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Boutique Hotels:
Have They Gone Too Far?

by Harry Nobles & Lisa Jackson
March, 2010

They have certainly gone far in distance; we recently encountered the boutique concept in Asia. While on a consulting project in Thailand we visited several small hotels that, in our opinion, combine all the best boutique characteristics. We were most impressed with the elegant and intimate atmosphere these properties display without any of the trendiness we have seen in some U.S. self-named boutique hotels. We do not intend any criticism of American boutique hotels; we have seen some truly excellent examples. In fact we have recently worked with an architectural firm to design a 73-room property for a client.

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When completed, we believe it will be a superb combination of a luxurious physical facility, intimate atmosphere, and the ultimate in personalized service, thereby truly deserving of the term boutique. We  readily admit to some bias on this point. 

The trendiness, to which we refer will, in our opinion, be short-lived. We believe guests will quickly tire of properties that cater to the quirks and idiosyncrasies of what we see as a very small segment of the market. We feel that boutique hotels choosing this option will enjoy only short-term success. We would do well, however, to remember H.L. Mencken’s satiric quote  "no one ever went broke underestimating the American public’s taste". 

This taste to which we refer includes themes such as Sex, The Occult, Yoga & Spiritualism, and Tall Guests. The list goes on and on. The Sex themed hotel, decorated with satin fabrics in passionate reds and seductive blacks, is located in a major city at the hub of political activity. 

Do our over funded and mostly under productive politicians really need any additional encouragement to visit a “boutique” hotel rather than taking care of the people’s business?

Some of us can remember the old timers who were able to do both. Do the names “Wilbur” and “Fannie Fox” at the Tidal Basin ring a bell?

The room rate for guests at the Tall Person hotel is based on guest height: the taller the guest, the lower the rate. Might this be considered discrimination against short people? 

We agree there should be accommodations to suit just about everyone's personal taste, but should every small hotel with a theme be labeled as Boutique? We  think not.
We are convinced there will always be discerning guests who expect, will seek out, and will be willing to pay for a memorable hotel experience. These guests do not want and will not be fooled by gimmicks and fads. They will demand and will patronize those properties that offer elegance, both formal and informal, individualized guest rooms, attention to detail and impeccable, tailor-made service: In our opinion, these are the things that define a bona fide boutique hotel.
Several of the Asian properties we visited epitomized the boutique concept. They were small, one has only six rooms; and each had a special and unique "feel". The decor ranged from simplicity to elegance. Service was personalized without being familiar. Staff was totally attentive and very guest oriented but neither robotic nor intrusive. We experienced the perfect balance between superb service when we wanted it and privacy and serenity when we wanted that: A very refreshing change from so many "cookie cutter" hotels. 

We were also enlightened on this trip. We had previously associated "boutique" with elegance. We now know that this is not a firm rule. Our favorite discovery was a six-room hideaway that opened our  eyes: A boutique resort with an atmosphere of absolute simplicity and understated beauty.  While we will admit that the location on a secluded mountain with a magnificent view of two oceans adds a lot, this would be  a very special place in any setting. It was a truly memorable experience, and we have already planned a return visit. 

Our experience accomplished the ultimate goal of any hotel manager: it made us want to stay longer, come back soon, and tell others. What more could one expect?   We  could rave on but you get the point. We found some real gems in Asia and can't wait to talk about them with anyone who will listen.  We also came away with so many exciting ideas for our next boutique hotel design project.
We have always heard of the important role that harmony plays in oriental life but had  never thought of it in terms of hotel accommodations until experiencing it first hand in Asia.
Harmony, both physical and spiritual, is one more characteristic we will be looking for when visiting boutique hotels in the future.  We believe harmony is one of the more appropriate elements for boutique hotels, not just in Asia, but anywhere in the world. 

Have boutique hotels gone too far?  If trying to be special by just being trendy, faddish, or radical is too far, maybe some have gone to the extreme.  On the other hand,  maybe some adventurous soul needs to be willing to experiment and explore the outer limits of this concept.  We certainly do not see this as a bad thing.  We trust the public to decide what it will accept and support.  The ultimate decision on what is boutique, special,  or just different will not be up to us or to the industry.  The final judge, as always, will be the guest.  


Harry Nobles Hospitality Consulting
(757) 564-3761

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