Aug 09, 2012|
Judging by the newly-opened 137 Pillars House in Chiang Mai or the Cabochon in Bangkok, independently owned (and operated) boutique hotels are still going strong in Thailand. But major hotel chains like Accor and Starwood now want a piece of the action, and are increasingly modeling themselves after their boutique rivals.
“Leisure travelers generate more revenue than business travelers. Their frequency of travel cannot compare to business travelers, but they tend to spend more,” explains Surachai Meephien, Travel Incentive Marketing Manager at American Express (Thailand), on why big hotel groups are so keen to follow the lead of boutique hotels.
As early as 1998, global hospitality group Starwood launched W Hotels, a brand they define as boutique. Over 11 years later, Accor, the Paris-based hospitality group, finally caught on with the launch of M Gallery in 2009. “Hotel chains are adjusting to follow the market trend. They are either launching boutique-like brands or rebranding their old brands to be more boutique-like,” says Narisa Leelathawornpanya, an assistant editor at Lonely Planet Magazine.
On paper, the M Gallery brand is a perfect compromise between an independently-owned hotel and a chain hotel. “There are many unique, family-run hotels in Europe. These hotels would come to Accor and ask, ‘What can you do with us?’” says Paul Stevens, Director of Operations at Accor Thailand. “So we created a brand [M Gallery] to take care of them. Under the brand, they can benefit from our system and resources while preserving their own identity.”
The number of rooms or being independently owned are no longer what define “boutique,” though. The term has mostly come to mean any property that’s hip, technologically savvy and provides personalized service. “What we find is that lifestyle travelers who choose to stay in boutique hotels have strong relationships to certain products, like Apple, Armani or Hugo Boss. They want to be identified with products that are a bit unique, a bit cutting edge—or something with history,” Stevens adds.
Starwood, too, has redefined ”boutique” as simply meaning a brand with fewer properties and more character. “We usually find that the smaller resorts we operate are the ones people equate with luxury. W Hotels, Luxury Collection and St. Regis are the group’s most-loved brands,” explains Joshua Lee, Regional Director of Sales & Marketing at Starwood Hotels & Resorts Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia. But Starwood has also tried to take things down a notch with mid-level brand Aloft, launched in 2008 in Montreal. Labeled “A Vision of W Hotels,” it offers a kind of no-frills chic with the usual mix of design and technology. There are now 46 Aloft hotels worldwide, including Bangkok. But is it boutique? W Hotels’ Alongkorn Srichuen, Senior Marketing Communication Manager at W Retreat Koh Samui, doesn’t think so.
“W is the only chain brand that has maintained its boutique character,” says Alongkorn. “W Hotels are not hotels; we are a lifestyle. We offer hip lifestyle-related experiences, from music to fashion. And we don’t try to be mainstream.” Even so, the upcoming W Hotel Bangkok will feature 403 rooms set in a gleaming glass high-rise, a far cry from the 50-room hotels that originally characterized the segment.
Size does have its benefits, though. Global loyalty programs, in particular, offer the kinds of perks independent hoteliers simply can’t compete with. “These people [chain hotels] are very good at making you want to come back,” American Express’s Surachai says. But Lonely Planet’s Narisa, doesn’t believe you can get the best of both worlds, as chains offer standardized service, while boutique hotels should throw up surprises. “Service at [real] boutique hotels is not 100% perfect. If you stay in a boutique hotel in Northern Thailand, locals don’t necessarily speak proper central Thai, but they serve you with sincerity; and that’s unique.”