What, exactly, is a ‘boutique hotel’? Most people conjure up a certain image in their heads when they hear the term and, undoubtedly, there are characteristics that are common to most boutique-style properties. However, the definition of ‘boutique’ has become increasingly broad.

“It’s become a kind of a catch-all [phrase] for many things,” says David Larone, a Toronto-based senior managing director with CBRE Hotels. “You say boutique to some people and they’re thinking about art-deco properties from South Beach (Florida), very hard-edged stuff; and then you talk to other people and they’re thinking about small European-style hotels. Boutique can mean independent, non-branded — although we do have brands in that space today: lifestyle brands, smaller, often less than 100 keys. They can be unique upscale properties, some of them with a very original perspective on [food and beverage], and then there are local, community-type properties…We’ve had a broadening of the definition, and certainly a proliferation of product and interest over the last 10 or 15 years in this space.”

Celso Thompson, director of Sales and Marketing for Toronto’s new Hotel X (expected to open this fall), thinks the essence of ‘boutique’ comes down to personalized service. “It’s about that response to my individual needs — more than just creating an experience I can find in city A, city B or city C and knowin g there’s a reliable product when I travel, I find that [boutique] is about catering to each individual client’s needs,” he says.

Hotel X plans to provide that sort of personalized service, along with the promise of a memorable experience which can’t be found anywhere else. At 404 rooms, it “defies the common image of a small boutique hotel,” according to Thompson, “But we have 19 rooms per floor, so the feel and the attention to detail we have inside of the room is still that of a boutique hotel.” Given its unique location — on the historic grounds of Toronto’s Exhibition Place — the Hotel X team is aiming to make the various outlets on the property destinations in themselves. For example, the Peregrine Sky Bar is a rooftop bar featuring “three stories dedicated to a rooftop experience. There’s nothing like it in the city [or] anywhere else,” boasts Thompson.

The boutique property also plans to raise the bar with its technology offerings. “We are going heavy on technology, so that’s an area that will be extremely important for us — from the room keys, to the way that Internet access will not be an issue in our hotel,” says Thompson, with a chuckle. “We are future-proofing the building so when new technology comes out, we’re already wired for it. What we’ve done so far responds to today’s technology and it prepares us for the next 10 years at least.”

As part of the Library Hotel Collection, Hotel X joins six other boutique-style hotels in a group which includes two Aria Hotels in Budapest and Prague, and four hotels in New York City: Library Hotel, Casablanca Hotel, Hotel Giraffe and Hôtel Elysée. According to Larone, while the boutique trend began as mostly independents or very small chains, “collections” are becoming increasingly common in the segment.

In fact, many of the industry’s big-name brands — in addition to launching their own boutique-style brands — are beginning to offer “collection” programs, through which a group of independent properties become affiliated with a brand while maintaining their individuality and independent feel. “So let’s say you and I own a boutique hotel or own an asset that is well known within the industry or community, but we want to avail ourselves of the brand system, we could become part of the Curio Collection by Hilton or Autograph by Marriott. Starwood is starting Tribute and Hyatt has what they call the Unbound Collection,” explains Larone. “Another reason [operators are] going there is because it helps them get financing. Lenders like brands, so that’s another motivation.”

While lenders might like the affiliation with a known and trusted brand, the power of a brand seems less important to individual travellers these days, as online travel agencies (OTAs) and review sites proliferate online. “As a traveller, I’m really paying attention to what people are saying about places online,” says Thompson.

Well-known Toronto hospitality and entertainment entrepreneur Charles Khabouth agrees. Years ago, people were reticent to stay in an unbranded hotel or a hotel they hadn’t heard of, he says, “But now I can Google, I can read reviews. That has given the boutique hotel industry a big push…A lot more people are trusting of the smaller brands, the smaller boutique hotels, so the audience has gotten bigger.”

After many years as a leader in the city’s restaurant and nightclub scene, Khabouth is gearing up to open his first boutique hotel in Toronto. The property, Bisha, is under construction and is expected to open in the next eight to nine months. At 96 rooms, Bisha will certainly fit the small boutique mould and Khabouth aims to differentiate this property by offering one-of-a-kind food-and-beverage services. “It’s going to be a destination for F&B,” he explains. “It’s going to have a 24-hour café and a lively bar in the lobby. We’re not creating a seating area [in the lobby], we want everyone to go into the lobby bar. We also have a restaurant on the second floor and a rooftop patio with an indoor/outdoor restaurant bar.”

The atmosphere itself will be a primary draw for Bisha, says Khabouth. “A big drive to stay in our hotel is going to be the excitement, the electricity of walking into that lobby. The lobby bar, and the energy around the building will be spectacular,” he adds. “You know that kind of atmosphere where you just can’t wait to drop off your bag and come down to the bar? That’s what I want Bisha to be. I want it to be an amazing, luxury, lifestyle, happy environment.”

As for room rates, while Bisha’s prices aren’t yet set, Khabouth expects it will be closer to a luxury brand rate as opposed to a mid-priced funky boutique property. “Not quite there, but more like 85 per cent of a luxury brand [rate],” he says. Indeed, according to Larone, rates for boutique properties these days are offering a wider range than ever before — from very upscale rates to affordably mid-priced.

For example, hotelier Mandy Farmer’s Hotel Zed in Victoria, B.C. (see story on p. 8) offers the charm and personalization of a boutique property at prices that aren’t over the top. “In the summer our rates are roughly $200 and in the winter they can drop down to around $100,” explains Farmer.

“We’re a boutique motel,” she adds. “We took a dated, dumpy motel and converted it into a hip, funky, affordable motel…but it has the boutique feel, in that the rooms are all brand new. We’ve really made it more of an experience. Our shuttle buses are vintage Volkswagon buses, we have ping-pong lounges, water slides and our new Hotel Zed in Kelowna (set to open in June) is going to have a mini disco. We’ve added lots of really fun features, but it’s certainly not an upscale boutique hotel.”

That’s exactly the vibe they’re going for with Hotel Zed, though — funky retro decor and cool activities, which make it stand out from the crowd. “We say we’re rebels against the ordinary. So whatever we do, we look at it and say, ‘how can we make that not ordinary?’,” says Farmer. “When you walk in the room, we’ve got rotary dial telephones that are vintage. Instead of a magazine on the local happenings, we’ve got a comic book.” Farmer sums up how these offerings fit into today’s boutique scene by saying, “Hotel Zed is a prime example of the change in the boutique hotel market.”

Whether today’s newer boutique hotels are differentiating themselves with spectacular food-and-beverage offerings, vibrant decor and atmosphere, fun and unusual activities, cutting-edge technology, or whatever they decide will be their ‘thing’, it’s clear there are diverse offerings for guests of boutique hotels, with properties in the marketplace to satisfy the various personal tastes of travellers. As Hotel X’s Thompson says, “I’m not necessarily looking for a place that is perfect; I’m looking for a place that is perfect for me.”

Written By: Carol Neshevich
Volume 28, Number 4

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