Boutique Hotels - The Small Trend

31 Oct 2010

In 1984, Ian Schrager opened Morgan’s Hotel on an unremarkable stretch of Madison Avenue in Manhattan. Together with a number of other hotel properties and subsequent Schrager projects, the hotel is credited with ushering in a new design milieu and launching the era of the boutique hotel. The impresario, who made his name the previous decade with the legendary Studio 54 nightclub, recast the traditional hotel as a place to find serious style, becoming the César Ritz of the celebrity-obsessed generation in the process.

Now, over 25 years later, the influence of the boutique hotel has permeated every facet of the hospitality industry. Boutique, no longer the sole province of the rich and hip, is now big business, and its impact is increasingly felt, from once-forlorn airport hotels to luxurious urban resorts.

It’s a measure of how much the distinction between boutique hotels (traditionally small, independently run properties) and global chains has muddied in the last few years that the iconoclastic Schrager, who sold his pioneering hotel group in 2005, has joined forces with Marriott, one of the largest, and most traditional, hotel brands on the globe. Edition Hotels, slated to include more than 100 international properties, is just one of several new contemporary lifestyle brands launched by large hotel companies looking for a slice of the increasingly lucrative “boutique” market.


Edition hotels, which recently opened its first property in Hawaii’s Waikiki Beach (+1 808 943 5800), represents the apotheosis of the “boutiquification” of traditional chain hotels. Starwood were the first large hotel company to move in this direction when they unveiled the W group in the late nineties. W borrowed heavily from the Schrager formula, opening socially engaging, design-oriented properties around the world. Yet unlike true boutique hotels, W, the brainchild of Starwood’s Barry Sternlicht, repackaged the experience for mainstream travellers, stripping away some of the intimidating elements and making it more affordable. There are currently four W Hotels in New York, and within the next five years there will be 55 globally.


Now, several new brands are following in Starwood’s wake, recognising the potential of the increasingly lucrative lifestyle hotels market. These days, they say, customers are looking for emotion, atmosphere and a feeling of uniqueness. Edition and several other new brands believe they can offer just that. In 2008, Starwood launched Aloft, a hotel group designed to bridge the market between budget and boutique, achieving the fastest ramp-up of any brand in hotel history with more than 40 hotels around the world. Hyatt has successfully launched Andaz (meaning ‘personal style’ in Hindu), a sophisticated business-minded chainlet featuring a new property occupying a landmark 1916 building across the road from the New York Public Library. Starwood has also rolled out another boutique brand, the eco-minded Element Hotels, and the Intercontinental Hotels Group, the world’s largest, have spawned Hotel Indigo, a hotel concept designed to be locally inspired, with upcoming hotels in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Bangkok and Lisbon.

What’s happening in hotels resembles what’s taken place in the fashion industry over the last decade. There, it’s been labelled “Masstige”, the process of once-inaccessible design made available to the mass market, whether its through design collaborations or fast fashion, the way how runway fashion is rapidly copied, produced and distributed to high street vendors.

Brian McGuinness, Aloft Hotel’s senior vice-president, believes hospitality is just another sector of culture where good, accessible design has become de rigeur. “We have seen the increasing democratisation of design, with brands like IKEA, CB2 and H&M in other sectors like fashion and home design,” he said, “today’s guest expects great design at an affordable price wherever they go, and their hotel should be no exception.”


Dan Flannery, the managing director of Edition Hotels, sees the current swing towards lifestyle hotels as a natural progression but believes it takes a style savant like Schrager to really pull it off. “No one has ever been able to replicate the experience that Ian has been able to create and no company has a more powerful global operating platform than Marriott,” he said. “To some degree, more and more guests are looking for an authentic, unique, original experience but the luxury segment has been missing something,” he said, “something that combines great, original design with friendly, modern gracious service. This is the void that we are looking to fill.”

Perhaps more than its competitors, Edition has set out to be the anti-chain chain. “Each Edition hotel aspires to create a really interesting hotel environment that guest will respond to emotionally,” said Flannery. The group’s first highly anticipated property in Hawaii, designed by New York architectural firm Yabu Pushelberg, bears some undeniable Schrager hallmarks: there’s a capacious whitewashed lobby; a large scale art installation crafted from more than 100 broken surfboards; an outdoor poolside movie cinema; and a raw, New York inspired nightclub dubbed Crazybox. The guest rooms are white and bright and have been described as “organic luxury.” Subsequent hotels, such as the next opening in Istanbul, will possess a completely different look and feel, the idea being that Edition hotels will comprise more of a sensibility than one particular style or look.


That disregard for the uniform or cookie-cutter is something each hotel brand seems to be striving for, replacing bland commercial design with something that feels more authentic and relevant to the local setting. Like the local food craze, these hotels want to engage with the local culture or at the very least give the impression of doing so. Hyatt’s website notes: “Each Andaz is a kaleidoscope of local culture. Personal. Vibrant. Uncomplicated.”


In this new milieu, there’s less demarcation of space in public and private areas. Traditional lobby layouts are passé, with most brands opting for a cross between a living room and a cocktail bar. Aloft hotel lobbies are branded as re:mix. Notes Brian McGuiness: “they are designed without walls, incorporating a variety of social spaces such as the w xyz bar, pool table area and art wall as well as a sunken living room with modular, customisable furniture that changes in atmosphere from day to night. It’s a space where our guests can feel comfortable working on their laptop during the day and enjoying a cocktail and a live music performance at night.”


Traditional reception and concierge posts are also on the way out. At an Andaz hotel, you don’t have to worry about queuing behind a check-in counter. Approachable, fashionably clad staff check guests into the hotel via laptops or PDAs, offering them a complimentary glass of wine on arrival. The vibe is cool, relaxed and above all, efficient – a little like staying at a stylish friend’s urban apartment.


The new generation of lifestyle hotels are also turning to their boutique forebears when it comes to decoration. Hotels are focusing on original art and one-of-a-kind decorative touches to inspire a feeling of authenticity. New York’s Andaz 5th Avenue (newyork.5thavenue.andaz.hyatt.com) invited local art students to design murals on the building’s various floors. Even W, whose first round of hotels were designed according to nine in-house prototypes, have abandoned the cookie-cutter model, attempting to make each new location as distinctive as possible to inspire a deeper connection with guests.

These hotels eschew any trace of the chain, suggesting personal, highly curated experiences that are anything but standard issue. But the paradox remains; can a 300-room hotel really be boutique?

Dan Flannery of Edition hotels believes a new hotel brand like Edition has the power to combine the best of both worlds: style and serious design credentials paired with excellent service – a facet lacking from many first generation boutique properties. “It is not about being trendy,” he said. “Each Edition hotel aspires to create a really interesting hotel environment that guests will respond to emotionally. Interesting, genuine design and gracious, sophisticated, personalised service will never go out of style.”

The rise of the boutique chain has also served to further eradicate the boundaries between business and leisure travel. Gone are the days when business travellers were content with simply a comfortable bed, decent breakfast and convenient location. “Business travellers will seek out something that allows them to enjoy a different experience. Something exciting and different, but that doesn’t require them to sacrifice great service,” said Dan Flannery.

And hotels have the potential to bridge that gap and inject something new into once-dreary airport or business hotels.

“Take Rogers, Arkansas, for example,” notes Brian McGuinness, “frequent visitors to Walmart’s headquarters have not traditionally had a modern, high design place to stay that also has a great bar scene. The hotel has been doing tremendously well because it is bringing something truly unique to the market.”

Ultimately, whether you want to call it a boutique, lifestyle or design hotel, the industry has awakened to the call of good design. While hotel purists may see the idea of a boutique chain as a non-sequitir, business brains know that customers are prepared to pay a premium for an experience that’s special. For now, hotels are treading carefully, testing out concepts and not straying too far towards the avant-garde. After all, what’s considered cool today can be irrelevant tomorrow. No one knows that more than Ian Schrager, who, almost three decades after he revolutionised the hotel business, wants to do it again with some help from the big guns. If anyone can turn a brand like Marriott into a global purveyor of cool, he can.



Like in the US, the boutique hotel trend has picked up speed in Asia. After much anticipation, Hotel Indigo is coming to Asia, with the debut being at the waterfront of Huangpu River in Shanghai this month. The 180-room Intercontinental Hotels-owned property is designed by Hirsch Bedner Associates, who are also behind the recently completed transformation of the Fairmont Peace Hotel. The boutique brand aims to bring to guests a sense of local community through different means such as art, music, menu items, and even scent. The elements that would constitute the Indigo stamp are cosy, airy and inviting guestrooms with oversized beds, plush bedding with throw pillows, hard-surface flooring with area rugs, signature murals and spa-inspired showers. Indigo is also set to open in other Asian cities including Hong Kong.

In July, The Fullerton Bay Hotel Singapore (fullertonbayhotel.com) opened on the waterfront of Marina Bay. The property welcome guests with a 17-metre wide lobby at the historical Clifford Pier, where the island’s early settlers first landed. Inside, vintage nautical maps are juxtaposed with contemporary art to reflect the city’s blend of heritage and modernity. The bedrooms are filled with Oriental characteristics, with polished rosewood and latticed screens setting a soothing colour tone. There are 100 rooms and six suites (including the presidential suite) inspired by Singapore’s many cultural influences such as Chinese, Malay, Indian, Peranakan and colonial, and named after the Straits’ former governors. Completing the package are modern brasserie Clifford and its fine wine library featuring 800 hand-picked bottles, an indoor promenade paved in marble mosaic and a “gourmand’s lounge du jour” The Landing Point. 

Upper House

Last year, The Upper House (upperhouse.com; pictured) opened to much fanfare in Hong Kong. The 117-room property by Swire Hotels, a subsidiary of Swire Properties, sets itself apart with modern-Oriental design that emphasises on symmetry and geometry. A working fireplace – a rarity in Hong Kong – adds to the cosiness of the sofa area. Celebrated chef Gray Kunz sprinkles to the experience modern European culinary magic. With business travellers’ needs in mind, the hotel provides complimentary wifi throughout the property, as well as on its fleet of Lexus RX450H hybrid cars. So successful is the formula that the property has been voted by readers of Business Traveller Asia-Pacific as the best boutique hotel this year.

The Opposite House (theoppositehouse.com), also by Swire, opened in Beijing in 2008 with 99 rooms and an cutting-edge interior designed by famed architect Kengo Kuma. – Reggie Ho

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