The Evolution of Boutique Hotels in 40 years (1980-2020)
By Rocco Bova General Manager, Chable' Resort & SPA | March 31, 2019
It was in the early '80s that the word ´´boutique hotels´´ was coined by entrepreneur Steve Rubell who, together with Ian Schrager, founded Morgans Hotel in New York (1984), soon to become a small chain of individual ''boutique hotels''. This event followed the opening of the first Kimpton in S.Francisco in 1981, which in fact begun the new movement of boutique hotels.
The word boutique is of French origin for specialized shop. In fact, in a boutique, you would be able to buy only one type of articles like jewellery, perfumes, clothings, etc., a type of retail to be distinguished from the traditional mall or larger shops where you could find different merchandise.
Let's look at the evolution of this concept at the present time, which is in my opinion, a little distorted.
So, Morgans Hotel, 1984, new York. Where else to launch what would become a worldwide trend and who better than Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell, founders of Studio 54 (that was a few years earlier) on of the most successful night club in history. In summary a duo that created the perfect storm to revolutionize what was at the time a very boring hotel concept, dominated principally by the large chains. Boring architecture and design, boring (or no) music played in public areas, boring food & beverage offerings.
They certainly found a (huge) niche and their success was immediate to what it is now a nearly common trend.
Today, basically each company is sub-branding with something cool and fresh in design, with good F&B and music, and some even using fragrances and colors to stimulate the senses.
Boutique hotels were initially born with the idea to attract a younger crowd, design addicted, love great music and they were willing to pay a premium price for this product, even though it was not in a central location.
The tipping point of success was now no longer ''location, location, location'' but ''product, service, ambience and price''. A completely different marketing strategy set to revolutionize the world of hospitality as it was known at the time.
Boutique hotels begun to sprout all over the place after conquering the US. You could first see Europe, then Asia, followed by the rest of the world and touching also the resort concept where the word ''boutique'' began to be used for : Boutique Resort, Boutique SPA, to then extend to Boutique lodges, and now evolving into Lifestyle, Glamping and Hostels.
Yes, the concept is evolving as because everyone has been using it and abusing it so much that now doesn't really match the initial idea behind it.
When it was born, the boutique hotel concept was characterized by its intimate atmosphere and idiosyncratic style. It distinguished itself from larger chain hotels by offering personalized attention and styled accommodations which play on a motif. The lobby was sleek and not just the place to check-in/out but lively and with a bar where people sit, drink and listen to music, often live. The place buzzed.
Rooms were well appointed, with tasteful and colorful decor, modern art meet classic, the linen and towels are plush and of excellent quality. The size of the room often small, and space used intelligently.
In summary, a place everyone would want to stay and not just to sleep.
Service was cool, staff no longer using black & white but stylish uniforms that made them proud to wear them. Tattoos and jewellery were permitted to staff, on the contrary, the more you have the better. Service staff needed to look cooler than the guests themselves.
A lot of rules were broken and still are, in order to create something so different that would disrupt the industry. And it happened.
So now what?? The word boutique has now kind of faded, because of its overuse. Now, its evolution has brought us not only new brands (Moxy, Soho House, Standard, W, Ace, Nobu, to name just a few) but new concepts too like Luxury Glampings, Hostels, Pods, Lifestyle Hotels (brands) etc.
I am sure you noticed the word ''Luxury'' and ''Lifestyle'' coming up now. This is because Luxury is more affordable, and there are more and more people who are ready to pay for that little more of exclusivity and distinct experiences available in non traditional hotels, while Lifestyle is something everyone want to belong to.
But let's go back to boutique hotels for a moment. The reason to the fading of this concept as well as the name is, in my opinion, because the term was misinterpreted and different countries began calling ''Boutique Hotels'' any small hotel, despite what their founding fathers initially created.
So, for example in Mexico, where I currently work, a boutique hotel is a small hotel (city or resort) and regardless of its star rating, design or price, its ''appellation'' does not change. It is funny how, when I ask around my network, the history of boutique hotels seems to be pre-history and basically forgotten. However, for the local market this works very well and nobody seem to bother too much. Actually they feel as they are going to an exclusive hotel.
In most part of Europe, boutique hotels are now called B&B. They are cheaper to run (yes, in most parts of Europe, your star rating is directly linked to your tax payments), with less expensive rates, therefore exposed to a wider audience.
As the birth of so many small hotels and new brands in the last 20 years has now become the new standard, the term boutique has lost strengths leaving its place to what is now consider the new need in the hotel arena.
Earlier in this article I mentioned the terms Luxury and Lifestyle, which created a shift in the need for new brands and concepts. As the market was changing, in particular with new generations now becoming the new breed of travelers, the need to create new brands and concepts was inevitable.
Here they come now the Lifestyle Luxury brands which can be divided into four categories:
1. - Fashion branded hotels (Bulgari, Armani, Versace, Cavalli, Cheval Blanc)
2. - Bohemian Luxury (AKA Barefoot Luxury)
3. - Luxury Pods, Glamping & Hostels
4. - Luxury wellness resort
So what's today a boutique hotel and why have the needs changed?
Let's talk a Little about generational change first. If you have read my two previous articles, I have talked extensively on Millennials and Gen X (my generation). In fact, as both generations are now at their peak of their career and hungry for travel to new, exciting destinations, the opportunities were too many to satisfy this new, emerging market.
Hence the birth of new concepts. Experiential Travel was born with new style of small, intimate hotels that can deliver experiences, not just clean accommodations with annexed services.
The boutique hotel has now evolved into experiential hotel where design still reigns, and new features appear like wellness not just SPA, back to basic Luxury not white gloved staff, glamour not gold, and co-working hotels no more solo travelers.
The spurs of this new wave of travelers who now wants to learn about the people, the place, the culture, the food, the history, the folklore, pushed existing hospitality companies to come up with something new, therefore the creation of new, sub-brands, or the creation of new brands all together. Each one following the above criteria for the newly created needs.
Let's briefly analyze each type of the new ''boutique hotel'' and their target market.
Strong emphasis on design, use of branded amenities, fabrics, colors and scent. Normally small in size (less than 100 rooms) and very luxurious in its product and service. Often employing a renowned architect and interior designer. F&B to Michelin star level. Prices above the 800USD per night. Aimed at Gen X or Millennials with high income.
Bohemian Luxury (AKA Barefoot Luxury)
Eco design, use of natural building materials, green energy, use of non toxic, chemical free bathroom amenities, no WIFI, simple but fresh, farm to table food, relaxed service. Price 400-600USD. Aimed at Gen X or Millennials with needs of freedom, return to simplicity, digital detox, reconnecting with nature.
Luxury Pods, Glampings, Hostels
This is possibly the fastest growing concept. Small size rooms, minimalistic design, often prefabricated but with each square foot of space well used. If in a city, their location is very central, if a resort, they are in the middle of nowhere. Food is fast and simple, service is relaxed. For resorts, contact with nature is number one priority, for city or urban locations culture/in-the-know experiences are essentials. Price 150-300USD (though some glampings can go up to 1000USD depending on their location and who is the operator). Aimed at Gen X or Millennials who wish to discover, share, travel short time but wish to learn about local culture, history and gastronomy of the place
Luxury Wellness resorts
With the incredible success of food supplements, fitness, nutrition and well-being in general, the wellness industry is now a $4 trillion business and every hotel company wants a slice of this cake.
So no more strict diets, massage and running on a treadmill. Wellness is now a lot more. Resorts are not only luxurious and expensive. They will immerse you in nature, let you rediscover the art of meditation, teach you farming and honey bee harvesting, pick your food in a market, meet a shaman, discover your spirituality, read tarots, and do this and all you want in moderation.
Prices can range from 500 to 1000USD. Gen X and Millennials love this concept and are now one of the most important market in this segment.
The last 10 years alone have witnessed the birth of approximately 200 new brands in the above segments and this trend is expected to continue to grow. What does it all mean for the boutique hotels sector?
It is here to stay in my opinion, I personally don't see those who travel as ''discovery'' to stay in large, box hotels. Those hotels will continue to be very useful for business travelers or those with no real intention to discover, and will continue to be managed mainly by the larger hotel groups (Marriott, Hilton, IHG, and the likes), while savvy travelers will continue to opt for smaller sized hotels, even though the price might be higher to pay.
It is now a fact that experiential travel is the main reason for people to explore new destinations.
I have been recently involved with two new brand launches and in both cases the analysis done was based on concepts aligned with my findings.
The new generation coming soon into the picture is Gen Z. They, in my opinion, will follow the schemes described in this article and in the near future, move one step forward with VR (Virtual Reality) Travel merged with AI (Artificial Intelligence), particularly those who cannot afford to travel due to budget restrictions or those afraid to fly to remote destinations.
Would this mean we will one day check into hotels managed by robots? This is yet to be seen and only time will tell. I remain of the firm opinion that luxury hotels will continue to employ people to serve guests and that the human touch will never be replaced by a warm welcome given genuinely by another person.
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