Tina Norden of Conran and Partners looks at the concept of uniqueness and differentiation in boutique hotels.
Everyone is looking for the next ‘Big Thing’ in the boutique hotel industry. The reality is that – in common with many other market sectors – the answer may be staring at you from the other side of the mirror.
‘Uniqueness’, or an ability to tell a story about a hotel’s personality, and how that sets it apart from others, is the essence of the boutique approach. It is the idea that guests – invariably drawn from a demographic that is constantly questioning the predictable and ubiquitous, while passionate about sampling good design delivered in exceptional settings – are constantly searching for an ever more defined and personalised ‘sense of place’ which cannot readily be offered by the mainstream leading hotel brands.
Achieving such uniqueness can be as much about offering a wide range of experiences in the same hotel as a single, all-encompassing design. For example, Boundary in London – one of Conran and Partners’ flagship hospitality schemes that has, I believe, stood the test of time – offers ‘…timeless and comfortable guestrooms and suites each inspired by a legendary designer or design movement.’ It is an approach which demonstrates that the operator understands exactly what its guests expect from a hotel of this size and location.
To achieve such sharp levels of differentiation in a highly lucrative global marketplace, some of the most successful boutique hotels place a strong emphasis on storytelling and on giving guests the feeling of being treated as unique visitors. To quote from two of the most successful operators on the boutique hotel scene, Ace’s website states: ‘We like the stories that come with things and think that wherever you are, you should feel like you’re always there’; and Carlos Couturier of Grupo Habita, recognises that: ‘…there has to be a human side to the experience. It’s about creating experiences for your guests…’
One of the challenges facing the boutique hotel sector since its emergence in the 1980s as a niche concept has been retaining an identity which clearly sets it apart from the mainstream sector, despite the fact that many of the large hotel groups have invested in and developed boutique hotel concepts of their own.
The ones which have flourished have been those such as Marriott Group working with Ian Schrager to deliver Edition Hotels, and IHG Kimpton Hotels, where the approach and philosophy of the parent is largely subservient to the specific ideology of the boutique operation. The ‘idea’ underlying the Edition concept typifies this: ‘…although all of the hotels look completely different from each other, the brand’s unifying aesthetic is in its approach and attitude to the modern lifestyle rather than its appearance. EDITION is about an attitude and the way it makes you feel rather than the way it looks.’
Paradoxically, the rapid spread of information in a digital age has made it difficult for some boutique hotels to maintain a definitive brand personality that is perceived as fresh, innovative and aspirational. Technology can allow the best parts of one brand to be borrowed by other brands, threatening to undermine the concept of uniqueness.
At the same time, the most up-to-date technology in any hotel is now something which is increasingly expected by guests rather than offered as an add-on; it is becoming facilitator rather than the ‘main event’. Where technology is being used most effectively is, for example, through social media campaigns which help to establish a hotel’s relationship with its guests before, during and after their stay via their various mobile devices.
Nonetheless, there can be no substitute for a hotel experience where the personality of the place is championed by those who work there. Guests want to interact with real people who are genuinely enthusiastic about looking after them but who also see themselves as a physical extension of the brand and a living, breathing embodiment of its ideals. The Guesthouse in Vienna, which was shortlisted for the European Hotel Design Awards a couple of years ago, has such personality in abundance thanks to its manager Manfred Stallmaier – resulting in its much-loved and admired status in the Viennese hotel market.
In the best types of boutique hotels, guests know intuitively when both the design and the staff are there to keep them at the centre of everything that is going on. From the moment they arrive and are greeted by the head of concierge to the time they order cocktails from the mixologist at the bar, guests are aware of the pervasive spirit of the hotel and the way in which its ‘story’ is told through the particular tone of voice and manner adopted by staff. This is the natural outcome of an approach which communicates an all-encompassing, embedded narrative, pervading everything from website design to the softness of sheets. Its aim is to create experiences tailored to very specific markets and viewpoints.
The beauty of ’boutiqueness’ is its ability to avoid being pigeonholed in terms of trends and fads. We have entered a ‘post-trend’ era. Our focus now – whether as operators, designers or customers – should be on delighting in what we are, rather than worrying about what we are not.