Quoted in the Wall Street Journal

This article printed courtesy of the Wall Street Journal

The W Chicago City Center has a stylish lobby and chic guest rooms, with 350-thread count sheets and marble bathrooms. But it doesn't have a bar Frank Bynum feels comfortable in, or even a phone he can understand.
When traveling, the University of Southern California law student usually likes to grab a drink in the hotel bar before bed. But when he stayed at the W in December, he skipped it. The hotel's Whiskey Blue bar, with its mirrored walls and clubby scene, was so trendy, he says, he felt he would've had to dress up.

Then there was the phone. Instead of typical buttons for the fitness center or the valet, it had "Sweat" and "Wheels."
"I couldn't figure it out for a couple of minutes," Mr. Bynum says. "I was like, 'I just want my car.'" Next time, he says, he just wants a Westin.
There's a backlash brewing against boutique hotels. While brands like Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, Inc.'s W are still thriving, the now-23-year-old segment is finding that some customers -- even once loyal ones -- are getting tired of their tragically hip ways. Generation X consumers, the traditional target market, are aging and their priorities are changing. Once smitten with trendy furnishings and achingly cool bars -- and unfazed by inferior amenities, tiny rooms and snooty hotel staff -- boutique customers increasingly say they're just as interested in good service and a good room as they are in style.
So boutiques -- a category which generally refers to small, designer hotels with 200 rooms or fewer -- are focusing on offering greater comfort and more amenities. The Morgans Hotel Group, known particularly for its comely staff, says it has put more emphasis on recruiting and training. At the Galleria Park Hotel, a Joie de Vivre Hospitality Group property in San Francisco's financial district, guests can now summon a professional assistant for support services, including accounting, finance, human resources and sales and marketing (daily fee: $450). And some boutique hotels are responding to criticism that their austere furnishings often looked cheap and banged up. As part of a makeover of the Muse Hotel in New York, Kimpton Hotel & Restaurant Group is putting in sturdier hydraulic desk chairs and Art Deco high-back winged chairs in its rooms.
Even Ian Schrager, whose Morgans Hotel pioneered the boutique genre in 1984, has gone in a different direction with his renovated Gramercy Park Hotel in New York. The Gramercy Park is sumptuous, not minimalist, with a mammoth, hand-blown Venetian chandelier and plush, velvet furniture. It also "has much larger guest rooms," said John Fox, senior vice president at PKF Consulting in New York. "The trend with old boutiques was you had small rooms because you didn't want your customers in the rooms; you wanted them in the bars and the restaurants." Mr. Schrager, through his spokespeople, declined repeated requests for comment.
Many boutiques charge room rates well above those of business-class hotels. Rooms at 60 Thompson in New York over the March 9-11 weekend start at $490. The Hotel Palomar in Dallas that same weekend starts at $229. By contrast, Marriott International Inc.'s Renaissance Dallas Hotel runs $119. The Westin New York at Times Square starts at $349.
While hotel room rates overall have risen recently, boutiques have been able to up their prices even more: The category's average daily rate grew 10% to $215.12 last year, the third straight year of growth, according to Smith Travel Research. But occupancy growth has slowed, echoing a similar trend in the overall hotel industry: Occupancy at boutiques was up only 0.8% last year, compared with 3.3% in 2005 and 4.3% in 2004. The boutique segment represents just 1% of the overall hotel market.
Some boutiques are toning down their trendiness -- and even reining in their raucous bars. The Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, home to two of the trendiest clubs in Los Angeles, professes to have a much happier clientele since its widely publicized removal of Amanda Demme as manager of Teddy's and Tropicana Bar last March. The nightspots had become celebrity hotspots under her direction, but hotel guests were getting barred from the pool and the scene was getting chaotic, with the singer Courtney Love once getting carried out on a stretcher.
"We are, at the end of the day, a hotel," said Stephen Brandman, chief operating officer and co-owner of Thompson Hotels, which manages the Roosevelt. "You have not read in the year since any articles about guests being mistreated or not wanting to stay at the Roosevelt. We just took a whole different approach, and it seems to be working." The hotel has taken over management of the clubs, which now permit greater access to hotel customers. Previously, hotel guests (who pay at least $309 a night for a room) had to wait behind the velvet rope with the general public. Now, guests who book cabana suites have access for four to the Tropicana. Guests with rooms in the main tower can bypass the velvet rope earlier in the night (After a set time -- which changes based on the night -- those guests still may have to wait.)
Some customers say poor service has scared them off boutiques. Chad Bordes, an event planner from San Diego, said he was turned off after a recent stay at the Cartwright in San Francisco, where, he said, he couldn't get extra coat hangers or even a third pillow. "The customer service at the boutiques is less than at regular hotels," he said. "You'd think it would be the other way around." Suzie Yang, general manager of the Cartwright, defended the hotel's service, saying its loyalty factor with customers is high.
Other customers say that the furnishings that look so chic on the hotels' Web sites can end up looking scuffed and worn. Alan Anderson, a Phoenix resident said he has stayed at the W's Court and Tuscany hotels in New York repeatedly over the years, and he said the furnishings have grown old and the rooms beat-up. "They look like old news," he said.
Some hotels are sprucing up their rooms. W Hotels Worldwide said that both the Court and the Tuscany are scheduled for a renovation in the next year. Kimpton says its longstanding policy is to freshen its hotels' interiors every five to seven years. Some hotels are toning down some of their more ├╝ber-hip -- but impractical -- designs. The age of the "oversized red lampshade," as Mr. Brandman of Thompson Hotels calls it, is past. "I think the design that tries too hard is finished," said designer Marni Leis, who along with Oren Bronstein has designed several Joie de Vivre properties. Ms. Leis said designers now feel freer to employ richer and more varied touches, such as the Oriental rugs and Moroccan tables she and Mr. Bronstein used in the Hotel Carlton in San Francisco.
With major metropolitan areas like New York and Los Angeles becoming saturated with boutiques, the genre is also branching out to areas that don't scream hip. Milwaukee's downtown is getting a new property by Kimpton Hotel & Restaurant Group in 2009, as are Alexandria and Arlington, Va., later this year. Sacramento is getting one by California-centric rival Joie de Vivre, as are Huntington Beach and Sunnyvale, Calif. Morgans opened a Mondrian in Scottsdale, Ariz., on Jan. 30.
Also, several hotel companies are rolling out new lower-cost brands. In many, they are opting for a vibe that is more homey than hip. Aloft, a new select-service brand by Starwood that will launch in 2008, claims to have the "DNA" of W Hotels and yet a more residential feel, with loft-style rooms at properties concentrated in suburban, outlying urban and airport areas. (W Hotels, by contrast, are generally in major cities and resort destinations.) Global Hyatt Corp.'s Hyatt Place, another new brand, features modern lobby and cafe areas with touch-screen kiosks for self-registration and food ordering. It plans to have 120 hotels in over 30 states by the end of the year. Atlanta-based NYLO Hotels LLC
plans to offer guest rooms with exposed brick and polished concrete walls. Choice Hotels' Cambria Suites will have amenities such as flat-screen TVs, DVD players with MP3 hook-up and free wireless Internet, but rooms are starting at only $149 a night in April at its debut property in Boise, Idaho.
And hip certainly isn't dead. The new Mondrian in Scottsdale features some classic boutique touches including an all-white exterior and themed bars: There's a crimson-hued Red Bar and an all-black Skybar. The minimalist rooms measure just 300 square feet.
Chad Bordes3 Comments