The concept of the boutique hotel has changed perceptions of the hotel market. Mistakenly credited to Ian Schrager and his individual hotels in the Morgans group in the mid-1980’s, the concept is much older. If we are looking to innovative modern iterations of boutique then we must go beyond Schrager to Anouska Hempel’s Blakes Hotel of 1978. Visiting as a designer I was excited by her first use of narrowly focussed downlights,black table cloths and Samurai armour along with the sheer visual drama this created. Schrager started with nightclubs at the end of the 1970’s and took the drama and use of electro-art into Morgans in 1984, bringing boutique to the USA.

What changed with these hotels was that they were controlled by the designer. Without an accountant questioning the value of design they were able to realise an innovative, idiosyncratic, vision of the complete environment which both excited the guest and ultimately became very profitable. Pitched initially at the less than 100 bed luxury end of the market, their impact on individual owners was marked and led to a wave of boutique-style hotels and b&b’s opening that began to impact on the identity and profitability of chain hotels . Barry Sternlicht, now owner of the Louvre/Golden Tulip group was the first CEO of a major brand to drive a vision of a corporate boutique with the very successful development of the ‘W’ brand whilst he was CEO of Starwoods. Reputedly the most financially successful hotels in the Starwood Group, their high RevPAR rapidly had other brands following the same route looking for similar returns. Dare I mention Denizen? No – perhaps not…

Many hotels are uniquely and individually designed, and what set boutiques apart initially was their placing at the luxury end of the market, with high individual service standards as well as highly individual design. What the hype and noise from the general press obscures is that successful boutiques come out of a clear operational and design philosophy and a trusting relationship between hotelier/developer and designer. Whilst boutique branding may take brands into more defined design areas than they would have ventured into before, it is inevitable that controlling the look to match a brand standard will ultimately stifle design innovation and remove the inspirational differences that Hempel and Schrager pointed the way to.


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