“Boutique” hotel blues

“Boutique” hotel blues

The worldwide upscale hotel and resort industries have been undergoing a profound change in the last few years, albeit ?paused? by the global financial crisis by differing degrees in different countries.

Although each city or resort finds itself in a different position on the world curve of hospitality industry development, and tastes differ, the trend is clear: High-quality hotel concepts that offer unique, cutting-edge designs with a sense of theatrer yet that are still warm and comfortable are setting the trends and are outperforming their traditional competitors.

Stunning boutique hotels have broken all of the established rules in the industry and are causing a re-alignment of traditional conservative concepts and designs. Almost all of these have been created by small, edgy design firms who are establishing the new paradigm in the industry, understanding the new, heightened consumer awareness of, and thirst for, trend-setting design.

At the same time, a rush to embrace the ?new? has created a disproportionate number of new hotels and resorts that are different for difference sake and are cold and dispassionate, crucially failing to reach the target markets in a meaningful and lasting manner, resulting in shaky business models at best.

The signs are clear ? modern, creative design can easily miss the mark, and only a small proportion of design firms are able to create lasting concepts and designs time in and time out.

Clearly part of the problem has been owners or hotel management companies thinking that they can stick the word ?boutique? on anything that moves and it will bring in the hordes. I was in Jakarta two weeks ago working on a new, exciting Fairmont Hotel that we are in the initial stages of designing and couldn?t believe my eyes at this ?boutique? hotel alongside the airport to city expressway in a rundown part of town.

Even in the legitimate world of upmarket boutique hotel development, I can think of a large hotel chain currently rolling out boutique properties around the world using a variety of design firms. Yet, the results are more often than not tremendously mediocre ? not much cutting edge talent evident in most properties, again, in my opinion ? they are just different, but most I?d never want to stay in.


In my opinion, there is a big difference between the future potential of the boutique hotel industry and the patchy performance to date as the plain truth is that by and large the industry is not getting it right just yet.

Besides the basic hotel development fundamentals such as location versus target markets, which the industry has been perfecting since the days of the horse and buggies, in the ?boutique? hotel segment you are far more dependant upon your interior designer, lighting designer, perhaps art consultant and sometimes the architect, than almost any other market segment, as you?re targeting markets that will expect more of the ambience than you normally deliver.

If I can offer a simple basic rule-of-thumb: You don?t want to hire a mostly ?commercial? hotel design firm to design a boutique hotel as the results will almost always be ?commercial? (funny that). It?s like hiring a symphony orchestra and asking them to play rock ‘n roll.  The notes are clearly the same but this by and large will not interest the vast majority of the target markets attracted to rock ‘n roll. And this, to date, has been the principal reason, in my opinion, why the ?boutique? hotel phenomenon has been so underwhelming. You all simply haven?t hired the right designer, and in this segment it?s so much more important than virtually any other hotel/resort segment.

Secondly, if you find a hotel concept/design that blows you away and you think you?d like to hire the design firm that created it, that?s a good start, but make sure that they?ve done it several times under different conditions and are not one-hit wonders, as this is the best insurance that you can possibly have, hopefully inspiring confidence to take a chance with whatever they propose that makes you nervous. Remember, if you cut off the four corners of a square you end up with a circle, so you want to be able to hire a firm and give them latitude to really come up with something unique and not reduce the process to design-by-committee other than tweaking basic operational issues.


Thirdly, as I alluded to above, the result has to be warm and comfortable, yet oftentimes ?boutique? hotels are about as warm as a dentist?s office. When I was working in Mexico in the 90?s as manager developing/opening the Mandarin Oriental, Mexico City (which never opened due to the peso crash of ?94 and is now the JW Marriott), I was looking into Mexico?s most famous architect, Luis Barrag?n, as one of his disciples was the architect of the Mandarin. I was amazed how he married clean architectural lines with rich, vivid colors that define Mexico, then read one of his many famous quotations: “If it (architecture) doesn?t touch the heart, it?s a mistake.? I was just the manager of the hotel, not looking to be a designer, yet after spending a couple of decades working with designers on concepts and designs, and the frustrations involved in trying to achieve something truly different with them, I had a ?Eureka? moment reading this. I thought, and still do, that this is exactly the secret, and all future designs I?ve worked on since have had to pass this test.

In my next blog, I?ll step way out on a plank and list the top design firms that are exciting the world time after time with exciting hotel design.