There was a time, not so terribly long ago, that there was really no such thing as a “boutique” hotel. There were big chain hotels (Hyatt, Sheraton, Hilton, Marriott), luxury hotels (the Ritz, the Four Seasons) and there were motels. And there were others: bed and breakfasts, pensiones, and ryokans. Oh, and since we’re talking Japan: there were love hotels. There was no AirBnB, no VRBO.
Boutique hotels really got their start in the late 70s, in London, courtesy of Anouska Hempel and Blakes. They were small (under 50 rooms), idiosynchratically decorated, with service that promised to be more intimate, more personal, and restaurant food that was actually edible.
The fashion and media crowds gravitated to this kind of thing. And it was then that things got out of hand.
People like ex-Studio 54 entrepreneur Ian Schrager got into the scene and in the mid-80s created hotels like the Paramount – small on space, but huge on the lobby scene. After Schrager, there were people like Chip Conley of the Joie de Vivre chain (and, ironically now working for AirBnB), the Kimpton chain, the Firmdale Group (Kit Kemp), and the late Alex Calderwood, founder of the Ace Hotels group. The big chains jumped into the fray, most notably the W chain, part of the Starwood group that also owned the Sheraton. And it continues: Andaz by Hyatt, Aloft hotels (also part of Starwood). And there are plenty of small ones.
They were cool in the 1990s, when you wanted a break for those bleak, beige hotel chains.
But 25 years into the trend, I’m really over boutique hotels, and quite frankly the “luxury” ones are the worst of the bunch. They’ve become too self-consciously quirky, clever and idiosyncratic with their decorator touches in their rooms and lobbies. They place so much emphasis on their own great scene/restaurants/spa/services/shopping/in-room app that they almost make you forget what city you’re in. They try so hard, they’re so needy, and are so intrusive. They utterly exhaust me. Oh and the rooms are so often tiny: ridiculously so. Particularly since you’re paying $500/night for the privilege.
This isn’t cool or luxurious. This is more like a way overpriced Disneyland. And, irony of ironies, they’re not even as good as Disneyland. At least Disney does something better than these hotels do: they put a lot of effort into service, even if you kind of cringe at it. The boutiques? Not so much.
Perhaps boutique hoteliers think that since they’ve reinvented the hotel, they should reinvent hotel service? Well if that was the goal, they’ve failed miserably. Yes, OK, so the service staff are hot and young and dressed in hand-woven, organic, locally-produced and designed uniforms. But what do they do in those uniforms? So often, service isn’t even responsive, let alone proactive. It’s service that’s so laid back it’s prone. It’s the kind of service where “sorry” doesn’t seem to be part of the vocabulary. They try so hard to be hip, to be cool, that perhaps service is beneath them. Or you get that corporatized “service” where they say the right things but the look behind the eyes is boredom, or worse, contempt.
The other thing they do, like Disneyland, is that they don’t truly engage with the community in which they’re located. It’s not that they don’t try … they bleat on about authenticity and local ingredients, local products, locally made furnishings, and decorating references to the city or place…but they want to suck all of that terroir into their hotel, rather than encourage you to go out there and be a part of where you are.
Even the concierges are some of the least professional I’ve dealt with: lackadaisical, ill-informed, and only steering you to their friends’ (second rate) restaurants. And the irony: this seems to be truer the more fabulous the city is: San Francisco, New York, London. (At least Disney does its thing in Orlando where terroir is, well, perhaps less defined.)
Sure, absolutely, there is a huge range of boutique hotels. And some do have great service and some sense of restraint on the design end of things. Some do try to connect you to their city, their surroundings. But having stayed in enough of those places, what I’m complaining about seems to be the rule not the exception.
I love design. I love quirkiness. I love intimate. But I’ve decided that I’m going to take a pass on any “luxury” boutique hotel that’s been hyped for its design. (I have a similar theory about museums: the more hyped and statementy the architecture, the less impressive the art. You know I’m right.)
I’m going to spend my money, time and attention at hotels where design is good and thoughtful. But most importantly, I want to be in places where the emphasis is on service, not on looking hot/hip/cool/chill.
And oddly enough, I’m now coming around to the view that it’s the more established, old school smaller hotel chains that have got it down the best. They’re the ones with thoughtful, refined, un-self conscious design and attentive staff who genuinely care about giving great service, and who are actually kind, who are thoughtful. They’re not unctuous or servile – they’re proud of the work they do. In short, they’re professionals, they’re craftsmen, they’re artisans, not of products or anything tangible, but of making people feel good about their choices, and about themselves.
These hotels – like the Omni, the Park Hyatt, the Grand Life chain-let, the Mandarin, Rosewood, even that dowager of hotels, the Fairmont – have great services in-house but don’t try to trap you in their clutches. Rather, they encourage engagement with the outside world, through good (though could be better) concierges, guides that go beyond that truly dreadful “Where” magazine (that’s something they need to fix), and a real understanding of the city they’re a part of.
It’s time for boutique hotels to grow up, pay attention to what people really want, and stop thinking “me” “me” “me” all the time.
So many of us are over Disney and Vegas. We don’t want to claw through bridge and tunnel crowds in the “lobby lounge” on a Friday night to get to our rooms or even just get a quiet drink before going upstairs. And in our real lives, we surround ourselves with great design. We want design and spaces that we discover, not that hit us over the head. We don’t need to feel like we’re in a Baz Luhrmann film. (This is not to say that we wouldn’t welcome design that’s better – that is, more thought out, functional, just better than what we have in our every day lives. There’s always room for improvement there).
And for the most part, we travel – not to go into some hermetically sealed environment, some walled garden – but to actually engage with the city or place that we’re traveling to (and not just have locally sourced stuff in the hotel.). We’d like some help from insiders with real knowledge, thank you very much. And if we just want to veg in our rooms or in the spa, then we want seamless, attentive service.
It’s time for us to expect more. I’m on the lookout for hotels and yes, boutique hotels even, that actually get this right. Let me know what you come across.