in the case of London or Palm Springs (where the structures are more mid-century), buildings with a “soul.” It’s hard to feel a new-build Kimpton or W comes with soul attached.

  2. @Nick – if you get a chance, read the article that Ben referenced in his post. There is discussion about ACE,, and the author’s assertion is that they will only remain “boutique” to the extent that they remain small and thus have a “mystique” associated with being “limited”. I don’t know that I will go that far, but there is some logic in it when you are trying to brand differentiate yourself.

  3. One of the most successful ways in which Kimpton differentiated their managed properties is to contract out their restaurant to a chef, either known or up-and-coming, who is well respected for his or her individual style, often using local ingredients. Chains could (and on occasion do) emulate this. Another practice, though, that can’t be copied concerns the complimentary wine served during the cocktail hour, as this was made interesting less for the free wine than for socially interacting with a mix of younger demographic, more cultured people of taste than the traveling sales reps, employees from large firms with contracted rates or (yes) those to whom earning and burning points is of utmost importance or who, in fact, prefer standardized environments as that’s how they prefer to lead dull lives devoid of even positive surprises.

  4. You still find many non chain boutique hotels in Europe which are amazing. I never stay at chain hotels in Paris for example since you can get boutique hotels that are equal or better than top chain hotels there and you get a very personalized attention.

  5. @KahunnaTravel – great point. Obviously, a boutique is no longer a boutique when it has 40+ properties. Kimptons managed to keep the boutique sensibility by branding and styling most of their hotels independently.

    Maybe that’s just it – boutiques are the opposite of chains, so if you own/operate a boutique hotel, you’re going to lose that when you decide to expand.

  6. I think soon there will be a new term for the likes of W, and Andaz. For now they are fleetingly and vaguely referred to as “the hip and chic sister-property of X brand”.

  7. The problem here is thinking only of chain boutique hotels. There’s a Hyatt in Kathmandu. There’s also an amazing boutique — in the truest sense of the word — hotel called the Kantipur Temple House. If I were into points & miles when I visited Kathmandu I probably would have stayed at the Hyatt. Instead, I stayed at the other place, and am really glad I did. The uniqueness, charm, and personalized attention couldn’t be beat. So, yes, the boutique hotels might be trending toward consistency, but only because you’re focusing only on chains.

  8. Boutique hotel and chain hotels are oxymoron’s.
    When you go above 2 or 3 hotels under the same ownership/management it becomes hard to deliver anything but cookie cutter experience, if you also want to ensure good service to you guests.

    W hotels are often beautiful, but boutique? NO

    When you go over 30 rooms that whole boutique feel is hard to get, and it becomes hard for staff to really give a personal service to guests as you will be dealing with different members of staff and not just a few that will know your face.

    W Barcelona is great, but this is boutique hotel:

    Prague is city that full of small boutique hotel
    Probably the best is Golden Well

    Sadly has been full every time I have been in Prague.

    But loved their restaurant the times when I dinned there.

  9. Come on lucky, any hotel chain is not boutique. Common sense here. If you can use miles, its not a boutique. I’d pick any local family owned boutique hotel over the local hyatt any day for the same price tag.

  10. The term “boutique chain” does seem like an oxymoron. The Ace is a great example. I’ve been to the one in Palm Springs several times and it has an interesting vibe but I would bet that part of the owners’ business plan is to continue to expand and ultimately be bought out. If you want a more authentic boutique experience in Palm Springs there are dozens of great ones within blocks of the Ace – the newest example being Sparrows just across the street. Spend time in any of those and the Ace starts to feel like a chain, albeit with a fresh twist.

  11. @Joe – I’m curious. Why would you rather “…pick any local family owned boutique hotel over the local hyatt any day for the same price tag.”? Part of the article that Ben posted speculated on how consumer demographics (as in more younger travelers) has impacted “consumer tastes/demands” (as in “good vibe”, “authentic experience”, etc) which, in turn, created a branding/marketing niche by which a lodging establishment could differentiate itself – ie “boutique”. As an over age 60 traveler, I know my taste/preferences have certainly changed over the decades so that now I would choose the Hyatt over the local family owned establishment at the same price point because I want a Hyatt “type of experience” for my money. Likewise, products like ACE and Air BnB don’t attract me either. What I buy today, and what I am experientially comfortable with, is so much different than when I was in my early-mid 20’s travelling with a copy of “Europe on $10/day” in my back-pack and “boutique” was a hostel, a family pension, a B&B, or a monastery.

  12. @Mike – oh my no. I’m just musing on how the branding of something that gives a traveler that “authentic experience/vibe” has evolved from the early 70’s. Now we think of small independent hotels as “boutiques” when 40 years ago (particularly in Europe), before the rise of the branded chains, those were the “main stream” choice/image. It’s almost as if the rise of the branded chains has resulted in the creation of the boutique concept as an inevitable, and perhaps necessary, counterpoint to the chains’ existence – just as something will come to be a counterpoint to whatever “boutique” comes to be viewed as as it matures/evolves.

  13. I’m not the target demographic of the boutiques any more. What works for me now is B&Bs and their home away from home style. I *LOVE* the relaxing, personal vibe, of getting to know the host and being part of the family. Airbnb has some of this quality, but still can’t compare to a full fledged B&B. It’s completely different than aspirational properties, and I do love both for what they are.

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