Boutique hotels aiming to broaden appeal as they branch out

By Harvey Chipkin
Bentonville, Ark.; Burlington, Vt.; Indianapolis; Louisville, Ky. These are not markets that have typically been thought of as ideal locations for boutique or lifestyle hotels.

But hotels in the boutique category are beginning to appear outside their traditionally urban, urbane settings.

Juniper Lounge Hotel Vermont renderingWhile the very definition of "boutique" has been debated since the category emerged more than a decade ago, there is a consensus that they appeal to creative types who are willing to pay a premium for interesting design, a trendy approach to food, a more casual approach to service and a generally hipper feeling than traditional lodging.

Boutique hotels in smaller or secondary markets need to have a wider appeal than a boutique in New York or Los Angeles, according to Hans van Wees, general manager of the Hotel Vermont, which will open in Burlington in early May.

"We are careful not to be what's usually expected in a boutique," he said. "In markets like ours, you can't have too narrow a market focus.

"We spent a lot of time discussing what we call a shift in the boutique paradigm," he said. "Instead of trendy, we look to a timeless fusion of old and new. Rather than an exclusive in-crowd, we talk about being accessible and democratic."

Several things seem to unify boutiques in smaller markets: a desire to separate from the other lodging in the city, and use of art as a design statement and as a way to connect with artists and creative types.

"We are different from other properties in town because of our design and service style," van Wees said. "If we had to describe our customer, they are independent-minded and self-reliant individuals."

Plat 99 Bar Alexander IndyFrances Kiradjian, who heads up the Boutique & Lifestyle Lodging Association, said, "I think boutiques can be sustained in any market if you have the right business plan.

"The Iron Horse Hotel in Milwaukee has been able to succeed because it has attracted a local market for food and events, and those people have their friends and family stay there when they visit. That's why you have boutiques like 21c Museum Hotels where the focus is on art.

"When you don't have a brand behind you, you have to do things differently," Kiradjian added. "Boutique owners have to ask themselves how they can sell things other than rooms. We define a boutique as at least three-and-a-half stars, with some kind of food and beverage that is independent and not franchised."

In fact, 21c Museum Hotels, with locations in Bentonville, Louisville and Cincinnati, according to its website, "seeks to integrate art into more people's daily lives (and have some fun along the way.)"

And the website of the Iron Horse asserts, "All the service found at a New York or Los Angeles boutique hotel, delivered with our famous Midwestern friendliness."

Michael Moros, general manger of the Alexander, a Dolce Hotel, in Indianapolis, said, "Our hotel is very art-centric. While we don't push the word boutique ourselves, others have described us that way. However, we do seek out the creative class of customer: a lot of millennials and those with an art focus.

"In a market like Indianapolis, the word boutique might have less appeal than in Chicago, but we are focused on art, food and excellent service. For instance, we have the Plat 99 mixology bar that would fit right in with boutiques in major cities."
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