Everything you need to know about boutique hotels

Last updated on April 15, 2024

They came, they saw, they conquered. That pretty much sums up the story of boutique hotels.

Despite their much-publicised rise in popularity, boutique hotels are still a mystery to many. Yes, they are classy and aesthetic, but what else do you know about these types of hotels?

In this post, we’ll share everything there is to know about boutique hotels, from their history to what sets them apart.

The definition of a boutique hotel 
A boutique hotel is a type of hotel that feels small, intimate, and quaint. It typically has less than 100 rooms and offers guests an ultra-personal service. Unlike the way most other hotel brands are perceived by the public, a boutique hotel stays true to the local culture.

This is how Tiffany M. Braun put it in her 2017 case study on the emergence of boutique and lifestyle hotels:

“The emergence of boutique hotels features properties with contemporary or minimalist décor while offering many additional lifestyle amenities. These properties have a high level of customized services, reflecting the personality and style of the owner, designer, or entrepreneur.”

Boutique hotels might be small, but that doesn’t mean they lack amenities. In fact, these hotels are so stacked that they give other bigger, much more spacious hotels a run for their money. From state-of-the-art spas to posh lounging areas, it’s fair to say that these hotels have it all.

Now that we’re done with the definition let’s take a quick look at the history of boutique hotels.

A brief history of boutique hotels
Although there is some quibbling as to the actual origin of boutique hotels, many publications trace the entire idea back to one Bill Kimpton.

Kimpton was a mobile investment banker for the better part of the ‘60s and ‘70s. He was traveling in Europe a lot, and he was staying at these little hotels where you get to know the owners, have wine in the lobby, and everything was personable and intimate. 

Upon coming back home to the U.S., he would find hotels with no personality at all. That irked him a lot. So he decided to open a boutique hotel where everyone feels like they’re at home. He was just very much about making a fireplace in the lobby and people remembering each other’s names. And that’s how the idea of boutique hotels was born in the U.S.

On April 1, 1981, The Bedford Hotel, America’s first-ever boutique hotel, opened its doors in San Francisco. Other boutique hotels cropped up soon after, including the New York-based Morgans, founded by Ian Schrager in 1984. While it’s Kimpton who brought the boutique hotel idea into the U.S., it’s Schrager who truly revolutionised it. The Morgans Hotel Group, which runs hundreds of boutique hotels, has since become an iconic brand.

Today, multinationals have honed in on the phenomenon, creating their own brand of boutique luxury resorts and lifestyle hotel chains.

What do the numbers say?
The growth of the U.S. boutique hotel sector has been nothing short of meteoric. Three decades ago, the sector was in danger of being wiped out. 

Fast forward to 2021 and the boutique hotel industry has defied all odds to become a multi-billion sector that is attracting investors left, right, and center. 

According to Statista, the market size of this sector currently stands at a whopping $18.36 billion. To put that into context, the global hostels market is only valued at $5.2 billion.

Despite the ravaging pandemic, the boutique hotel industry is still persevering. Going by statistics from the Boutique & Lifestyle Leaders Association, boutique hotels in urban settings were operating at an occupancy rate of 40.5% occupancy rate in July 2020. In contrast, other sectors were experiencing occupancy rates of less than 10%.

From these figures, it’s easy to see why boutique hotels are such a crowd favorite. Tiffany M. Braun agrees that the growth of the boutique hotel industry in recent years has indeed been “phenomenal.”

Keep reading to learn what makes these hotels so special.

Characteristics of boutique hotels: What makes them stand out?
If you’re looking to create your own boutique hotel or renovate an existing one, here are few things to consider:

1. Size
If it has more than 100 rooms, then it’s going to be tough to generate that “special something” a boutique hotel needs. Boutique hotels can have as few as 10 rooms. It’s the quality that matters, not the quantity. 

Creating a sense of intimacy and cosiness should be your ultimate goal as you design your boutique hotel. 

Instead of adding more rooms, create a “communal living space” where guests can get together, share a drink, and have a good laugh.

2. Chic design
The interior design of a boutique hotel is as unique as its operations, but it’s always upscale. It often blends modern elegance with historic details. 

3. Personalised service
Your boutique hotel is not going to take off if you don’t offer individualised service. So, treat your guests in a way that’ll make them feel truly at home. 

Enable them to customise toiletries, amenities, and everything in between (if you haven’t yet, please do have a look at attribute based selling). Also, greet them by name when they check-in.

4. Local culture
Boutique hotels are all about staying true to the local culture, from the cuisine to the décor. For instance, you could line up the walls with local paintings and drawings. 

You could also offer free tours for your guests to see what the local town has to offer.

It’s also within the framework of “boutique” thinking to go counter-intuitive here. A fully-stacked hunting-themed hotel as an island in the middle of a tough urban setting can work just as well as an industrial design-themed hotel in the middle of the woods. The key is in the execution. It must be flawless, authentic and impassioned beyond belief! 

5. Ideal location
Due to their small size, boutique hotels are often situated in lively, upscale areas or high-end residential neighborhoods. A few are also found in resort areas that are tucked away from the crowds but with good access to public transportation. 

If your boutique hotel is going to thrive, make sure that it’s in a superb setting. That could be a few miles off the city, somewhere in the heart of nature, or a privileged clifftop location surrounded by beautiful gardens and swathes of sea and sky. The world is your oyster.

6. Individualised décor
Although many boutique hotels feature loads of modern amenities such as air conditioning, infotainment systems and rain-showers, they also burst with individual features. 

The idea here is to have unique décor that gives your space a warm, welcoming personality. Paint any old furniture in funky colors. Use topical, locally sourced materials to give the interior an aesthetic look and feel. You could also add designer furnishings and quirky touches. In other words, make sure your décor creates a memorable visual experience.

7. Top-notch restaurant
You’re not done yet. Consider incorporating local foods into your menu. If possible, add an exotic restaurant or bar.

Boutique hotels vs. regular hotels: How do they differ?
Besides being much more personalised and therefore more “niche” than chain hotels, there are several characteristics that truly distinguish boutique hotels. Here are a few:

Boutique hotels 

  • Typically has 10 to 100 rooms
  • No two boutique hotels are alike. Each boasts its own unique design, décor, cuisine, and style
  • Have a small family-like staff contingent
  • Concentrate on comfort, luxury, and intimacy
  • Owned and operated by a local entrepreneur, hence have more autonomy
  • Put emphasis on having all possible amenities, along with a few unexpected extras to add that “wow factor”. These include in-suite dressing rooms, luxurious tubs, fine linens, private balconies, and more
  • Local experience, local focus. Boutique hotels give guests a better taste of the geographical location they’re visiting
  • Mostly located in hip, fashionable urban areas where there’s good access to public transport 

Regular hotels 

  • Can have anywhere between 100 to 1000 plus rooms. As of December 21, 2020, there were an average of 313.1 rooms per hotel in the upper chain type in the U.S
  • Typically standardized across all locations when it comes to size, décor, style, cuisine etc.
  • Concentrate on overall comfort
  • Owned and operated by a major hotel corporation 
  • Employ many employees to handle check-ins, check-outs, laundry, and house-keeping duties  
  • Put emphasis on having only essential amenities
  • Provide the same service and experience no matter the location
  • Given that they’re big and spacious, most regular hotels are situated in areas with a good flow of tourists i.e. near the beach

4 Top tips to run a successful boutique hotel
Opening a hotel is something many entrepreneurs consider. Even hosts with nothing more than a few spare bedrooms wonder if they could turn them into a trendy boutique hotel. 

After all, the concept of individualised hospitality is one of the hottest things in the hotel industry right now. We have rounded up all of the top tips to help your boutique hotel stand out from the rest.

1. Go the extra mile
It’s not enough to offer just personalised service. To be the best among the best, you’ve got to incorporate the following traits into your boutique hotel:

  • Complimentary breakfast
  • Full, modern spa or bar
  • Distinctive, fully-fledged guest rooms with an upscale look and feel
  • Unique family and group activities, e.g. nature hikes, yoga classes, cooking courses 
  • Top-of-the-line entertainment options
  • Stylish lounge area or bar
  • Pet-friendly

2. Be a jack of all trades
Being a good multitasker definitely helps in staying on top of everything that happens around the hotel. One second you might be ushering in some new guests. The other, you’re helping with some administrative work.

3. Take on a guest-first approach
Always think of how the guest feels around your hotel and what can be done to improve their experience. 

Your first-contact staff have to be welcoming, full of smiles, and have good positive body language. They should embody hospitality and not just be angling for tips.

4. Be open to feedback
Becoming a great hotel doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a matter of adapting and continuously evolving based on client feedback. When guests bring out points of improvement, act on them fast. Doing so will put you ahead of the game.

Where to look for property to convert into a boutique hotel
Finding a prime property to convert into a boutique hotel isn’t always easy. For starters, scour realty sites for vacant houses that are already sectioned off into several rooms. 

If possible, find one with a common room and a spot to add a bar or a restaurant. This allows you to slash off extra costs while also accommodating your design plans.

Some examples of unique spaces to look for include:

  • Abandoned buildings such as old government premises
  • Archaic, Victorian-style buildings
  • Large homes that are up for sale
  • A shipping container that has been abandoned
  • A unique spot in a prime destination
  • Pre-existing hotels or BnB’s that can be renovated
  • Railroad cabooses

For your inspiration: 9 Well-known boutique hotels in the U.S.

If all you need to start your own boutique hotel is some inspiration, we’ve got it in plenty. Here a few of the top boutique hotels in the country:

  1. The Jefferson – Washington, DC (Exemplifies all that its namesake, Thomas Jefferson, held dear, including elegantly appointed suites and fine dining)
  2. The Inn & Club at Harbour Town – Hilton Head Island, SC (Surrounded by 5000 acres of pristine coastal expanse)
  3. Wentworth Mansion – Charleston, SC (Features complimentary hors d’oeuvres and wine each afternoon)
  4. Williamsburg Inn – Williamsburg, VA (Offers complimentary transportation around the historic area)
  5. The Inn of the Five Graces – Santa Fe, NM (Features Adobe buildings with mud walls, colorful textiles, and mosaic-tiled bathrooms)
  6. Auberge du Soleil, Auberge Resorts – Rutherford, CA (Renowned for its culinary roots, spectacular views, and exceptional service)
  7. The Chatwall, a Luxury Collection – New York, NY (A little hotel that acts like a big hotel, with a beautiful lobby, private dining room, and a ballroom)
  8. Hotel Wailea – Wailea, HI (Boasts 180-degree, unobstructed ocean views of three Hawaiian Islands)

One thing is for certain when running a boutique hotel, you absolutely have to have the best hotel technology stack to ensure that every operational aspect of your business is performing optimally.

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