Boutique So Hot Right Now

Big chains are bringing boutique style to the masses. How will lifestyle leaders compete?

(Written for BLLA Magazine)

By: Dulani Porter, EVP & Partner at SPARK | http://spark.us

For the last half-century, people have thought about travel in a pretty standard, boring, place-to-lay-your-head kind of way. In fact, pretty much everything they valued was standardized. People all across the globe wanted to believe the brands they were buying were consistent, accurate, and uniform. They wanted to know the precise specs of what they were getting. They were making sure that, no matter what, they could keep up with the Joneses.

Enter the last decade or so, where people no longer have any interest in keeping up with the Joneses. Instead, they compete to be them. Everyone wants experiences to be unique. Cutting edge. Completely authentic, personalized, and (borderline) uncapturable.

In the hotel and tourism space, this authenticity is captured perfectly by the boutique hotel. These hotels spent years taking risks, running trials and learning from their errors, and spearheading this evolution of travel to discover what works. And now, the bigger hotel chains have taken notice.

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Chain brands are revamping their experiences to mimic more of what’s working in the boutique hotel space. When it comes to interior design approaches, layout of common spaces and even local partnerships for their outlets, it all seems to come straight from the playbook that boutique lifestyle hotels have spent years writing. And they’re starting to do it on a massive scale.

They say imitation is the highest form of flattery. But in a world of behemoth copycats, how can boutique lifestyle hotels differentiate their product and evolve for success? By doing what big chains aren’t able to do: you must give ownership of the guest experience over to your team.

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“Give ownership of the guest experience over to your team.”

Part of a great boutique experience is the ability to customize and cater to every guest individually. Chains must operate according to strict brand standards and unwavering guidelines to maintain their business model. Sure, they can try to give the illusion of a custom experience. But an independent boutique property that creates a well thought out guest experience—and provides their staff with the tools and autonomy to apply the brand’s story to make each guest’s experience as perfect as possible—are the ones who will create unforgettable experiences that are remembered, shared, and recommended to others. The big chains simply can't afford to take the time to bring a brand story to life in a distinctive way.

Take, for example, The Epicurean Hotel in Tampa. When creating their story, we decided on becoming a destination for those wanting to have an experience founded in incredible food and wine. The partnership with the iconic Bern’s Steakhouse (and integration of their wine collection—one of the largest and most respected in the world) was an incredible foundation for this story. Since opening, they've seen success leading to being named Marriott’s Opening of the Year thanks to the thoughtful approach to their values, and how those values become tangible on the property.

For The Epicurean Hotel, it’s not simply about providing great food and wine. It’s about making it an active part of the experience from check-in to check-out. On arrival, a guest is greeted with a glass of wine from the incredible cellar. As they are walked to their room, their check-in process is conducted by a staff member who is knowledgeable in the area and focuses wholly on the guest and type of experience they want for their stay. The discussion is complete with recommendations on menu items, cultural hot spots, and local activities completely catered to the individual guest. The employees live and work in Tampa, so they know the area. And they live and breathe The Epicurean Hotel, so they believe in the brand story: Awaken Appetites Unknown.

But the story is seen in more than just the employees. As guests explore the property, they have the opportunity walk past the living wall where chefs clip greens for dishes, and meander into the massive restaurant kitchen to see preparations for the next meal and speak with the culinary staff about what they’re cooking up. As they pass by the cooking theater, they can observe a class using the latest pasta-making techniques, before stepping outside to grab a complimentary beach cruiser and explore the neighborhood. Each experience is intentional, and every staff member understands the importance of each interaction.

The big chains can mimic this experience—employing locals who know the area, adding signage, and creating all of the visual aesthetic of being boutique: well-designed, a local coffee roaster in the lobby, local craft beers on tap. But when a guest goes to the lobby to ask a server for recommendations on somewhere to go shopping for an event later that night, they get a recommendation for a nearby mall, a blank stare, or are directed to the concierge, because “it's not my job” is the mindset of an employee who hasn’t been encouraged in a unique brand mindset.

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That same experience at Epicurean would begin with a staff member asking a guest to share their personal style preferences, perhaps sharing some of their favorite places to shop locally and a list of customized recommendations based on that one-on-one interaction with the guest. It may also include a list of places to grab a drink or bite in between their shopping experience. This experience could happen with a server, check-in staff, or the head of housekeeping, because they have all been immersed in the importance of the brand story and connection to the location. And above all, they have been empowered to guide their personal interactions with guests based on that brand story.

This critical difference is what will makes boutique lifestyle hotels successful for the long term. Boutique properties will empower every member of the team, regardless of title, to invest time in making sure the guest gets what they need. Unlike the big chains, they don’t prioritize process over a guest’s perfect stay.

As we look into the future, further imitation is inevitable. But boutique properties and other lifestyle disciplines can continue to own their position as innovators in their space. The strength of boutique is in the ability to create distinctive, ownable moments. Our size is our biggest advantage. As independent teams we are only responsible for the stories we create and the guests who seek them. We don’t have to worry about how to duplicate our ideas on a large scale in Honolulu and Omaha. So when thinking about how we evolve to stay ahead, we must continue to take risks, try new things specific to our brand stories, and—above all—think small.

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