Posted by: Bob Fisher | May 14, 2009

It’s a Boutique World

A city of villages

Montréal and Québec City are my two favourite cities in North America; the former winning out over the latter by a whisker because it is the most cosmopolitan city on the continent and is a city of villages.

Montréal evolved in this way because of geographical happenstance; the city is built on a series of islands in the St. Lawrence River and thus is today a series of pedestrian-friendly and distinct communities. And each of these communities represents a “boutique” travel experience in itself, especially the port of Old Montréal.

In this very historic and heritage section of the city, you will find stunning architecture and wonderful boutique hotels. Because of an article I did called “Hôtel-boutique, Québec Chic: How two small Québec hotels embody the culture of hospitality,” I had the pleasure of staying in a number of boutique hotels in Old Montréal.

So what’s a boutique hotel?

Well, it’s a social phenomenon: heritage travel, urban design, architectural and historical integration, a niche market in the hospitality industry, very astute travel marketing, and the embodiment of the kinds of alternative travel experiences that travellers who are engagé are demanding. Furthermore the boutique travel phenomenon is a highly grassroots and contextual experience.

In many respects, the boutique hotel is nothing new; it’s the full and personalized service of the “inn” of olden days. Everything old is new again. It is, however, the antithesis of the big chain hospitality experience (as pleasant as that can be), because of its frame of reference, its own mini-culture, and because of its … location, location, location.

The word “boutique,” from Old French, simply means small shop. Like the Spanish bodega, it has connotations of not being particularly “grand” but instead is very service-oriented and on a human scale. But simple words and concepts get imitated, repeated, and to some extent even usurped.

Depending on the source, the boutique hotel phenomenon came about in part as a result of the over-supply of big monopoly hotel brands. But it also reflects changing social realities, economics, attitudes and values; travellers in the age of the Internet now have the ability to refine and even customize their travel choices. And many have begun demanding accommodation with a unique look and feel, the same (if not better) standards of comfort and convenience, and alternatives for cookie cutter accommodation. So the boutique hotel became a new approach and attitude in the hospitality industry, but as a generic marketing strategy it also is has been adopted by entire destinations.

Many cities got into the boutique hotel business, the first off the mark being London and New York; both also cities of villages that could support such a secondary hospitality industry. And, as is the case in Montréal, the redevelopment and redesign of these urban villages (destinations-within-a-destination) went hand in hand with the plans of city planners and other government powers-that-be. New Orleans is another a good example, especially its Garden District. Miami and Miami Beach is another; because the some “products” need to be continually refreshed.

It’s all “value-added”

When I got into this travel writing business, I kept hearing that term, but it took me a while to really process it. If “they” had said “value added at no extra charge,” I probably would have figured it out earlier. Let me explain.

As I walk around the streets of Montréal, just observing and engaging with old friends, most of the wonderful stuff I love in this city is costing me nothing. To a certain extent, the same principle applies to the boutique hotel — a marketing strong point that proprietors do not hesitate to subtly make their guests aware of.

Most of these hotels are not inexpensive (although you should always check for their special promotions); however when you factor in the aesthetics, the style, the design, the ambiance, the intimacy, the security, the no-two-rooms-are-the-same theme, the history and nostalgia factors, the integration of the traditional and the modernist, the surprise factor (as opposed to the predictable major chain hotel), the theatrics, and all the museums, art galleries, restaurants, history, and revitalized urban spaces just outside the front door … what you have is a boutique hotel that is the destination. As is the case in Old Montréal, the added value factor is also the community just outside. The boutique hotel has the same intrinsic qualities as the community with which it is blended. It is also reality-based, integrated, and not “apart” from that community.

It’s not surprising therefore to see why in the hospitality industry the boutique hotel business became a win-win situation; and today it is also the point de départ for some really good stories. This is what I really love about boutique hotels; each has its own narrative. You can always find a great heritage or business story in the successful boutique hotel.

There is some overlap between the boutique hotel experience and the B&B experience, but what I like most about the former as opposed to the latter is the privacy; surely one of the greatest luxuries we have in the West. What I don’t like about the boutique hotel phenomenon (plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose) is the over-exploitation of a good thing.

Some boutique hotels have become very trendy, very oh so chic, very à la mode. They continue to get a lot of media attention, but often, in my view, it isn’t for the right reasons. Some marketing gurus get carried away; sending messages to their niche markets that staying in a boutique hotel is the fashionable thing to do. The dubious message is that it is all about image — the client’s! To which I would say, “Nonsense!” This is not the essence of the boutique hotels I have known. I have the same problem with the boutique hotel as “funky chic.” Don’t give me “lifestyle” — a very transitory concept — give me substance.

The universal “boutique” principles

The boutique “sector” of the travel and tourism market is not unlike that of many other markets (music, film, cuisine, fashion); and, in my view, the key universal concept and marketing practice is that of appealing to the consumer’s need for diversity, individuality, and a sense of self — the antidote to the “sigh in a shouting mob.” High quality standardization (which carries the burden of high overhead, by the way) is fine, but multiples are also good. The essence of “boutique” is the alternative expression of human endeavour, and this includes the travel and tourism industry. That is why, for example, Boise, Idaho — one of my favourite U.S. cities — is a boutique destination. And that is why my story on the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans was a boutique experience.

Many smaller cities are also discovering that boutique hotels are very appropriate for their markets because they integrate so well into the destination, and enhance or even epitomize the best in the destination. Boutique hotels are also “happening” in some very out-of-the-way nature destinations because the true principles of boutique are very compatible with those of the increasingly popular green destination.

In the boutique world, it is also about mutual respect.

To read “Hôtel-boutique, Québec Chic: How two small Québec hotels embody the culture of hospitality,” click here.

To read “Architectural Travel: Montréal à la mode,” click here.

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