From Bankruptcy to Thriving Boutique Hotel

The Story of Wickwoods Country Club, Hotel & Spa

By Simon Hudson Endowed Chair in Tourism & Hospitality, University of South Carolina | September 14, 2014

Interest in boutique hotels remains overwhelming. According to a recent 2014 study, the growth in demand for boutique hotel rooms will continue to exceed the growth in supply through 2015. In fact, although only three percent of the hotel market is made up of boutique hotels, 10 percent of upcoming supply will be boutique in nature. Why the growth? Developing - and evolving - consumer habits is a key driver; hotel guests are increasingly seeking a unique experience as opposed to a commoditized product, and are more sensitive to design, levels of service and quality of food.

Even corporate travelers are starting to favor such establishments over the standard hotel experience. Boutique hotels (generally considered to have less than 100 rooms) are better placed to react to these demands as their limited capacity enables them to enhance the quality of service and customize the experience for guests.

On the supply side, it is less expensive to convert an existing property (be it an office building or another hotel) into a boutique hotel than build a new one, and boutique hotel owners do not have to comply with brand standards. Developers can more easily convert an existing building into a design-led hotel that welcomes varying floor levels and layouts rather than having to conform to minimum room sizes and standards imposed by most large brands. Boutique hotels can also charge relatively high room rates, making them attractive to owners.

There are disadvantages of course. Boutique hotels cannot match the loyalty programs or corporate marketing efforts of the big chains, but as Kimpton's CEO Mike Depatie says, travelers are willing to trade off large brands' more elaborate loyalty benefits for having a great experience. In fact the term 'lifestyle' has emerged in association with boutique hotels as they have evolved. The term is now commonly used with the entrance of chains into the sector, such as W by Starwood, Edition by Marriott, and Hotel Indigo by Intercontinental Hotels Group. However, these lifestyle hotels often have around 200 rooms, so they have difficulty providing the 'true' boutique experience.

As a recent HVS report suggested, even though the uniqueness of a property and its facilities, in addition to the exclusivity and individuality of the hotel are key combinations, it is the quality and personalized service that will continue to become very significant in creating the distinctive experience of a boutique hotel.

One example of a distinctive boutique hotel experience comes from the south of England, where Wickwoods Country Club, Hotel & Spa is dipping its toes into this market. The club is a popular fitness venue for baby boomers who combine Pilates, personal training and pampering with tennis leagues and tea parties. And it makes a stunning wedding or party backdrop with its 22 acres of beautiful gardens and artful arbors. As well as a members' club, Wickwoods is an idyllic weekend getaway for fitness enthusiasts, walkers and tennis players – and, of course, spa fanatics. With only seven bedrooms, the hotel is small and exclusive but has the advantage of day members adding atmosphere to the bar, restaurant and sporty facilities.

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Human Resources: An Era of Transition

Traditionally, the human resource department administers five key areas within a hotel operation - compliance, compensation and benefits, organizational dynamics, selection and retention, and training and development. However, HR professionals are also presently involved in culture-building activities, as well as implementing new employee on-boarding practices and engagement initiatives. As a result, HR professionals have been elevated to senior leadership status, creating value and profit within their organization. Still, they continue to face some intractable issues, including a shrinking talent pool and the need to recruit top-notch employees who are empowered to provide outstanding customer service. In order to attract top-tier talent, one option is to take advantage of recruitment opportunities offered through colleges and universities, especially if they have a hospitality major. This pool of prospective employees is likely to be better educated and more enthusiastic than walk-in hires. Also, once hired, there could be additional training and development opportunities that stem from an association with a college or university. Continuing education courses, business conferences, seminars and online instruction - all can be a valuable source of employee development opportunities. In addition to meeting recruitment demands in the present, HR professionals must also be forward-thinking, anticipating the skills that will be needed in the future to meet guest expectations. One such skill that is becoming increasingly valued is “resilience”, the ability to “go with the flow” and not become overwhelmed by the disruptive influences  of change and reinvention. In an era of transition—new technologies, expanding markets, consolidation of brands and businesses, and modifications in people's values and lifestyles - the capacity to remain flexible, nimble and resilient is a valuable skill to possess. The March Hotel Business Review will examine some of the strategies that HR professionals are employing to ensure that their hotel operations continue to thrive.