Hotels | Boutique v big – the lines are blurring

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The Australian Financial Review, 3 August 2012

For contemporary travellers, choosing where to stay means weighing up what you require versus what you desire. And it seems desire is winning out as there is a surge of people picking accommodation outside the mainstream. But at what cost?

“Sophisticated travellers are looking for unique and bespoke experiences,” Mr and Mrs Smith Asia Pacific managing director Simon Westcott says.

Such demand is driving triple-digit growth annually for the boutique travel booking group, he says.

Small Luxury Hotels of the World has also noted an “overwhelming desire” from its 160,000 customers to stay in small luxury hotels, chief executive Paul Kerr says.

But these little gems are often accused of having scant amenities or staff that have not been wrung through the training processes of a global hotel operator.

“Boutique hotels tend to be run by owner-managers or the business is leased to someone, and the staff tend not to be trained,” Australian Butler School chief executive Pamela Spruce says.

“They think that being over-friendly is good service and, of course, it isn’t.”

Spruce herself fell victim to over-familiar staff at a boutique hotel on a recent stay in rural Victoria. “The manager of the hotel was charming the first day and then because I didn’t engage in conversation with him he told me I was rude,” she says.

Hotel industry expert Rutger Smits, owner of AHS Advisory, believes that, due to the intimacy of a boutique offering, a higher level of service is called for.

“I don’t think the staff are better or worse in a boutique hotel,” he says. “The service expectation should be the same in a boutique, if not better.”

Westcott thinks boutique hotels are redefining good service and amenity. “They suggest it may be more important to have a cute cupcake from a local cake shop on the bedside table than having 110 channels on the cable TV,” he says.

“There’s a well-documented transformation in luxury. Conspicuous consumption and excess have been replaced with the hard-crafted, understated and experiential.”

The demand for something a little more personal has influenced large hotel chains such as Accor Hotels’ M Gallery, Sofitel’s So, Amalgamated Holdings’ QT Hotels and Starwood Hotels’ W and Aloft, in their move into the market.

These operators are jumping on the boutique bandwagon but Smits says their offerings dilute the essence of what is truly boutique. “A big brand still needs to standardise in some way,” he says. “It may be different but there are still hundreds of those across the world. They all still write brand manuals and set standards.”

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Director, AHS Advisory

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