Back in the '90s, guests knew what to expect when checking into a "boutique" hotel: cutting-edge design, gorgeous staff, fewer rooms than the big chains, and the city's hottest bars and restaurants no farther than the lobby.
Today, with the travel industry slapping the "boutique" label on mid-market franchises and 200-room boxes, it seems to have become little more than a marketing gimmick. Companies such as Starwood Hotels and Resorts and Canada's Germain Group are taking style to the masses with the launch of their new cheap-chic chains, Aloft Hotels and Alt Hotels, respectively, but that doesn't do much good for the boutique hotel's exclusive image.
"The term ‘boutique' is greatly overused and, as a result, is often confused and misconstrued," said Imran Hussain, media relations manager for London-based myhotels, which operates small-scale, design-focused hotels in the city's fashionable Chelsea and Bloomsbury neighborhoods. "Unfortunately it seems to have become a buzzword of sorts, no longer meaning quirky or independent but now served with a more mass-marketed approach."
What's more, plenty of customers have grown leery of the original boutique concept, usually credited to hotel impresario Ian Schrager, who opened the Morgans Hotel in New York City 1984. Why? Those minimalist rooms often turned out to be cramped and uncomfortable, the cooler-than-thou bars sometimes turned away hotel guests, and the comely staff could be clueless about service.
Luckily, rumors of the boutique hotel's demise have been greatly exaggerated. You can still find hotels that are small enough to create an intimate feel, genuinely stylish and luxuriously comfortable to boot. In fact, a slew have opened in the last year, and more are on the way.
We've assembled a list of our favorite new arrivals to help you sort through them. The largest has 90 rooms, the smallest just 4, and while their styles range from traditional to futuristic, all have distinct design and top-notch service.
Finely Tuned Frills
To find out more about what makes a boutique hotel great, we turned to industry insiders like Stephen Brandman, chief operating officer and co-owner of Thompson Hotels. With properties such as the Roosevelt in Hollywood and Sixty Thompson in Manhattan, his company has become synonymous with urban cool.
"There's this thought that boutique hotels need to be about loud, noisy bars and 5'10 models, but at the end of the day, we’re about service,” he says. As the former quality-of-service overseer for the Intercontinental Hotels Group, he says that the idea behind Thompson Hotels was to marry the high-end service associated with big luxury hotels with smaller, more stylish spaces. As for design, surroundings should be pleasant, but he prefers to avoid what he calls "overdesign"--flashy, gimmicky looks, such as an oversized red lampshade in the lobby, that lose their appeal after the wow-factor wears off.
We also talked to Philippe Kjellgren, president of the Kiwi Collection, a Web- and book-publishing company that is to luxury hotels what the Michelin Guide is to restaurants. His staff collectively stays in some 1,900 hotels a year; Kjellgren personally stayed in about 300 in the last year and a half.
Asked to pick favorites based on great design and small size, he suggested Portrait Suites in Rome, opened last year by Lungarno Hotels, the group owned by the Ferragamo family. Located in a palazzo on the Via Condotti, with its own roof deck, the interiors feature wood and marble furnishings as well as more exotic touches like boar skin-covered tables. "It has all the small details, everything is perfect," Kjellgren said. "Some rooms are small but it's still very well laid out.”
Another Kjellgren pick was Les Ottomans, located on the Bosphorus Straight in Istanbul. The 12 opulent rooms in this nearly year-old boîte have what he calls a "wild interpretation of traditional Turkish design." Translation? Gilt mirrors, French doors and plush Anatolian carpets in the lobby, plus unique suites that mix, for example, gold bedpreads fit for a pasha with widescreen televisions and feng shui design principles.
Kjellgren also tipped us off to the Frank Gehry-designed Hotel Marqués de Riscal, owned by Starwood and opened in Spain's Rioja wine region last September. Whether you love it or hate it may depend on how you feel about starchitects in general, and Gehry's signature metallic swoops in particular, but it's a rare chance to stay inside of what Kjellgren calls "a work of art in itself." Just don't expect too many right angles.
You'll also find off-the-beaten track hotels on our list, for while the boutique genre was pioneered in the big city, it didn't stay there for long.
Indeed, some of the original urban boutique owners have begun to ply their trade at locations farther afield. Thompson Hotels recently opened Gaige House in Sonoma Valley, while the owners of the slick Habita Hotel in Mexico City have gone to the beach, opening the 20-bungalow Hotel Azucar in Veracruz.
In the end, great boutique hotels are not about a specific location or look, but they do have to have a certain je ne sais quoi: "It's more than just the ingredients," Brandman said. "There's that special sauce, that special ingredient that you can't just buy in a bottle.”