LONDON—High on the agenda at Tuesday’s inaugural Boutique Hotel Summit was the question: What constitutes a boutique hotel? Furthermore, how can larger hotels and chains legitimately and practically establish themselves within the market?
Stéphan Baghdassarian, development director of GLA Hotels, with a portfolio of more than 100 luxury hotels and resorts internationally, described how the company tries to maintain “boutique” with a growing number of properties. All have between 60 and 120 guestrooms.
“From a guest point of view all our hotels are seen as different hotels”, he said. “Particular attention and personalized service for me is something very difficult to achieve in large hotels with a lot of rooms. Size does matter when we are talking about personalized services”.
Of debate was the ability of larger chains to branch off into the boutique market yet still provide the same customer experience.
Big chains strategy
Tim Walton, VP of international development for Marriott International in Europe, explained how the company plans to take more of the boutique market with its Autograph Collection: “Our brand is probably the complete antithesis of the boutique sector. To me ‘boutique’ is something different to ‘lifestyle’. To me it means style, flair and a high level of service, but overall it revolves around a certain level of independence”.
“With each hotel that you add to a chain you start to impact on that independence and individuality. Where we have tried to enter the market with the Autograph Collection is basically with a franchise vehicle. We are trying to affiliate with small hotels which, to be honest, would be too small for us to take on ourselves and try to plug into the marketing and circulation systems these hotels’ use. The independence is key to the success of development but what we bring is the machinery behind a big chain into use”.
James Lohan, founder of booking website Mr & Mrs Smith, focusing entirely on unique boutique properties worldwide, said the boutique concept “is about remembering that the customer comes first” something which he feels “a lot of the old school hotels forgot”.
He added, “It’s incredibly difficult for the bigger players to replicate what small independent, passionate boutique hotels have, but they can definitely tick some of the style boxes”.
Lohan also said it is important not to underestimate the savvy guest, however, as “over time the customer has decided they know the difference between true boutique and manufactured boutique.
“Do you feel you are being served by robots or people who actually relate to you”? he said. “You need people with real passion and real vision at the centre of each hotel”.
He agreed the move toward the boutique market by larger chains was not such a bad thing.
“It’s great that we get a more stylish environment, this is a good movement in chains and I hope that they can replicate the true boutique experience”, he said.
Chains take notice
Jason Pomeranc, one of the owners of Thompson Hotels, a small chain of 11 properties across the United States, said, “Having a company like Marriott saying they are developing companies like these (boutique hotels) shows how far the sector has come”.
But he also feels chains have some added constraints. “Chains cannot effectively operate in that sector against smaller hotels and smaller chains because you’re working outside of brand standards with much smaller rooms across different cities. There is a DNA that runs through all of our properties and that has very much to do with the training of the front desk staff and many other factors. It’s not about a checklist, it’s about creating a lifestyle experience specifically for that location. For example, if you are in New York City, it’s going to be a very different experience than in the U.K. countryside or in Miami. It‘s about creating experiences that are indigenous to that area. Not trying to impose brand experience on an area”.
Thompson Hotels targets those who have more disposable income than the core corporate traveler, and that strategy emphasizes size and location of the hotel, Pomeranc said.
“Where do you want your (revenue per available room) to be to maintain that cycle? During the down economic cycle, it is the independent chains that are still standing and the larger ones who have taken massive hits”.
Marriott’s Walton feels this relative buoyancy seen in the boutique market is attractive for larger operators who can bring extra strength to the sector to help weather any difficult spots in a downturn.
“In some markets, the sector has been relatively cyclical. This was the genesis of our movement to the sector with Autograph. Many of the independent hotels were struggling throughout the downturn as they didn’t have the machinery to maintain buoyant in the bad times. Generally speaking though, I think it’s a growing market. I see great potential in the sector and I think it will become more resilient rather than less."