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Quirky and so­phis­ti­cated, the bou­tique ho­tel con­cept is mak­ing trav­el­ers feel at home around the world

Business Traveler (USA) - - FRONT PAGE - By Reg­gie Ho

Quirky and so­phis­ti­cated, the bou­tique ho­tel con­cept is mak­ing trav­el­ers feel at home around the world

Since Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell started An­drée Put­man­designed Mor­gans on Madi­son Av­enue in Man­hat­tan and called it a“bou­tique ho­tel,”the con­cept has not stopped evolv­ing. For the two decades that fol­lowed, bou­tique ho­tels steadily in­creased in num­ber in the West, but the trend did not pick up in Asia un­til 2004 with the open­ings of The Scar­let in Sin­ga­pore, and JIA Hong Kong, which has re­cently taken on the new name J Plus Bou­tique Ho­tel.

“In the past, trav­el­ing was not as ca­sual as it is to­day. Then, many peo­ple had never flown on a plane be­fore, so trav­el­ing was an event,”says Bill Chan, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor and group gen­eral man­ager of But­ter­fly Ho­tels Group.“Many trav­el­ers were go­ing to new places they had not been to be­fore. When you are to­tally alien to a place, you tend to se­lect big, brand-name ho­tels to stay in, as you feel safer with a fa­mil­iar en­vi­ron­ment.”

How­ever, with the global econ­omy shift­ing east­ward, Asia is in­creas­ingly less for­eign to trav­el­ers, es­pe­cially the ma­jor com­mer­cial hubs. As a re­sult, to­gether with cities such as Sin­ga­pore and Hong Kong, Bangkok is also now see­ing a thriv­ing bou­tique ho­tel scene, led by properties such as The Davis.

Need­ing a Home

In ad­di­tion to in­creased out­bound travel to Asia, in­ter­re­gional traf­fic is also grow­ing rapidly, judg­ing from the ris­ing fre­quen­cies of flights be­tween des­ti­na­tions within Asia. “Nowa­days, many peo­ple travel sev­eral times a month, and for them tak­ing a plane is like tak­ing a bus,”Chan says.“With the In­ter­net and the pop­u­lar­ity of travel guides, peo­ple are no longer afraid of new des­ti­na­tions and they even seek them out.”

It still holds true that for many the per­fect busi­ness ho­tel is pri­mar­ily about a good lo­ca­tion, com­pli­men­tary break­fast and per­haps meet­ing fa­cil­i­ties; the room is just a room. But things might be chang­ing. Ac­cord­ing to a re­cent re­port en­ti­tled “From Chaos to Col­lab­o­ra­tion”by travel tech­nol­ogy provider Amadeus, 59 per­cent of busi­ness trav­el­ers sur­veyed around the world said they wanted a“home away from home”when trav­el­ing.

“Ho­tels will need to add value through tech­nolo­gies that make work­ing away as easy and pain­less as pos­si­ble and help turn busi­ness trav­el­ers into busi­ness tourists. This trend is part of the over­all con­tin­ued em­pha­sis on work-life bal­ance and well­be­ing at work, in­clud­ing when trav­el­ing for

work,”says Jerome Se­ban, re­gional di­rec­tor, sales and con­sult­ing, cus­tomer so­lu­tions group, Amadeus Asia Pa­cific.

Bou­tique ho­tels, which prom­ise some home com­forts, may have be­come in­creas­ingly ap­peal­ing to road war­riors want­ing more than just a bed and a shower.“In­ti­mate set­tings and per­sonal ser­vice are the keys, which big ho­tels with many rooms are less likely to be able to of­fer,”Vi­vian Chau, gen­eral man­ager of J Plus, says.“We have front­line staff mem­bers who have worked here for sev­eral years, and they know guests’ pref­er­ences and habits well. For ex­am­ple, if a guest needs a VGA con­nec­tor, adap­tor, ex­tra small face towel, peanut but­ter, their own coun­try’s news­pa­per and so on, we will put it in the room be­fore the guest checks in next time.”

Big Bou­tique Trend

It used to be that trav­el­ers were wary of in­de­pen­dently run properties, as they were un­fa­mil­iar with the room con­fig­u­ra­tions and the range of ameni­ties avail­able. But with on­line re­sources such as TripAd­vi­sor and so­cial me­dia sites, it’s easy to find out about smaller ho­tels through re­views by fel­low trav­el­ers. Stan­dards of bou­tique properties have also risen.

In Oc­to­ber, Hong Kong-based Ovolo group launched one of its ser­viced apart­ment blocks as a bou­tique busi­ness ho­tel, Ovolo 2AR, af­ter in­vest­ing heav­ily to put in ameni­ties such as big wal­nut work desks, de­signer er­gonomic chairs (cost­ing more than $1,900 each), onyx-and-mar­ble bath­rooms as well as tech­nol­ogy such as WiFi, mas­ter light switches, Ap­ple TVs and power adapters pre­in­stalled in all rooms.

But the turn­ing point for the bou­tique trend was when global hos­pi­tal­ity play­ers be­gan launch­ing new lines of properties that prom­ise a bou­tique ho­tel ex­pe­ri­ence. Brands such as In­digo (IHG), An­daz (Hy­att) and MGallery (Ac­cor) – which are cat­e­go­rized as“char­ac­ter ho­tels”– have sprung up, seem­ingly of­fer­ing the per­fect so­lu­tion: you have stan­dard­iza­tion in ar­eas such as power sock­ets, light switches and loy­alty pro­grams, but ev­ery prop­erty of­fers a markedly dif­fer­ent de­sign as well as choice of restau­rants.

The caveat here is that many ho­tels by th­ese brands are not bou­tique in size. The first“bou­tique-style”brand by an in­ter­na­tional ho­tel group was W Ho­tels. But whereas trend­set­ting Mor­gans fea­tures 114 rooms and most other bou­tique ho­tels stay be­low or around the 100 mark, the first W prop­erty, opened on Lex­ing­ton Av­enue in NewYork in 1998, has 693 gue­strooms, suites and spa suites. In­deed, Star­wood, which owns the brand, calls it “a de­sign-led life­style brand”but prom­ises that W pro­vides an ex­pe­ri­ence sim­i­lar to stay­ing in a bou­tique ho­tel.

“The main dif­fer­ence be­tween a bou­tique ho­tel and W Ho­tels is the size. W’s in-house de­sign team works closely and col­lab­o­ra­tively with the own­er­ship group of each ho­tel to choose a de­sign part­ner that will be most suit­able for the spe­cific pro­ject,”says Ar­naud Cham­p­enois, Asia Pa­cific brand di­rec­tor of W Ho­tels World­wide and Le Méri­dien.

“‘Bou­tique’at­mos­phere is all about the ser­vice, the dif­fer­ent touch points that are go­ing to make your stay unique and mem­o­rable. On top of all the fa­cil­i­ties you can ex­pe­ri­ence in a lux­u­ri­ous five-star ho­tel, W Ho­tels is well known for its liv­ing room for in­stance – W’s rein­ter­pre­ta­tion of the tra­di­tional lobby, a so­cial space to mix and min­gle, to see and be seen, drink and flirt around cock­tails.”

The Name Game

Then we have the“char­ac­ter ho­tels,”a phrase coined by French ho­tel group Ac­cor

for its col­lec­tion of MGallery properties. “The so-called‘char­ac­ter ho­tels’make the guest ex­pe­ri­ence‘a story’through all touch points within the ho­tel,”says Fred­eric Fon­taine, se­nior vice-pres­i­dent – brand mar­ket­ing for Mer­cure and MGallery. “This gen­uine ex­pe­ri­ence is de­liv­ered by tal­ented staff, and goes be­yond a dec­o­ra­tion, a de­sign or old stones. It is all about emo­tions and ex­pe­ri­ences that must be mem­o­rable.

“Ac­cord­ing to a study done by Added Value [re­search agency] for Ac­cor on cus­tomers in France, the UK, Ger­many, Aus­tralia, Brazil and Poland in April 2012, 67.9 per­cent of high-end ho­tel clients con­sider the cri­te­ria‘I wanted some­thing unique and ex­clu­sive’as very im­por­tant.”

One of the brand’s lat­est open­ings, Ho­tel Muse in Bangkok has 174 rooms and a gothic and film-noir feel that has been well re­ceived. The ho­tel’s rooftop bar The Lawn – part of The Speakeasy food-and-drink con­cept that also in­cludes a cigar lounge called Blind Pig – is pop­u­lar among both in-house guests and lo­cal res­i­dents.

MGallery is not only part of a trend but also a busi­ness model. It al­lows in­di­vid­ual ho­tels to turn to an in­ter­na­tional ho­tel group for man­age­ment sup­port with­out hav­ing to sac­ri­fice its in­di­vid­u­al­ity.“In a fast-chang­ing world, hote­liers are seek­ing the sup­port of an in­ter­na­tion­ally renowned ho­tel group for dis­tri­bu­tion, pur­chas­ing and rev­enue man­age­ment, whilst keep­ing or en­hanc­ing their logo and per­son­al­ity – the best of both worlds re­ally,”Fon­taine says, adding that MGallery Col­lec­tion has 60“care­fully se­lected”ho­tels un­der its wing, and the num­ber is ex­pected to grow.

What­ever you want to call it, the bot­tom line is that as long as a ho­tel de­liv­ers what it prom­ises, guests will re­turn. For trav­el­ers, com­fort and con­ve­nience are al­ways go­ing to be top pri­or­i­ties when it comes to ho­tels – but an ex­tra touch of home or whimsy can never hurt. BT

Clock­wise from this page top: The lobby at J Plus; But­ter y on Vic­to­ria’s cal­lig­ra­phy wall and typ­i­cal de­sign in a W Ho­tel room

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