Comment: Latest trends in boutique hotels

How best to define this stubbornly unique hotel sector

Viability director Guy Wilkinson.
Viability director Guy Wilkinson.

The Middle East finally has a few notably ‘hip’ hotels. I’m thinking of such properties as Le Gray and Albergo in Beirut, the Armani in Dubai, Aloft in Abu Dhabi, The Palace and The Domain in Bahrain, and Doha’s W, K108 and Souq Waqif hotels.

In this context, ‘The boutique and lifestyle hotel report’ just published by the UK’s Hotel Analyst and Boutique Hotel News, brings us the latest trends and gossip from this often confusing niche sector of the global hotel industry.

According to the report, the industry’s key trade body is still trying to work out exactly how to define the cool hotels it represents.

The USA’s Boutique & Lifestyle Lodging Association recently issued a white paper entitled Emerging Definitions, about a survey it had carried out to find out how 41 “hotel industry thought leaders” from across the world could help them reach such a definition. Instead, they came up with two:
1.“Boutique hotels are typically small hotels that offer high levels of service. They often provide authentic cultural or historical experiences and interesting services to guests. Boutique hotels are unique.”
2.“Lifestyle hotels tend to be small to medium sized hotels that provide innovative features and service. They tend to have contemporary design features. They provide highly personalised service that differentiates them from larger hotel brands.”

Apparently there is no consensus as to whether boutique hotels are small or not, with some experts saying anything smaller than 300 rooms is the definition – which doesn’t exactly narrow it down!

What is clear is that boutique hotels are all about the individual personalities behind them, and this trend will only become more pronounced. As the report puts it, in future “Two personas will dominate: the dreamer owners and the influencer guests. Many boutique owners have entered the business to fulfil a lifelong dream.”

The report entertainingly provides tasty insights into the motivations of the boutique hotel movement’s key personalities. Former club owner Ian Schrager, the ultimate ‘anti chain’ hotelier, is typically credited as one of the genre’s pioneers, following his launch in the ‘80s of such uber-hip designer hotels as Morgan’s in New York, the Delano in Miami and Mondrian in Hollywood.

Having now abandoned his original principles and linked up with one of the world’s largest chains, Marriott, to create their slow-to-start Edition brand, he ironically feels that ‘there may be a backlash against over-design’ in the boutique sector.

According to the report, Gordon Campbell-Gray, the visionary behind Le Gray in Beirut and One Aldwych in London, has a dual career as hotelier and philanthropist, being a vice president of the Save the Children fund.

Ken McCulloch, the man behind the UK’s popular Malmaison boutique chain, is currently fighting with his investment partner, Formula One driver David Coulthard, and had to sell his other Dakota and Columbus hotel brands as a result.

Barry Sternlicht, the ultra-successful investment brain behind Starwood’s acquisitions of Westin, Sheraton, Le Meridien and Societe du Louvre, created the W brand with a group of outsiders from the retail industry, who he felt were inherently more creative and marketing savvy than their hotel industry counterparts.

More juicy still is the report’s focus on ‘Memorable failures’, of which the most notorious is Hilton’s Denizen boutique hotel brand. Starwood successfully prosecuted Hilton for having hired a former employee of theirs, Ross Klein, who allegedly passed on hundreds of pages of trade secrets about the W brand.

Le Meridien’s Art + Tech designer sub brand was a good idea that fell foul of the economic downturn caused by 9/11. Italian fashion house, Cerruti was originally Rezidor’s favoured designer hotel partner before Missoni, but the two parties just couldn’t agree on how to work together.

The report also contains an interesting section on the target market of these hip hotels, which is primarily Generation Y. Quoting various learned sources, the report depicts Gen Y guests as spoilt and demanding:

“(It is a) generation that has grown up with travel as a right rather than a privilege. The way they use technology is an extension of who they are – sociable, confident, well-informed and open-minded.

On the other side of the coin, having a virtual world of information at their fingertips has made them the most impatient, advertising-sceptic, buyer-aware public ever known. Generation Y is considered to be the least loyal to hotel brands when compared to all other generational groups. They are also most emotional and least satisfied.”

By contrast, the ‘Baby Boomers’ (presumably including us stalwarts of Gen X) also form a minority of the boutique hotel market. We are apparently well-heeled and have a taste for luxury, but not for what we perceive as our parents’ hotels. One boutique hotelier refers to this segment as ‘The Grateful Dead.’ Bah humbug!

Guy Wilkinson is a director of Viability, a hospitality and property consulting firm in Dubai. For more information, email:

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