One of the dilemmas that modern travellers face when booking travel accommodation is often whether they should stay in Airbnbs, boutique or legacy hotels.
Granted, there’s the comfort and familiarity of staying at certain chain or legacy hotels, especially amongst those who travel frequently. But with the rise of “experiential travel,” more and more travellers are craving for local experiences. Enter: the boutique hotel model, which draws inspiration from the specific city the hotels are in. Offering anything from 25 to over 100 rooms to its guests, the boutique hotel model allows guests to see the destination they are visiting through a local’s eyes.
The history of boutique hotels
Perhaps the current boutique hotel model can be attributed to the wave of chic independent hotels that opened up in Europe in the 1970s, such as Anouska Hempel’s stylish Blakes Hotel (1978), which was an antithesis to the traditional hotels run by big corporations at that time.
The hotel was originally a clubhouse with an overblown, opium-den aesthetic, and a black-painted facade at its 33 Roland Gardens address. It was cool, edgy, and unapologetically non-conformist. Despite its popularity, little did Hempel know that she had accidentally invented the boutique hotel. Since then, hotels have been opening up around the world, first with the Bill Kimpton, Ian Schrager and Philippe Starck-fuelled design hotel revolution in the United States, and then the acid green aesthetics and nouveau chintz of Kit Kemp, before arriving to the big-budget Victorian opulence of Russell Sage.
Schrager and his friend Steve Rubell — who both founded the notorious New York City nightclub Studio 54 — opened their first boutique hotel, Morgans Hotel, in 1984. Working together with legendary designer Starck, they started the trend of break-through hotel design with the Morgans, followed by Royalton and Paramount.
This is when hospitality giants at that time started to take notice. Barry Sternlicht, founder and former CEO of Starwood Hotels (who owned Sheraton, Four Points, Westin and St. Regis at that time), approached Schrager for guidance to launch his passion project in New York, a boutique-inspired model different from his other hotel offerings. This would eventually become W Hotels, which opened in 1998, sparking the revolution of legacy brands creating smaller, more curated hotels.
“Ian Schrager had a couple of hotels already out, I believe 10 or 11 hotels at the time, and there might have been a couple more boutique “lifestyle hotels” out there. But there weren’t many,” said Al Petrone, former director of operations for W Hotels from 1999 to 2001, in an interview with Skift. “There certainly weren’t many with the big brands. Marriott didn’t have any, Hilton didn’t have any. Starwood, I believe, was one of the first to launch a lifestyle boutique brand from the big brands.”
“It took off like a rocket. It was successful right from the get-go and our target demographic ended up being much larger than what we anticipated,” Petrone added. “People that were even older than 45, 55, 65, all the suits that had previously been over at the Bull and Bear, the famous bar, at the Waldorf Astoria, were coming over to the original W. I think what we found is that human beings wanted to be around that vibe, that environment.”
How hospitality giants rode the wave
Inspired by the boutique hotel model of Hempel’s and Schrager’s era and the success of W Hotels, other hospitality giants have been creating spin-offs to cater to a specific group: younger, design-minded, experience-hungry travellers. From Curio Collection by Hilton to Autograph Collectio by Marriott and Andaz by Hyatt International, pseudo-independent hotels managed by legacy brands are making waves around the world.
“The face of luxury is changing. This generation of travellers don’t like formal, stuffy environments the way people used to in the past,” said Olivier Lenoir, General Manager of Andaz Singapore. “At Andaz Singapore, we provide a conducive type of environment that creates a home away from home. We feature an open concept where our guests can sit anywhere and mingle or work on their laptops. It creates the impression that you’re in someone else’s house and not a rigid environment.”
Andaz Singapore opened in the Kampong Glam precinct last year, marking the brand’s Southeast Asian debut. The brand, owned by Hyatt Hotels Corporation, started out in London 11 years ago, with a name derived from a Sanskrit word meaning “personal style.” The brand truly defined its identity with its West Hollywood Sunset Strip property in 2009 located in a building once called the Riot House, which captured the debauchery and nihilism of the 1970s rock scene, hosting parties in the attendance of bands like The Doors, The Who, The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin.
“We started out with Hyatt Regency, Grand Hyatt and then Park Hyatt respectively — but the group slowly realised that there was a void in our offerings. The idea was to fill this void,” said Lenoir, who has been with Hyatt Hotels Corporation for 19 years. “When Hyatt started Andaz, it was really based on the fact that we saw there was a market for it; to create a social space where people can meet, like our lounges, bars or restaurants. We have a more residential approach, it’s a bit more fun and relaxed, suited for the people who travel extensively and are tired of the traditional hotel model.”
The property in Singapore is definitely more subdued than the iconic West Hollywood hotel, which can be attributed to its locale in the cultural Kampong Glam precinct. “We encourage people to explore the neighbourhood while they’re here. So guests leave Singapore with a better understanding of the culture we have, mixed heritage, and architecture with the modern and quirky approach we have,” added Lenoir.
Another example is Cordis Hotels, a new brand under Hong Kong-based Langham International. With a name that means ‘heart’ in Latin, it draws in more established millennials in their 20s and early 30s. Its location in the vibrant Mongkok district at Kowloon offers a refreshing change from traditional Langham addresses like Tsim Sha Tsui district and London’s Regent Street. The hotel has since opened a second property in Shanghai’s Hongqiao district, with plans for Auckland, Bali, Colombo and other locations in China.
The guests at Andaz aren’t under any particular age group, Lenoir revealed. However, a certain type of personality prevails. “Our guests are more open-minded and creative travellers, such as entrepreneurs, designers, architects, and people in the art industry who prefer a more relaxed and casual type of stay,” he said.
W Hotels reports similar findings. “At the core of it, we attract well-educated professionals who are travelling a lot,” said Anthony Ingham its Global Brand Manager. “While we do attract the younger demographic, there’s a significant chunk of older guests with that similar mindset and really appreciate the free-spirited energy of the W. It’s that thought process that is more critical in the age group.”
“You can have a 28-year-old who likes things done in a certain way, and a 60-year-old who is a creative genius and wants to be in an environment that’s just really fun. The brand attracts the latter,” Ingham added.
Is the boutique hotel trend dying anytime soon?
But if you think the trend has reached its peak, you’ve thought wrong. In fact, it has almost become the norm. “I think [the boutique hotel model] has evolved in the sense that the world is looking for different, more folk experiences,” said Christine Lawson, former Senior Vice President of sales and catering for Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants, in an interview with Skift. “They want things that feel local. They want something where they don’t feel part of a chain. They want to collect experiences as they travel around the country and the world and the boutique segment of hotels really feeds into and delivers on that need and that desire of the traveller in a way that other big brands cannot.”
Lenoir concurred: “This is just the beginning. In Singapore, you see new smaller hotels like Ann Siang House and Hotel 1929 opening up in heritage buildings. There’s a lot of potential for boutique hotels to flourish. The younger generation of travellers are no longer choosing traditional hotels, but instead prioritising unique, curated experiences at more design-led properties.”