I hear both proclamations, so, which is it?
In today’s ever-changing landscape of hotels, we must recall the origin of “boutique” properties, and acknowledge the changes that have made for the new paradigm of what the term represents today.
Originally, a boutique property was bespoke and unique, with highly personalized service. These accommodation jewels were set in wonderful locations ranging from coastal towns, villages and islands, to fashionable urban locations and vineyards. People delighted in the sense of place, culture and highly personalized service, and felt as if they were the only guests. All their needs, wants and expectations were met, and exceeded. The food, wine, and handcrafted cocktails were incredible. And delicious innovations such as farm-to-table and locally sourced products were paramount.
Successful boutique properties appealed to all five senses, offering much more than simply a place to stay. They offered experiences that stayed with guests long after they had checked out.
The boutique concept gained significant traction when soft brands such as SLH (Small Luxury Hotels) and Relais & Chateau grew in numbers with owners of boutique properties. These soft brands represented a collection of quality hotels ranging in size from 10 to 100 rooms. Each property had a distinctive individuality and character, and was not part of a major chain. The soft brands spread the good word about their boutique accommodations and offered greater distribution to the world’s discerning travelers.
Boutique grew in popularity. Suddenly, hotels with large room counts, generic locations, and middling quality and service began flying boutique flags. While SLH and Relais grew their numbers by maintaining strict guidelines and adherence to their high standards required for membership, they were now challenged with remaining “boutique” as the name became more commonplace.
International brands, especially in the franchise world, got on the bandwagon and tapped new revenue streams by offering global distribution platforms with relaxed boutique brand standards. Hotels that were stylish, hip and trendy, and somewhat sophisticated, were labelled boutique. Today, Marriott Autograph Collection competes against Hilton’s Curio and Tapestry Collection, Starwood’s Tribute (also Marriott), and Hyatt Unbound.
With the glut of competition, early boutique properties might argue that true boutique is dead. It’s not. It’s simply less defined and vaguer.
Today, hotels with 150 - 400 rooms are called boutique. The Delano in Vegas brands itself boutique with 1,000-plus rooms! This explosion of properties puts pressure on original boutique hotels to maintain their high standards of accommodations and services as costs continually keep creeping up — while achieving a strong average daily rate against the competitive set. Way back when, they didn’t have to deal with additional revenue management and yielding costs.
That kind of stress demands handcrafted cocktails and a relaxing spa treatment … or 12!
So, is it better for a boutique property to go branded or unbranded? Originally, boutiques were charged with creating their own specific brands. Some became soft branded.
Both concepts work today, depending on the location, environment, and building. We see boutique becoming the standard bearer for adaptive reuse in churches, prisons, monasteries, castles, bank buildings with old vaults, and myriad other uniquely positioned historic buildings ripe for engaging guests and immersing them in truly unique environments.
Boutique means more today than when it emerged in the ’80s. If you create a boutique hotel, you can choose to be unbranded, branded and everything in between. Because technology has empowered people, guests don’t fear unbranded properties anymore. Guests are savvier than ever; social media and online travel agencies, etc., have made it easier for them to research, review and purchase with confidence.
Today, boutique hotels are morphing, multiplying, and evolving, presenting the dangers of boutiques becoming commoditized.
If you’re considering a boutique hotel purchase, remember there are many variables for success — character, style, sophistication, a guest-first service culture, personalized guest experiences, and incredible gastronomy are all prerequisites.
Executed properly, these factors will help you stay both popular and profitable! Executed superbly, guests will beat a path to your door.
If you are serious about being truly boutique, you must deliver a singular experience guests will treasure.
The health of boutique hotels today reminds me of this quote from Mark Twain: “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”