Ten Immutable Laws of Boutique Hotels and Why They're Nonsense
By Laurence Bernstein Managing Partner, Protean Strategies | June 29, 2014
Ever since Ian Schrager invented the category, the idea of Boutique hotels has held a special place in the imaginations of hoteliers. Of course, what Schrager had in mind and where the category went are two different things. In this article I will clarify what the category is, or should be, and what it is not.
The big surprise in North America was the idea that you could have a really great small hotel. By the mid-eighties the idea of luxury hotel was, for the major component of the market, inextricably linked to size. Great big hotels could be grand. Small hotels could be Holiday Inns or motels. While there was some logic to this (for one thing, the hotel business model dictated that to pay off hotels had to be pretty huge), and for the most part "Grand Hotels" (an official category in many European countries) were relatively large, it had a stifling effect on the industry. The focus was on large hotels, but there was a stirring of hotels-within-hotels as a way of providing upscale, personal attention (such as the Waldorf Towers).
Schrager's model worked, largely because his capital costs were minimized by converting older properties and keeping guest rooms small and focusing on public spaces. His concept worked and deserved the name "boutique" because in every respect that's what these places were: small, fashionable and focused on serving a specialized clientele (that, for this product, happened to be abundant in New York City and happened to be more sophisticated in many respects than other, more mass, travelers.
Two other pioneers deserve mention: Bill Kimpton who might even have been ahead of Schrager, understood the idea of catering to a specific clientele -- not for everybody, his hotels and their gestalt appealed to a very specific type of traveler, whose needs he understood extremely well. Similarly, Chip Conley built Joie de Vivre Hotels into a major boutique chain by converting run-down buildings into hotels specifically designed for a market he understood (rock bands, music industry people, etc.) This understanding led almost inevitably to including innovative life-style differentiators into the properties to keep them top of mind among the clientele.
What these guys have in common, and what makes their boutique hotels truly boutique hotels, is the understanding of the specific market segment they were catering to, and the ability to convert this understanding in to relevant and memorable experiences.
Unfortunately for the traveling public, the idea caught on a bit too enthusiastically, and "boutique hotel" became a by-word for a mass-marketed, lifestyle hotel trend. We say unfortunately because the marketers who glommed onto the idea kind of missed the point. Over the next 15 years the concept of boutique hotels became sadly predictable. In fact, we have identified ten attributes of so called boutique hotels (most of which were present in one form or another in the original boutique hotels -- which is where the copiers copied them from -- but all of which originally served very clear physical or emotional purposes directed at very specific psycho-graphic needs of very specific customers or were dictated by very specific limitations in the physical structures). These are the ten immutable laws of post millennial boutique hotels.
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