Boutique hotels: more than a sleeping experience Trend: Hoteliers are trying to create unique environments that are hip or classic without being cliched. Decor and personal attention matter again.

October 11, 1998|By Naedine Joy Hazell | Naedine Joy Hazell,HARTFORD COURANT

The industry that has warmly embraced every trend from B&Bs to sleekly similar corporate rooms has put its arms around a new product - the boutique hotel.

"More and more travelers want an experience as opposed to just a place to sleep," said Kathryn Potter, of the American Hotel & Motel Association.

And, not coincidentally, what people want is what hoteliers want to give them. From Bali to Boston and from Paris to Prague, Old-World hotel keeping has been revived in boutique hotels.

To get a mental picture, think about the difference between a boutique clothing store and a department store. These new properties are much the same. They are smaller, offer more personal attention and services, including some remarkable restaurants.

For example, the Gotham Hospitality Group boasts of hotel rooms with fresh flowers, original art, all manner of amenities and superb design. Its Roger Williams Hotel on Madison Avenue and 31st Street in Manhattan was described in New York magazine as "so self-assured that it appears to have been transplanted from the Armani end of the avenue."

In creating these unique personalities, the boutique hotels aspire to be hip or classic without being cliched. The rooms might be smaller than standard, but of more interesting design. Room rates are about the same as those charged at mid-range hotels. The lobby might be smaller, but the hotel might include a spa, a trendy bar or a room-service menu with offerings other than the usual club-sandwich variety.

"Hotels are trying hard to differentiate themselves from the competition. You go to Anytown, USA, and there's an economy [motel or hotel] location, a mid-range location and an upscale location, so hotels are trying to make themselves stand out," Potter said.

Even the big hotel chains are considering the advantages of diversifying their offerings.

Starwood Hotel and Resorts, which bought Sheraton and Westin, will soon introduce a new line of hotels to be called W. The first, W New York, opens in Manhattan next month. Its restaurant and bar will be run by big names (Drew Nieporent of Nobu in New York and Rande Gerber of Skybar at the Mondrian in Los Angeles), and it was designed by another name, David Rockwell, who did New York's Monkey Bar.

Promotional materials from W New York promise "a place where every whim is within arm's reach" and rooms that "are sanctuaries to solace and sleep. From feather beds and down comforters to CD players, cable television, voicemail and computer data ports - you'll have the comfort of W New York with all the convenience of home."

Industry watchers say travelers can expect continued changes - more boutique properties created out of the remains of former hotels and through extensive renovations at existing properties - especially in the Northeast corridor and much of the West Coast. The reason is simple: record profits. The industry made $17 billion last year.

"Generally occupancy has been declining, but room rates have gone up two or three times the rate of inflation, so they've been making a lot of money," said Chuck Ross, of Smith Travel Research in Hendersonville, Tenn.

The upturn in the hotel market, which began about five years ago, can be linked to the economy. Also, in areas where there is not much new hotel construction, such as major East Coast and West Coast cities, the room stock has not grown to meet increased demand. That means many hotels have been able to charge higher rates.

In many cases, those profits are being used to upgrade existing properties. For example, two Omni properties, the Parker House Hotel in Boston and the Shoreham Hotel in Washington, are undergoing multimillion-dollar renovations. About $50 million is being spent to upgrade the Boston property, while $70 million is being spent in Washington.

While there isn't much new construction, former hotels have become fresh palettes for entrepreneurs led by boutique-hotel king Ira Schrager. He has been grabbing headlines for much of this decade with the success of his boutique properties, including the Delano in Miami and the Paramount, Morgans and the Royalton in New York.

Schrager's signature hotels also have met with nearly instant success in Los Angeles; San Francisco; Santa Barbara, Calif.; and London, where swank interior design, notable restaurants and bars, and a Continental attitude have drawn the famous and rich.

"His properties are kind of a must-experience type of thing," Potter said. And others in the industry have "taken stock of the trend. [Other] hotels are trying to capitalize on that."

Say you want to try one on for size and comfort - where do you go?

If you are online you can do a search for "boutique hotels" and you'll come up with dozens of sites featuring such hotels around the world. There even is a single Web site, www.boutiquehotels.com. Although its list is far from comprehensive, it does show specific properties.

Also, many travel agents keep up with the latest hotel trends and have access to computerized reservation systems that include the boutique hotels.

"The nice thing about these hotels is that even though they have unique qualities that differentiate them from their competition, they still use the same ways of getting their names out there with travel agents," said Steve Loucks, a spokesman for the American Society of Travel Agents.

Pub Date: 10/11/98

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