With the boutique hotel arguably on the wane, where next for a hit of innovative hospitality?
Once a leftfield and marginal alternative to giant corporate quarters, the boutique hotel has now gone mainstream. The world’s major cities are overrun with more hipster-filled, avocado-on-toast-serving, thirdspace lobbies than you can shake a MacBook at; more destination hotel restaurants than there are up-and-coming chefs to man them; and more fantastic interiors lined with carefully curated objets than even the most dedicated Pinterest addict can keep up with.
It’s been lovely. But has it become tedious? Marriott now has a chain of boutique hotels, for heaven’s sake (Edition). So does Starwood (W), and Hyatt (Andaz). So what’s the next big hospitality innovation we should look forward to? And where’s it going to come from? The boutique hotel boom, which began in the 1980s, was an early signifier of what everybody now calls ‘the experience economy’. It changed everything. In the following 30 years, a charge of creative, designled and community-integrated ‘lifestyle’ hotels transformed the travel industry. Founded by entrepreneurs, the hotels were independent as well as aspirational. Vast marble lobbies were replaced with infinitely more cosy spaces, art, emotion, personality and fun: where the big chains offered familiarity and sycophancy, this new generation of residences had surprises up their sleeves and a certain cheeky charm.
James Lohan, co-founder of Mr & Mrs Smith, has been monitoring and marketing boutique hotels for years. ‘In 2002, when we started working on our first book, there was a handful of hotels with real boutique personality-places like Anouska Hempel’s Blakes in London’s Kensington and Nick Jones’ Babington House in Somerset were the trailblazers,’ he says. ‘The market has since exploded. We set out back then to publish a book with a hotel for every week of the year; in the end, we could only find 41. Fast-forward 12 years and our UK selection has more than trebled, with the overall Smith collection now in excess of 950 hotels worldwide.’
Part of the reason for that growth is a genuine cultural shift, a growing demand for personalised experiences and the elevation of the individual, explains Lohan. ‘People don’t want cookie-cutter experiences any more – they want to feel that the time they spend at a hotel is something uniquely theirs. The concept of luxury has evolved beyond the superficial trappings of expense to encompass something much more personal. These days, it takes more than a lick of Farrow & Ball and some feature wallpaper to make a hotel boutique – it has to have a human personality stamped on it in every aspect: design, food, service and more.’ The contemporary definition of luxury is about ‘creating an inimitable experience based on style, space, wellbeing, content, design, authenticity, storytelling, urbanity and innovation. The future belongs to the pioneers with the capacity and bravery to act on this cultural shift first,’ concludes Lohan.
The competition is now intense and what was once exceptional has become the new normal. And it’s not just the big hotel chains that threaten the future of the independent hotelier, but also the revolution brought about by the likes of Airbnb, and high-end holiday lettings companies such as Onefinestay. Is there room for everything? Lohan thinks so. ‘If you want the indulgent, treat-yourself buzz of a boutique hotel, you’ll book a boutique hotel – no self-catering property is ever going to offer the same sort of experience as a fully staffed, slickly run designer operation.’ Benyan agrees: ‘There are still plenty of travellers who don’t want to make their own bed or cook their own breakfast on a holiday.’ What these start-ups have done, however, is help to open up a new market for the hybrid space: the serviced apartments, the one-room hotels, and destination architecture reformatted (or purpose-built) as a place to stay.
Graanmarkt 13 in Antwerp is a good example. A luxury fashion store and restaurant in a townhouse on a cobbled square, its top two floors formed the home of owners Tim Van Geloven and Ilse Cornelissens; the couple recently vacated this space and launched it as The Apartment. ‘We just packed our bags and left, as we knew how well it worked,’ says Cornelissens. With its stunning interiors by Belgian architect Vincent Van Duysen, and optional meals prepared by the award-winning chefs downstairs, it has quickly become the most sought-after short-term accommodation in the city. So will they duplicate it? Cornelissens says not. ‘Living on top of everything allowed us to give the whole project the personal touch we always wanted. Now people can stay here and experience the creativity, calmness and beautiful design of Van Duysen at his best. But we will never create a new Graanmarkt 13 on another spot; you can only create such a place once.’