Boutique Hotel Summit 2013 review

More than 200 delegates from as far afield as the US, Italy, Saudi Arabia, the Bahamas, Dubai, Switzerland and St Helena gathered in London for Boutique Hotel Summit 2013.

Day one provided some good educational and networking opportunities before the conference proper. Following a hotel tour of The Montcalm, The Arch London and No 10 Manchester Street, delegates gathered for a fast and furious speed business card swap and a cocktail party which featured some delicious concoctions from Patrón Spirits.

Day two started with a welcome from event founder Piers Brown, followed by a keynote speech from Niki Leondakis, CEO of Commune Hotels & Resorts. In her current position and her former role as COO of Kimpton Hotels & Resorts, Leondakis has had a unique overview of the evolution of the boutique and lifestyle hotel sector, and she shared some fascinating insights with the audience.

Commune brands now direct their marketing to distinct psychographic groups rather than traditional demographic divisions, said Leondakis, who predicted that in the near future guests will check in online and use their smart phones as room keys.

She stressed the importance of social media and how it allows hotels to “groom” future guests by aligning with their lifestyle affinities. Thompson Hotels – one of the Commune brands – has found that its social media “fans” spend an average of 35 per cent more per visit than non-fans.

Emotional connection and the guest experience is paramount to the Commune ethos, Leondakis stressed. She described the hotel experience as the only sustainable way to differentiate between hotels and brands, adding that the art of hospitality must not get lost among the hotel “extras”.

She concluded by saying that emotional connections are ultimately made between guests and hotel staff: “The greater the emotional impact, the more loyalty we can drive – it’s all about people,” she said.

The next speaker, John Voigtmann of La Bandita and La Bandita Townhouse in Tuscany, Italy, echoed one of Leondakis’ themes. In describing how he gave up a high powered music industry career to become a hotelier, with no previous experience, Voigtmann said hoteliers should “use technology carefully, and only to get closer to their guests – personal transactions are important”.

Over in the breakout room, a session entitled Getting to Know your Guest – Before They Arrive, dealt in detail with client interaction , both by social media and in person. Philip Newman-Hall, GM and director of Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons said that TripAdvisor is now the third biggest souce of leads for Le Manoir and that he and two other staff members, between them, reply to every single comment about the property on TripAdvisor, good or bad. He also said his wife now describes herself as a “twidow” as Newman-Hall spends so much time on Twitter interacting with guests.

Mark Chambers of The Eden Collection warned of the importance of finding the right balance when finding out about customers in order to offer them a personal service: “There’s a fine line between being a stalker and researching the guest.”

The panellists all agreed that delivering a great guest experience can only be delivered when the right ethos is apparent in all hotel staff. Joseph Kirtley, general manager of Belgraves hotel in London, said: “Hotel employees should be empowered to make decisions which will positively affect the guest’s stay. It makes the employees feel good as well as the guest. The guests become friends with the staff, and when they return they come back to see their friends.”

One facet of this year’s conference was the unveiling of two separate pieces of research about the boutique and lifestyle hotel sector. Introducing his study, Andrew Sangster of Hotel Analyst spoke of the difficulty in defining a boutique hotel, saying: “Boutique hotels don’t sit well with numbers – they are about intangibles. It’s about an ethos rather than a set of physical characteristics.” He went on to describe how the sector is punching well above its weight in terms of recognition and media coverage, saying that boutique hotels make up less than one per cent of total hotel inventory but generate around 50 per cent of all press coverage.

Before lunch, a revenue management session focused on the need for “total revenue management”, and a bigger emphasis for boutique hotels on developing F&B and events revenue. Consultant Graham Dungey stressed the importance for hotels to develop their own websites and increase bookings through them, “in order to be less drawn in to the OTA turf war”.

Post-lunch, Harrison Brown of introduced a short film in which members of the London public were asked a few questions about what a boutique hotel is, and what their experiences of them were. Many of the expected phrases came up: small, intimate, stylish, independent and so on. Intriguingly, several of the people interviewed could not remember the names of properties they had stayed at, even if they had really enjoyed it. A branding issue across the sector perhaps?

A broad cross section of hotel owners and investors discussed the state of the lending landscape. Conclusions included the very real need to be innovative and flexible when raising funds, particularly for smaller independent hoteliers, who need to have plenty of “skin in the game” to attract lenders. Robert Nadler of Nadler Hotels said that if he didn’t have a strong track record in other business sectors he would have struggled to finance his hospitality projects. He also said that he became a hotelier “by mistake” but that it is so much fun he has “put his own name above the door”.

A research paper by marketing consultancy Greenlight, evaluating online search for the boutique hotel sector, then followed (results here) before Red Carnation Hotels managing director Jonathan Raggett – fresh from acquiring the Ashford Castle hotel in Ireland – spoke about recruiting, motivating and retaining staff. The group looks to recruit people with a high “HQ” or hospitality quotient, according to Raggett.

There were also fascinating session on design, social media, disruptive technology, general managers and working with bloggers, before the final Meet the Leaders session. Moderated by Russell Kett of HVS, the session featured Commune’s Niki Leondakis, Gerard Greene of Yotel, Peter Taylor of The Townhouse Collection, and Robin Sheppard of Bespoke Hotels.

Conclusions reached were that direct bookings through a hotel’s own website are “the Holy Grail” for the sector, and the importance of service and personal interaction provided echoes from sessions earlier in the day. Perhaps the session also came close to concluding the thorny issue of defining a boutique hotel – or perhaps a tongue in cheek definition of what is not a boutique hotel, when Russell Kett asked: “Can a hotel be a boutique hotel if it doesn’t have Farrow & Ball paint?”

A new addition to this year’s Boutique Hotel Summit was a TV screen either side of the stage running a live Twitter feed about the event using the hashtag #BoHoSummit. This was a fascinating way of charting the topics that engaged delegates, and with a strong contingent of press and bloggers in the room, the conference generated more than 1200 Tweets and ReTweets on the day itself, and many more since.

Overall it was a very interesting and rewarding event, with great feedback from delegates and a real sense of momentum for the Summit, which is firmly establishing itself as a fixture in the hospitality industry calender.

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