The popular notion that the boom in boutique-hotel brands is due primarily to the purchasing preferences of free-spirited travellers known as “millennials” overlooks the obvious — the burgeoning boutique-hotel segment actually predates millennials’ birth, both as individuals and as a demographic market to be targeted.

Other than being independent and unbranded, “boutique hotels” were never just about one thing. The term itself is like a Rorschach test — some see an elegant little hotel off New York’s Park Avenue while others conjure images of an artsy, but lovingly restored, pension on Paris’ Left Bank.

These days, the truth is that while boutique properties are making waves and setting some new standards for hospitality, many are neither unbranded nor truly independent. Some 30 years ago a “disillusioned” 26-year old Stanford University business grad bought a rundown “no-tell motel” with a reputation for renting rooms by the hour and restored it to a glory it probably never actually had. The 44-room property was called The Phoenix — ironically appropriate for the rebirth it was about to undergo — and its location in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district (often preceded by adjectives such as “gritty,” “seedy” or “dangerous”) was not a particular selling point for classic gentrification. The visionary who saw the potential in this 1950s-era relic was none other than Chip Conley (more recently of Airbnb fame). He renovated, restored and made it into a candy-coloured, rock ’n roll version of its previous best-self. Then he niche-marketed it as the hip place to stop for touring rock bands, musicians and filmmakers on a budget. His touchstone, inspired by Rolling Stone magazine captured the essence of what this hotel would be: “irreverent, adventurous, funky, cool and young at heart.”

Conley believed boutique hotels — like magazines — were niche-market ventures. People read a magazine because the subject matter interests them. Similarly, he thought, people will stay in hotels that appeal to their interests, personality and sense of aesthetics. He called it marketing to “psychographics” rather than to traditional “demographics” such as age and gender. Despite its ignoble reputation, the hotel’s “Phoenix” moniker remained, but Conley branded it “a Joie de Vivre Hotel.” The Phoenix was the first property of what has become the second-oldest boutique-hotel brand in the U.S. Most properties in the collection offer between 150 and 200 rooms. Some offer significantly more, some — such as the Phoenix — significantly less.

Presently, Joie de Vivre manages and operates 26 properties — including the 343-room Liaison on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. — and two scheduled for spring openings: the 229-room 50 Bowery Hotel in New York’s Chinatown (a combination of repurposed and renovated existing structure and new, ground-up construction) and the 104-room Hotel Revival in Baltimore’s Mount Vernon neighbourhood. Most recently, the company made its first foray into New Orleans with the 184-room Troubadour Hotel.

All are new markets for the brand, which remains primarily California-centric in distribution. Spring will also welcome back from renovation Joie de Vivre’s second Chicago hotel, the 149-room Talbott Hotel, located in the city’s upscale Gold Coast area. Development growth for the Joie de Vivre brand is forecast at three to four properties per year. Much has changed in the 30 years since Conley enshrined his joy of life in a fledgling boutique-hotel brand. Conley has become a marketing, business and lifestyle guru, authored a half-dozen books and, in 2010, relinquished his title of CEO and sold his interest in Joie de Vivre to Geolo Capital, founded by Hyatt Hotels heir John A. Pritzker.

No longer affiliated with the Hyatt brand, Pritzker and Geolo created a new parent company — Commune Hotels & Resorts — to shepherd Joie de Vivre and other boutique brands acquired or created by the company. These sister brands include Thompson Hotels, Destination Hotels, Tommie and the Asia and Middle East-based management company, Alila Hotels. From a seedy, 44-room motel on the wrong side of town, grew a family tree of more than 90 boutique hotels in eight countries with approximately $2 billion of total property revenues under management.

In need of a CEO who knew the boutique-hotel segment, Pritzker successfully courted Kimpton president and COO Niki Leondakis to helm the new company (most recently renamed, Two Roads Hospitality). The company’s marching orders are less a road map than a sense of direction. “Each Joie de Vivre hotel is a brand of one,” explains Leondakis. “Its roots are in the specific neighborhood where it is located; its personality is infused into the core. Still, the DNA of Joie de Vivre comes through in the attitudes of our people, our use of bold designs and bold colours…definitely memorable. We’re a fun brand; playful and light-hearted.

“Too often, boutique brands buy into that velvet rope attitude of exclusivity. We value inclusivity. We’re approachable, welcoming and highly service oriented and while we are new-technology oriented as well, we use it to improve our engagement with our guests. That’s good, old-fashioned hospitality.”

Leondakis notes that while appointments such as Wi-Fi, meeting space, full-service restaurant and bar and other amenities are part of the Joie de Vivre repertoire and experience, guest comfort remains the overriding objective. “As bold as we are, we don’t do design for design sake…actual comfort is more important than looking cool. We also draw our chefs and our food concepts from the local community. We’re fortunate to have seriously innovative and successful talent from the area join us in creating new dining experiences for our guests. That is more important to us than hiring a big name celebrity chef that visits the restaurant twice a year.”

Leondakis hastens to add, “We’re deeply entrenched in the great experience for our guests. Our ‘Dream-Maker’ program empowers hotel staff to go out of their way to make someone’s day. Sometimes it’s as simple as overhearing a guest say they’re dying for a pizza and just having one sent to the room. Sometimes it’s more involved. But it is always an expression of thoughtfulness and creativity designed to delight each guest as an individual.”

Underlining the brand’s success, Leondakis notes that, while Joie de Vivre does not face all of the same brands in every market they’re in, “our 2016 numbers demonstrate that we’ve out performed our competitive set by eight per cent in ADR and 11 per cent in RevPAR.”

That competitive set notably includes Kimpton (the oldest boutique brand and now part of the InterContinental Hotels Group) and three Hilton-related boutique brands — Curio, Canopy and Tapestry.

Toronto-based CBRE’s director of Research Information Services Robert Mandelbaum credits Joie de Vivre Hotels as one of the early pioneers of the boutique-hotel segment. “Historically, its selling point is its uniqueness and its reputation is good. The brand ran counter to the established prototype and common design and development sensibilities. A new standard of luxury emerged that moved away from cookie-cutter expectations towards more local experiences…local wine, craft beer, local food and local artists and it was dubbed, ‘experiential travel.”

Manifesting Joie de Vivre Hotel’s community commitment, each property is encouraged to choose a cause in its neighborhood that makes a difference to the people living there. “Whether we’re taking the ice-bucket challenge, marching in the San Francisco Aids Walk, or sponsoring Pride, we get involved as individuals and as a portfolio of hotels,” says Leondakis.

Finally, growth — particularly internationally — is a priority for the brand and was one of the key reasons Leondakis left Kimpton after more than 19 years.

“We’re looking for new opportunities in Vancouver, Montreal, Quebec and, of course, Toronto, where Two Roads Hospitality already has a presence with our Thompson brand. We love Canada.”

Volume 29, Number 2 
Written by Richard E. Altman 


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