Boutique Hotel. Just the words get the imagination going. Even before I dog eared the pages of Herbert Ypma’s first Hip Hotels book I was fascinated by the world of boutique hotel properties. “How cool would it be to be the general manager of a cool boutique hotel?” I often found asking myself as I flipped through the pages of his magnificent photos. Working hard to make a career out of the hotel industry, I was convinced that I just had to be involved with a boutique hotel someday.
That someday came true, when in 2004 I was invited to be the general manager of what was and still is one of Palm Springs most hip boutique hotels. I left another huge opportunity just to be a part of this amazing world. The art, the design, the vibe. I had never really worked anywhere with a “vibe”. A year later and I knew, I knew what many in the hotel business do not…what it is really like to be the gm of a hip, cool boutique hotel. It’s not for everyone and amazing for many.
There is a mini storm brewing in the boutique hotel world, one I don’t think most involved in this industry are aware of. With more and more boutique hotel operators entering the playground, more and more bad hiring decisions are being made. The right General Mangers are working at the wrong hotels. Like a square peg and a round hole, some things just do not work. Who is to blame and what can be done?
The Boutique Hotel
First let me first tell you that I have a very narrow view of what really constitutes a boutique hotel. I think that the term “Boutique” when used to describe a hotel is often misapplied. A boutique hotel is not defined by simply a hot design, as many would argue.
In my opinion, a boutique hotel is a property that is uniquely significant in four ways:
1. Architecture and Design.
2. A high level of service. A property must not exceed 150 guest rooms, enhancing the guest to staff ratio.
3. Sell to a specific demographic.
4. Are independently owned and operated (this is where some will disagree with me).
A boutique hotel must be an independent operation. The hotel must not be part of a collection that is more than say, 10 properties. Beyond this you get into having a corporate hierarchical management style that is required in running a large company and maintaining brand consistency. Take W Hotels for example. In my opinion these are not boutique hotels. They look like a boutique hotel, even feel like one. Many boutique hotels would strive to be as great as a W. But a W Hotel is run and managed by a massive corporation. The property level management makes very few decisions about what services are offered and how the property is run. A boutique hotel must be operated as close to the actual physical operation as possible. W’s and the like are amazing, but in my opinion don’t fit the definition of a boutique hotel. Boutique hotels are also constantly re-inventing themselves, making sure that their fickle guest never get bored and look to stay at the latest new, hip and cool property.
Boutique Hotel Guest
Travelers chose to stay at a boutique hotel because of the story, or the experience. The experience is very important and must be unique and somewhat cutting edge. The general demographics are individuals 20 to 50 years of age, work in more creative fields like advertising or entertainment and appreciate a higher level of service. When Ian Schrager entered the market with what many consider to be the first boutique hotel, this demographic discovered that they could use their travel budget get them a room at a cool, hip hotel rather than a generic mid-level branded property. And the boom started.
Boutique hotel guests enjoy experiences, unique architecture, cutting edge interior design and in some cases an urban location. The market is expanding and the demographic model explained earlier is beginning to bleed into others. You might very well find a Fortune 500 CEO staying at a boutique hotel. It is hard to ignore the hype.
Brands vs. Boutiques
Luxury hotel operators are scrambling to avoid losing market share to the boutique world. Some hotels are actually taking the “brand” off their marketing and streamlining their operations so that their properties are authentically boutique. Take the Kahala Mandarin Oriental for example. This famous luxury property recently took Mandarin Oriental away so that they could operate and compete in the new marketplace of more independent hotels. They are now simply “The Kahala” and are working hard to be authentically local and independent of a major brand identification. I think others will follow.
The Boutique Hotel General Manager
For the sake of this publication, I will use the luxury hotel as the comparison to the boutique since most closely associate a boutique hotel with luxury travel. So what is so different about being a general manager at a luxury hotel versus a boutique hotel? Can it really be that different? The basics are the same. The general manager is responsible for the entire day to day operation, hiring decisions, marketing, budgets, forecasting, rate strategy, facility maintenance etc… The key for both types of properties is guest service and guest interaction. The guest at a high end luxury hotel expects to be able to interact with the hotel general manager, as do the guests at a boutique property. It is all high touch.
The difference is that a boutique hotel general manager wears just a few more hats than the luxury general manager. A boutique general manager might be preparing complex budget forecasting spreadsheets at 10am and at 10:30 am be clearing the pool towels from around the hotel’s salt water plunge. When was the last time you saw the general manager of the Peninsula Beverly Hills with an arm full of towels? Don’t get me wrong, I know that the general manager of the Peninsula would do this in a second, if they had to. The general manager of a boutique hotel HAS to, because there is nobody else. The one server working the restaurant is also probably responsible for taking care of the pool, taking room service orders, delivering the orders and on and on…. The general manager of a boutique hotel is sometimes also the HR director and breaks the front desk agents. If the gm is in California then the gm might find themselves breaking just about every position just to avoid getting sued and fined!
Take this example; you are the GM of a hot boutique property in the desert. The temperature is pushing 118 degrees. Since occupancy during the summer is very low, you encourage a lot of your team to take their vacations so you can get that vacation accrual off your books. One of those who takes you up on this is your chief engineer, one of two engineers for your entire five acre property. He goes home to the motherland, Germany for a week. Now just because it’s hot does not mean that you don’t have customers. Some tourists seem to love the heat, and so it was with this particular steamy day in August. As the sun begins to set, your guests make their way from the pool to their bungalows. Dusk and 100 degrees, everyone turns on their aged air conditioners full blast so they can cool down. Your only other engineer has gone home for the day. It is at about this time that the calls start coming in. The ac units are freezing up. The old units freeze up when they are turned on full blast. Many blow the circuit breakers. So there you are, in your office doing the forecast for your weekly corporate status report call when the front desk calls you in a panic, “the guests are flipping out” cries your new front desk agent. You check out the calls and see that you need your engineer back on property, but his pre-paid cell phone (you cant afford to pay for a cell phone for him) is out of time -you cant reach him! So what do you do? You head to the rooms to see if you can fix them. Room by room you tackle the challenge of explaining to your sweaty and angry guests why they cant turn their ac on full and that it will take at least two hours for the ice built up around the coils to melt. Then you start looking for the circuit breakers, which are scattered all over the 60 year old property. By the time you reach the last room the guest who answers the door almost screams at the sight of the sweaty, dirty general manager holding a tool box with a dazed look on his face. “Wasn’t this the same guy who was pouring us Mimosas at the pool this morning honey?” asks the guest as you begin your repairs. Once the craziness is over you get a call on your cell phone. Yes, it is your engineer returning your call. “You trying to reach me boss?”. The next day, while on your conference call you listen to a speech about how general managers need to spend more time with their guests rather than in their offices. Duh, you think as you try to scrub the grit out from under your fingernails.
The financial realities of a boutique hotel are unique. The appearance of three to five star service with a two star budget is the norm, and the gm’s get caught in the middle. The boutique hotel just does not have the budget to staff like a true luxury property and everyone has to pull their weight. The gm who does not will not be there long and hate every second of their lives.
Along with the additional sweat and frustration of being a boutique hotel gm are the rewards. For the right individual, they will find that the entrepreneurial management style required of them is highly empowering. The gm can make a lot of decisions on their own, decisions that in a larger corporate hotel would require an approval or worse….committee discussion! The fact that some towels need to be picked up and maybe a drink or two be mixed and served is actually fun to them. The rewards of always being in front of your guests are what most gm’s want anyway, but many are not really ready for it when they are tasked to make that happen every day.