Boutique hoteliers tout independence, spirit of innovation

By Danny King

LOS ANGELES — Anyone who attended Phoenix's 18th annual Lodging Conference earlier this month might have identified the convention's patron saint as Bill Marriott.

But at the inaugural Boutique Lifestyle Leadership Symposium last week, that patron saint was Ian Schrager.

The Boutique Lifestyle conference, which was hosted appropriately at the Hollywood Roosevelt hotel (a Thompson Hotels property) by the Boutique & Lifestyle Association and which attracted about 200 people, celebrated all things independent, individual and creative.

Panelists from companies ranging from longtime standbys like Morgans Hotel Group and Viceroy Hotel Group to relative newcomers like Yotel also fired a shot across the figurative bow at larger chains looking to hone in on their territory by launching or expanding their own boutique brands.

"It's very doubtful that innovations in the hotel industry are going to happen in a suburban Washington, D.C., conference room with 12 guys," said Joie de Vivre Hotels founder and conference keynote speaker Chip Conley, in a not-so-subtle dig at Marriott International.

Conley at one point showed a slide with an image of tombstones with the names "Crowne Plaza," "Radisson" and "Ramada" on them. "Let's recognize that innovations generally happen with the outsiders," he said.

The boutique sector, which was largely believed to be launched when former Studio 54 impresario Schrager opened the original Morgans Hotel in New York in 1984, has gained popularity as higher-end travelers looked for a more unique, design-oriented lodging experience.

Boutique Lifestyle Leadership Symposium panelCompanies such as Kimpton Hotels and Viceroy have since helped broaden the presence of boutique hotels throughout the U.S., which panelists say still lags Europe when it comes to ubiquity.

Granted, there's little agreement on what standards would qualify for a boutique hotel. Conley noted that while a boutique hotel in Memphis might have 40 rooms, its counterpart in Manhattan might be 10 times that size. Opus Hotels CEO John Evans added that with the advent of social networks and viral marketing, "you can create a global brand with one hotel."

"As we seek to define ourselves, we're going to have a creative, robust and lively debate" about what makes a boutique hotel, Auberge Resorts Founder and CEO Mark Harmon said at the conference.

And while conference organizers invoked the term "lifestyle," Conley went so far as to dismiss the term, saying that "we should retire the phrase."

Smith Travel Research (STR) defines the boutique sector as hotels with "unusual amenity and room configurations" with higher-than-average room rates. STR says there are 855 boutique hotels in the U.S. totaling about 95,000 rooms with an average nightly room rate of about $200, or about double the overall U.S. average.

As for demand growth, boutique hotels' revenue available room (RevPAR) through September rose 7.1% from a year earlier after surging 13% last year, according to STR.

As a result, those higher rates have drawn larger hoteliers during the past decade or so. While Starwood Hotels & Resorts was an early adopter with its W brand, Hyatt Hotels jumped in with its Andaz brand in 2007, and Wyndham, which largely oversees more moderately priced brands, has since joined the fray with Tryp by Wyndham.

And even Marriott, which panelists appeared to point to as the most standardized of the large hotel operators, has embraced the boutique concept, launching the Autograph Collection of "independent" hotels in 2010. That umbrella group has since added about 30 properties.

Still, panelists questioned both the value and validity of such umbrella groups within the larger hoteliers. Trust Hospitality CEO Richard Millard invoked the image of a tattooed, pierced and unshaven bartender that could very well find employment at some boutique hotels.

"If Bill Marriott saw that, he'd pull his sign off the hotel," Millard said, adding that the successful boutique hotels have no need to be taken under the wing of a larger chain. "There's a place for endorser brands, but you only need them if you're not doing well."

And panelist and Broughton Hotels CEO Larry Broughton further invoked the us-vs.-them mentality that belied many boutique hoteliers' warm and fuzzy attitude toward creativity and individuality.

"We're kind of the warrior class in the hospitality industry," said Broughton, an ex-Marine. "We're fighting the giants."

For hotel and hospitality news, follow Danny King on Twitter @dktravelweekly.  

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