Boutique Chic

As the big chains move in, boutique-hotel brands reveal their secrets to staying eclectic

Thirty years ago, investment banker Bill Kimpton corralled some investors and bought the threadbare remains of a 1929 hotel at 761 Post St. in San Francisco. Kimpton redecorated its 144 rooms in a whimsical style (no two were exactly the same) and, on the theory that travelers were depressed by the isolating sameness of the chain brands, instituted a social hour in the lobby each evening, where he served free Napa Valley wines. He called his hotel the Clarion Bedford. When it opened in 1981, nobody had seen anything like it.

Meanwhile, in New York, Ian Schrager—former co-owner of a certain disco called Studio 54—decided to get into the hotel business after the club’s implosion made it impossible for him to get a liquor license. He bought a tattered tourist hotel in midtown and infused it with a nightclub aesthetic: moustache back club chairs, potted orchids, bathrooms bathed in checkerboard tiles. Schrager called his hotel Morgans. Bianca Jagger made a reservation. When it opened in 1984, hardly anyone had seen anything like it.

These bicoastal entrepreneurs had struck upon the biggest innovation in the lodging business since the ice machine: the boutique hotel. Quirky and individualistic, the properties offered an alternative to the hospitality business’ traditional extremes—five-star dowagers downtown or the look-alike Hyatts out by the airport. The idea caught on, and over the years an increasing number of operators nervy enough to transform down-at-the-heel historic buildings into retreats for savvy travelers popped up—and made a fortune.

It comes as no surprise, then, that the big hotel chains—Hyatt’s Andaz, Starwood’s Le Méridien, and InterContinental’s Indigo, to name a few—have been muscling into the party with their own “boutique” concepts. “People will recognize that you have a hit,” Schrager says. “And others will jump on the bandwagon.” Yet there’s a difference between imitation and innovation, says Glenn Haussman, editor of the online magazine Hotel Interactive. The big chains, he notes, are trying to replicate the boutique idea, but in the process they’ve “made it ubiquitous. It ceases to be special.”

And that raises a question for those independent brands: With deep-pocketed, multinational behemoths now playing the boutique game, how do the segment’s “true” boutiques maintain the iconoclastic cool that defined the category to begin with? We checked in with five pioneering boutique brands, and asked them that very question. Here’s what they told us.

After creating Morgans and painfully hip haunts like South Beach’s The Delano, Ian Schrager founded The Ian Schrager Company in 2005. These days, though, the father of boutique chic is preaching inclusivity. His latest project—Chicago’s Public—has rates that start as low as $135.

“We’re not trying to be hip. It’s not about doing design on steriods. It’s about fundamental good taste, keeping it simple, focusing on value. What you hope to do is keep innovating, keep taking chances, keep being a little foolish, and hopefully executing better than anyone else.”

—Ian Schrager, founder, president, The Ian Schrager Company

 The antithesis of standardization, Grace Hotels’ properties range from a former glass factory in Beijing to Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt’s 1909 mansion in Newport, R.I.—now the Vanderbilt Grace, shown at right. A new hotel is currently under construction in Panama City.

“The art of it is not creating a cookie-cutter look, but rather arousing interest and surprising people. Every property keeps its local identity. This is a family of hotels with shared values, but not shared design.”

—Gareth Zundel, head of commuications, Grace Hotels

Kimpton Hotels has acquired some of the coolest old buildings in the U.S., like Chicago’s Reliance Building designed in 1895 by Daniel Burnham and now known as Kimpton’s Hotel Burnham. But velvet pillows and striped wallpaper alone don’t make a boutique hotel. Kimpton actually puts more emphasis on customer service than interior design.

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