Boutique/lifestyle? To-MAY-to/to-MAH-to

By Danny King
Danny KingSpeaking to an audience of about 175 people at Los Angeles' Hollywood Roosevelt hotel late last month, Joie de Vivre founder Chip Conley could barely hide his contempt for a certain delineation of lodging establishments.

"Lifestyle hotel. I hate this term!" Conley, told attendees at the Boutique & Lifestyle Lodging Association's (BLLA) inaugural leadership symposium.

"I have never in my life heard a guest call something a lifestyle hotel," he said. "I think we should retire that phrase. It's not something that trips off the tongue of the guest."

What might seem like hair-splitting to industry outsiders is in fact a very big deal to insiders, as boutique and lifestyle hoteliers look to further differentiate their properties from other independently run hotels as well as from the larger chains. Cultural, design-driven, individual, unique, urban, personalized, creative, location-based -- all these are buzzwords associated with the boutique and lifestyle sectors.

"These hoteliers believe that their customers are looking for something authentic and real," said BLLA founder Frances Kiradjian, whose group has attracted about 600 members since its late-2009 founding. She added that boutique-lifestyle customers "kind of see through big brands that have a playbook they have to follow. Independent hotels don't have such a strict playbook and can change on a dime when they want."

So what's the difference between boutique and lifestyle? Kiradjian says boutique hotels usually tend to max out at about 120 rooms, whereas lifestyle hotels can be three to four times that size, depending on the market.

Boutique hotels are often in older, historical buildings. They might also have an upscale, "chef-driven" restaurant on the ground floor (no rotating top-floor lounges here) and often offer what Kiradjian called "one-to-one-type services," such as spa treatments.

Meanwhile, lifestyle hotels often put an emphasis on what Kiradjian called "wellness" and "enrichment," meaning that many focus on things like yoga, art and music. From a design standpoint, lifestyle hotels tend to be more contemporary than boutique properties, she added.

PKF Consulting Senior Vice President Bruce Baltin, based in Los Angeles, had his own take on the subject, calling lifestyle a subset of boutique hotels.

"Lifestyle hotels tend to be 'scene' hotels," said Baltin, who cited Viceroy hotels and Starwood Hotels & Resorts' W Hotels badge as part of that group, and Los Angeles' iconic Hotel Bel-Air as a boutique-but-not-lifestyle property. "The bar scene tends to be a big element. They're designed to be high-energy."

Either way, the subject -- and the delineation -- is topical because the market -- or markets, depending on your view -- are both growing and lucrative.

Between 2009 and mid-2012, the number of U.S. properties that Smith Travel Research classified as boutique jumped to 775 from about 600, or 29%. By comparison, the total number of U.S. hotels rose about 3.5%, to about 52,000 during that period.

Meanwhile, boutique hotels' revenue per available room (RevPAR) through September was about $145 a night. That's about 60% more than the overall U.S. average or about the same RevPAR as a typical hotel in the San Francisco/San Mateo market.

Those kinds of numbers have brought more people to the boutique-lifestyle party, including chains like Hyatt, Marriott, Wyndham and their newer Andaz, Autograph Collection and Tryp by Wyndham badges, respectively.

Still, confusion remains.

A case in point is Ian Schrager. The co-founder of New York's legendary Studio 54 is considered by many to be the godfather of boutique hotels because he opened the original Morgans Hotel in New York in 1984.

But Kimpton Hotels disputes that notion. The San Francisco-based company, whose brands include Hotel Palomar and Hotel Monaco in addition to a host of other individually named properties throughout the U.S., says its Clarion Bedford Hotel in San Francisco was the first boutique property when it opened in 1981. Later that year, Kimpton instituted the oh-so-boutique tradition of a nightly complimentary wine hour.

"Morgans Hotels, I would call more lifestyle," Baltin said. "And Kimpton was around well before Schrager."

Naturally, the ever-mercurial Schrager is shooting for something that he says falls into a whole different category, though he was less than clear about what that was. The hotelier debuted his Public hotel brand in Chicago last October, with plans to open a New York version by 2014 and another, in London, within the next few years.

Schrager, in an interview with Travel Weekly last year, said Public was "in the space below the boutique space," adding that "it's difficult to categorize" and that it was "a new class of hotel."

As for terminology and "retiring" certain phrases, the BLLA's Kiradjian says that's nothing new in the hotel sector.

"About six years ago, Kimpton said they were going to abolish the word 'boutique,'" said Kiradjian. "They thought it kind of slotted them."

And as for Joie de Vivre and its founder, Baltin was positive Conley could legitimately say he has developed boutique hotels; he was less certain about Conley's antipathy toward the word "lifestyle."

"I'm not sure why he said that, but I could see him saying it," Baltin said. "Chip's pretty erudite."

Still, a more harmonious coexistence of boutique and lifestyle might be in the making. Last year, Joie de Vivre, which began operations in 1987 with the conversion of a motel in San Francisco's not-so-squeaky-clean Tenderloin District into the resolutely boutique Phoenix Hotel, merged with New York's unmistakably lifestyle-dedicated Thompson Hotels, whose first property was New York's 60 Thompson in 2001.

And this past February, they finally came up with a name for the company. The new moniker? Commune.

Contact Danny King at and follow him on Twitter @dktravelweekly 
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