HB ON THE SCENE: BLLA’s conference highlights genuine, local programming

NEW YORK—What is boutique? A hot industry topic and an often debated one, boutique may not have an exact definition at all, but rather, it encompasses a feeling. Here in New York, the Boutique & Lifestyle Leaders Association (BLLA) hosted its annual Boutique Hotel Investment Conference and covered this very topic.

BLLA and Stay Boutique defined boutique as this: Any brand whose products or services are centralized around experience and cultural development.

So, boutique may have more to do with services rather than the property itself. At the conference, it was without question that boutique has everything to do with hotel programming, and that hotels should wisely invest in this.

According to Jean-Luc Naret, CEO, La Réserve Hotels and Spas, guests are moving further away from prioritizing amenities within the boutique room. Time is now spent outside of the guestroom—but within the hotel’s walls—soaking up the local culture. For Naret, this programming shouldn’t just be memorable but Instagrammable.

Ian Schrager predicted the future of the boutique evolution.

Ian Schrager, founder, Ian Schrager Company, agreed that boutique is less of a rigid definition and more of a feeling. Schrager said that the term “boutique” goes back 25 years, and was coined by his long-time business partner Steve Rubell, as a way to communicate what they were trying to accomplish in the hotel space.

“The other hotels were white boxes, department stores; we had a very specific attitude, a specific approach—we weren’t trying to be all things to all people,” Schrager said “To me, boutique has nothing to do with size; you could have a three-room boutique or a thousand-room boutique, but not everybody agrees with that.”

Rooms do play a role for Charles     Khabouth, founder/CEO, Ink Entertainment, however, in creating a boutique experience, as he discussed the disparity between hotel size and service.

“I enjoy great service, but I don’t like big spaces,” Khabouth said. “Whenever I stayed in a hotel that was 100 rooms or less, there was a big gap in the experience of service and attention to detail. My whole goal was to marry that great experience in a high-end space with a small space that never offered that attention to detail.”

Attention to detail could be design-focused, taking cues from surrounding architecture, or F&B-driven, taking advantage of local flavors.

“The human condition is about wanting to belong,” said Michelle Grey, creative director, Absolut Art, when discussing art as a boutique cultural investment. “Brands need to figure out what community you want your guests to belong to.”

Hotel programming is tied to creating a sense of place within the hotel. “There has to be some level of participatory programming, especially in the hospitality space,” Grey said.

This space allows Khabouth to focus on personal experiences, he said, which means a genuine delivery of local culture. “It allows you, in every city you go into, to carve out a space and an experience that’s more localized,” he said. “Sometimes, people don’t even know what they want next in food, music or design.” He also noted that locals are taking advantage of dining outlets more so now than in the past, as restaurants and bars are becoming neighborhood installations.

Boutique travelers often seek this more localized experience. “The traveler loves that [local programming]; the traveler doesn’t want to feel like a traveler, they want to feel like a local,” said Ariela Kiradjian, COO, BLLA, and co-founder, Stay Boutique.

During a panel discussing hotels’ investment in F&B, Jody Pennette, principal, cb5 Hospitality Consulting, said boutique hotels today are more about the alchemy of an experience rather than extensions of a brand.

Scott Gerber, principal/CEO, Gerber Group, noted that when boutique properties were nascent, it was all about small-sized rooms and a small number of them, but this created little opportunity for variety. “Today, if I blindfolded you and put you in a hotel room and took the blindfold off, you would have no idea what brand you’re in,” Gerber said. “So, bars and restaurants become the differentiating factors for a guest to stay in one hotel versus another.”

This sentiment takes shape at one of Gerber Group’s venues, Mr. Purple in Hotel Indigo Lower East Side in NYC, where guests have come to effectively separate the restaurant and the hotel.

“Most people don’t even know it’s a Hotel Indigo; they know it’s the hotel where Mr. Purple is,” Gerber said. He explained, however, that this presents an opportunity for hotels to get to play on these outlets and reinvent their properties through F&B.

Julia Heyer, managing director, Heyer Performance, advised that in order for this to succeed, however, hotels must ensure that these F&B outlets fit into the local community. “You have to make it market-resonant,” Heyer said.

Schrager sees F&B outlets as standout features as well when done right, but the future of boutique revolves around the guestrooms. He predicts boutique hotels will have an even smaller room count—about 80-120 rooms—with rooms becoming more spacious, more residential in nature and no matter how authentic a property, it all comes down to basic human needs being met with great service.

“It needs to offer what you need and nothing that you don’t,” Schrager said. “You see that going on with cars, you see it going on in clothing, you see it going on in a lot of industries and, for some reason, we in the hotel world are the last to respond.” HB

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