What is a boutique hotel?

Lots of credit should go to Michael Cullen, the editor of hotel review website, i-escape.com, for recognising that the description "boutique" has become rather 'woolly' since it was first coined by hotelier Ian Schrager (allegedly) in the 1980's, and for proposing a debate on the subject.

"These days", says Michael, "it is applied to any new or refurbished hotel with an ounce of branding, no matter how small or beautiful. Recently we read about a new 'boutique hotel' in Atlantic City with 500 identical rooms, a 250-car parking lot, a retail centre and direct access to its sister casino. Surely this is like calling Tesco a family-run deli?"

Funny, I had much the same idea when I saw something similar a fortnight ago in USA Today's Hotel Hotsheet blog: St Louis area's new boutique-style casino hotel.

Michael Cullen suggests a 5-point checklist to determine whether a hotel qualifies for the description 'boutique'...

1. small – we have put the limit at 50 rooms (rural) or 150 rooms (urban). Anything really small - under 10 rooms or lacking hotel services can go for a spin-off term like 'boutique B&B' or 'boutique guesthouse'. We have even come across 'boutique campsites', while apartments are increasingly dubbed a 'boutique bolthole'.

2. personalised – it has to be an antidote to our automated world, with friendly staff who greet you by name (we're talking 'Hi Michael' rather than 'Hello Mr. Cullen'), rooms which vary one from another (personalised book and CD collections in your room earn bonus points) and a friendly, sociable bar.

3. stylish – if it looks like an office block or grandma's spare room, then you might as well stay at work, or visit granny; this should be a treat for today's time-poor, cash-rich travellers. Bespoke artwork and design classics earn extra points – though it does not have to be a design hotel (see below) to be a boutique hotel. But design clichés lose points (monochromes with one swirl of Osborne & Little wallpaper, single green apple or kala lily in vase, bowl-shaped basin with concealed lighting etc).

4. contemporary– somehow you can't call it boutique if it has Louis XIV chairs and chintzy curtains. We need hi-tech extras: flatscreen TV's and wifi are de rigueur, ipod docks and laptops score extra points.

5. independently owned – a multinational chain, with its standardised procedures, uniform room décor and high staff turnover, cannot be boutique, however hard they try (as Starwood have with their W hotels, for example). But smaller chains can get away with it: we reckon anything up to 20 co-owned / co-branded hotels leaves enough room for individual expression.

Interestingly the first person to comment, Kurt Bjorkman ( Managing Partner, over5hospitality.com) points out that he came up with an amazingly similar set of criteria in a recent article he wrote on the subject.

So, I think we have something of a consensus here. I think I'll adopt Michael Cullen's definition for Travel Lists. Thanks!


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