August 13, 2021
By Kim Campbell

Hilton, Marriott, Wyndham — these popular hotel chains are familiar names to most travelers. As frequent fliers hop from city to city, many choose to stick with the same chain so they know what to expect. The standards of service, room types, and amenities are consistent and reliable. Those seeking a more personalized, intimate experience, however, are sometimes drawn to boutique hotels.

Make no mistake: Chain hotels can offer personalized and intimate experiences as well, and there's a gray area surrounding what is and what isn't classified as a boutique hotel. But sometimes, the allure of boutique hotels is simply that they're unique. This may have you wondering, “what is a boutique hotel, exactly?” Well, we’re here to tell you all about them.

In this blog post, we explain what boutique hotels are and why they’re appealing to many travelers. We trace the roots of boutique hotels from their origin to the modern experience, as well as highlight some real-world examples.

What is a boutique hotel? Here's everything you need to know

The term “boutique hotel” is difficult to define. There is no characteristic checklist, size cut-off, or other definitive criteria that makes a boutique hotel what it is. Even Shlomo Gabbai — the director of the annual Boutique Hotel Awards, which recognize the best-of-the-best in boutique hotels — struggles to define the term. When asked by Business Insider to pinpoint the characteristics of a boutique hotel, he responded, “There are an infinite number of recipes, but the key ingredients I see in a boutique hotel are individuality and a great emotional impact."

While there are no set standards that hotels must meet to achieve boutique status, there are a few notable traits that boutique hotels have in common.

What makes a hotel boutique? 

When you picture a boutique hotel, what comes to mind? A luxurious hotel with plush carpets, impressive molding, a fancy spa, and a hefty price tag? We tend to think of boutique hotels as expensive first. In reality, however, they can sometimes be more affordable for travelers than branded hotels.

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A boutique hotel is typically much smaller than your average chain hotel. Usually having less than 100 guest rooms, these smaller hotels can be viewed as stylish properties that offer a catered, personal experience to each guest. They tend to be located in city centers, downtown retail districts, or other fashionable urban locations, but in reality, they can be located just about anywhere.  

Every boutique property will probably have a different style than the next, as well as offer varying services and amenities. Some boutique properties may include a spa or gift shop, while others may include a coffee shop or a modern salon. Each boutique hotel provides guests with a unique experience so they come home with a story to tell. They allow travelers to immerse themselves in a community.

The history of boutique hotels

Throughout history, there have been an abundance of small-scale accommodation options for travelers: inns, roadside motels, and bed and breakfasts. The concept of the boutique hotel didn’t begin to develop until the 1980s, according to Skift.

In the late ’80s and early ’90s, there was a great debate in the hotel industry about whether a boutique hotel trend even existed or not. While a new hotel style was clearly evolving, which would later be defined as boutique, it was not a widely accepted hotel category at that time.

Hotels that would later become called “boutique” weren’t marketed that way when they opened, as the term didn’t exist yet. As a result, there is some dispute on which property was the very first. Most industry experts agree that it was one of two properties: Clarion Bedford Hotel or Morgans Hotel.

Clarion Bedford Hotel

Located in San Francisco, CA, The Clarion Bedford Hotel was established by Bill Kimpton in 1981. Bill Kimpton also launched Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants the same year. Based out of San Francisco, it's been said that Kimpton’s properties were inspired by his many trips to Europe.

Many industry experts credit Kimpton for lighting the spark that would ignite the boutique hotel movement. The property was later acquired by IHG and emulsified with the brand, but the chain still strives to honor its history and maintain the original style.

Morgans Hotel

The Morgans Hotel, as well as the Morgans Hotel Group, was established in New York City in 1984 by Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager. The founders of the infamous Studio 54 nightclub, the duo switched career paths and moved into the booming hotel business.

The Morgans Hotel had an especially modern design for the era and boasted a communal gathering space for guests. "It showed us that style and sophistication could be affordable. It introduced the hotel lobby as a social gathering place - a concept for which millennials are often given credit," wrote industry expert Dean Minett in a Hospitality Net article. 

Eventually, larger hotels and brands began to adopt the boutique hotel model. Hotel chains worked to incorporate the style, presence, and personalized touches of boutique hotels into their own designs. As more travelers began to book at boutique properties, chains saw the need to appeal to this new market.

How do boutique hotels differ from other hotels?

While there is certainly some overlap, generally, you can expect boutique hotels to differ from chain or brand hotels in a few key areas.

  • Location. While brand hotels and larger properties are often located for travel convenience, close to the highway, or around a plethora of fast-dining options, boutique properties are typically located in more fashionable settings. Often located in the urban district of a city, boutique properties pride themselves on their Instagram-worthy appearance and trendy location.
  • Size. Smaller than most hotels, the majority of boutique hotels offer between 25-100 guest rooms, providing a cozy, intimate experience. Because they often lack the scale of chain hotels, many boutique hotels are designed with communal public spaces as well.
  • Services. Hotel chains tend to offer streamlined services throughout locations. Hampton by Hilton, for example, offers a complimentary full hot breakfast for each guest and a 24-hour coffee bar at every hotel. Other select-service properties may include continental breakfast or made-to-order only. Some chain hotels have indoor pools, others have outdoor saltwater pools. Boutique hotels, however, offer a wide range of different services that will vary at each location. Boutique hotel services may include:
    • Spa services: facials, mudroom, sauna, etc.
    • On-site masseuse
    • Salon services: hair, nails, etc.
    • Travel services such as airport or shuttle services
    • Valet laundry and parking
    • Concierge services
    • More complimentary amenities
    • Restaurant services
    • Spacious and luxurious rooms
  • Decor and design. Boutique hotels have individualized aesthetics. Some may embrace a rustic design, for example, while others may be designed for the ultimate relaxation experience, with a lobby full of soothing plants, meditation areas, or holistic charms. Each boutique hotel has a different interior design and layout.

Why are boutique hotels appealing to travelers?

Boutique hotels typically provide guests with a specific attitude and a one-of-a-kind point of view. For example:

  • Boutique hotels are tailored to their location, giving visitors the chance to absorb the unique culture, attractions, and appeal of a destination. Hotels near college campuses may be filled with sports or other collegiate memorabilia. In L.A., boutique hotels are likely to be extremely trendy and high-end.
  • Due to their individuality, boutique hotels appeal to targeted communities. Each property offers a unique charm and travelers can seek out properties that interest them and will provide a personalized experience.
  • Successful boutique hotels are usually a destination within a destination. While providing guests access and information tailored to the unique area around them, the most prominent boutique hotels typically offer a variety of services and unique experiences as well. With so much to offer, boutique hotels are trip-worthy destinations on their own.

Examples of popular boutique hotels

Below, we’ve listed a few of the popular boutique hotels spanning the United States. These properties are located in different regions, each with its own energy, aesthetic, and personal touches.

  • Cachet Boutique: New York, New York. Built in 2005, the Deco-inspired Cachet Boutique holds 105 guest rooms and is located in Times Square. This property is surrounded by three outdoor gardens offering privacy and serenity. One of NYC’s most popular boutique hotels, the Cachet Boutique is known for its sleek style, expansive rooms, and top-tier dining.
  • Warwick San Francisco: San Francisco, California. The Warwick San Francisco was built in 1913. Located just next to Union Square and San Francisco’s Theater District, this boutique hotel holds 74 guest rooms and was constructed in the Beaux-Arts style
  • IVY Hotel: Chicago, Illinois. Towering over the city of Chicago, the Ivy Hotel stands 16 stories high, has 63 guest rooms, and is considered one of the most stylish boutique hotels in the Windy City. Built in 2012, the Ivy Hotel is steps from world-class shopping, dining, and entertainment. Revered for its luxury and sophistication, the Ivy Hotel has expansive suites, rainfall showers, bamboo flooring, and 400 thread count Egyptian cotton sheets.

Frequently asked questions about boutique hotels

Are boutique hotels better than "regular" hotels?

Of course not! At the end of the day, it all comes down to personal preference. And as we noted above, there's tons of overlap when it comes to what's offered at, and expected of, a boutique hotel vs. a non-boutique hotel. 

Why are boutique hotels successful?

Successful boutique hotels cater to their audience. Boutique hoteliers understand the benefits of their location, history, and the area that surrounds them. In fact, many successful boutique hotel owners design or decorate their property to appeal to the aesthetic of the community around them. They provide personalized and distinctive experiences for guests.

What should guests expect from a boutique hotel?

When looking at a boutique hotel, the primary difference will be the size of the hotel. More intimate, most boutique hotels have less than 100 rooms. Many boutique hotels have communal gathering or living spaces that provide guests the air of staying in a home more than staying in a hotel. Additionally, many boutique hotels offer a variety of specialty services, dining options, and location-tailored activities.

What’s so unique about a boutique hotel?

Many boutique hotels have a specific theme or style. Whether in the layout, decoration, or services provided, staying at a boutique hotel usually ensures that travelers will have a one-of-a-kind experience, because it’s the only hotel of its kind. There are even boutique hotels that cater to horror fans, experiencing farm life, or for the ultimate college sports fans.

How should you market a boutique hotel?

Boutique hotel marketing should center around what sets the property apart from the rest. Do you have unique architecture? Are you located in the center of an artisan shopping district? Get to know your target audience and create personalized hotel marketing materials that connect their interests with specific features and benefits that your hotel offers. Share the history of the hotel with guests as this helps them to set your property apart from others in the area.

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Now you know everything about boutique hotels!

Up next, have you ever wondered why — and how — hotels smell so good? Our complete hotel scent guide has you covered. Then, check out 12 of the "coolest" ice hotels from around the world

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Kim Campbell

Kim is a full-time copy and content writer with many years of experience in the hospitality industry. She entered the hotel world in 2013 as a housekeeping team member and worked her way through various departments before being appointed to Director of Sales. Kim has championed numerous successful sales efforts, revenue strategies, and marketing campaigns — all of which landed her a spot on Hotel Management Magazine’s “Thirty Under 30” list.

Don’t be fooled though; she’s not all business! An avid forest forager, post-apocalyptic fiction fan, and free-sample-fiend, Kim prides herself on being well-rounded.

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