Blame Ian Schrager – or credit him, depending on your viewpoint. Hotels are competing on contemporary design credentials rather than the traditional battlegrounds of price or facilities. Schrager started it with the minimal Morgans in New York and fanned the flames of the current craze with his hip Stateside ventures and London’s St Martins Lane and Sanderson Hotels. These days it seems that every hotel launch is trumpeted as being the latest in boutique chic. In the face of such proliferation, can they still be seen as exclusive?
The first boutique hotels prided themselves on being different. They were small, urban oases of individuality and calm, in a sea of bland hospitality design roll-outs of practical colours and patterned carpets. Conran & Partners has just completed Bangalore’s “first” boutique hotel in India. Design director James Soane says a boutique hotel should be about “individuality and personal service, it’s about not being a featureless part of a chain”.
However, over the past few years, Ken McCulloch has built a chain on the concept of contemporary design with Malmaison, and now even the big hotel groups are going boutique. The Hilton has just opened The Trafalgar, its first “lifestyle” hotel, characterised by contemporary style, aimed at the 25to 40-year-old “creative, international” business person. It is looking at more sites, with the aim of rolling out the concept, which has its own identity.
Even budget chains are getting in on the act, and in provincial towns no less. The Quality Hotel York, run on a franchise basis from Europe’s third largest hotel group, Choice Hotels, claims to be the UK’s “first boutique-style quality-branded hotel”. Budget, boutique and branded – now there’s a novelty. However, it’s also potentially a triumph of marketing.
“People don’t just want practicality any more,” says Quality Hotel York director Philip Down. “They’re more imaginative and want something that looks a bit special,” he says. Research group Mintel agrees. Its April report identifies budget hotels as the biggest growth area in hospitality, due in part to the major operators developing budget hotels with added frills. However, in the future, “While there is little doubt competitors will continue to differentiate themselves on facilities, budget hotels have also started to realise that contemporary design can, for some customers, be just as important a purchasing factor,” says the report.
So, are we heading for homogeneity in hotels in the way that the white box dominates retail design? Tellingly, P&HS Architects, which designed the Quality Hotel York, said it approached the project as “a piece of modern shopfitting”. Combine the uncool effect of ubiquity with recent complaints about the size of the rooms, the poor range of facilities and hotel staff, who consider themselves a cut above most of the guests and we could find the in-crowd scuttling back to the old stalwarts quicker than you can say Connaught or Claridges. At the end of the day, even design cannot replace personal service.