What is a Boutique Hotel? A Clear Definition with Examples
Curious about boutique hotels? If you’re opening, renovating, purchasing, or booking a hotel in the future, you’ll need to know what sets boutique hotels apart from other hotels. But determining the differences isn’t always an easy task - especially when you can find so-called boutique hotel brands (W, Kimpton) and branded boutique collections (Marriott’s Autograph Collection) today.
This article will explain exactly what makes boutique hotels unique, where you can find them, and what’s in store for the future. When you’re done reading, you’ll be inspired to either open and book (or both!) a boutique hotel of your own.
Pictured: 72 Riad Living, Marakkech
What is a Boutique Hotel?
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a boutique hotel is “a small stylish hotel, typically one situated in a fashionable urban location.” A boutique hotel has a distinct character, intentional design and decor, and personalized service.
Though the idea seems timeless, the term “boutique hotel” actually hasn't been around very long. After opening the Morgans Hotel in New York City in 1984, legendary hotelier Ian Schrager and his business partner Steve Rubell coined the term. They compared big-box hotels, like Hiltons and Marriotts, to department stores, while the Morgans Hotel was more like a boutique: intimate, chic, and creative.
While Ian Schrager might get credit for the term, other sources say that the first true boutique hotel was the Clarion Bedford Hotel, which opened in San Francisco in 1981. Like everything, there’s a bit of east coast-west coast rivalry at play!
Pictured: Morgans Hotel in New York City, which permanently shuttered in 2018.
What Makes Boutique Hotels Unique?
You may be wondering: what is the difference between a hotel and a boutique hotel? It’s not only size that sets a boutique hotel apart, but also design, decor, staff, common areas, and in-room amenities.
Characteristics of a boutique hotel:
Small size: Boutique hotels typically have fewer than 100 rooms. Boutique hotels usually have small restaurants or bars (if any), few recreational facilities, and limited meeting space. If you’re looking for a hotel with a massive ballroom or a waterpark, you probably won’t find it at a boutique!
Theme: Each boutique hotel has a unique theme; some are historic, some are culinary-focused, and some focus on specific elements like a book, a color, or a famous figure. The theme is present not only in the hotel’s aesthetic, but perhaps also in its name, staff uniforms, amenities, and more.
Style: A hotel can’t truly embody a theme if it doesn’t have the decor and design to match. A hallmark of a boutique hotel is style - these are hotels that will inspire your inner interior designer or photographer. Each element of the hotel’s look is carefully chosen, and some even showcase art or souvenirs that the owner personally handpicked. Boutique hotels carefully curate everything from hotel website design through hotel amenities to align with their brand ethos.
Service: Due to a boutique hotel’s intimate size, its staff can focus on delivering extraordinary guest service.
It’s important to note that a boutique hotel does not need to be a luxury hotel too. Hotels do not become “boutique” by charging high rates or offering over-the-top amenities. In fact, many boutique hotels are affordable and focus more on personalized service than glamorous decor or five-star facilities.
What is a Boutique Hotel Room?
Although a boutique hotel room and a chain hotel room serve essentially the same purpose, they can look very different. Both rooms will contain a bed, a bathroom, and probably some conveniences like a TV and toiletries. But that’s where the similarities end. Boutique hotel rooms usually feature unique decor, handpicked amenities, and a variety of layouts.
Pictured: Hilton Seattle Downtown
At a chain hotel brand, you’ll usually notice that a hotel room at the brand’s property in Seattle looks exactly like the room at the brand’s property in Santa Fe. Hotel chains save a lot of money by standardizing their room decor and amenities, and guests loyal to the brand often appreciate the consistency. At boutique hotels, however, since each property is individually owned and operated, you won’t find the same type of standardization. Every property contains one-of-a-kind guestrooms - though you may notice certain trends among boutique hotel rooms.
Pictured: Palihotel Seattle
Decor in a boutique hotel room often includes artwork, wallpaper, funky paint colors, eclectic light figures, antique furnishings, and more. In a chain hotel room, you’re more likely to encounter sterile white walls, limited artwork, and functional furniture. Boutique hotel rooms can also incorporate unique and local in-room amenities, like coffee from a nearby coffee shop or vintage refrigerators. A chain hotel room will usually contain the exact same coffee, toiletries, and electronics no matter where it’s located.
While a chain hotel’s rooms are near carbon copies of each other - perhaps with a different bed configuration or two - boutique hotels can have many different room types. At some boutique hotels, every room has a different look and feel.
Where Can You Find Boutique Hotels? Which are the Best Boutique Hotels?
You can find boutique hotels all over the world, from major cities like New York City and Tokyo to vacation destinations like Tulum and Santorini. Some boutique hotels are located in suburban markets, but you’re less likely to find them there.
Pictured: Hotel Amparo
Due to their great service and remarkable style, boutique hotels often top the lists of best hotels in the world. On Travel + Leisure’s 2020 Top 100 Hotels list, boutique hotels nab several spots. To get a sampling of the variety of boutique hotels, let’s look at a few of the world’s best:
Hotel Amparo, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
This charming boutique hotel has only 5 rooms, each individually decorated and featuring unique textiles and antiques. The hotel describes its theme as “a smart, edgy sort of elegance that reaches backward and forward and across the globe.”
Fogo Island Inn, Newfoundland, Canada
With a focus on sustainability, this cozy 29-room hotel was designed by a local Newfoundland architect and invests its profits into efforts to benefit the community. The hotel’s hospitable staff can arrange bicycle rentals, laundry service, excursions, and more - free of charge.
COMO The Treasury, Perth, Australia
Though COMO is technically a brand, each hotel in the COMO portfolio is truly a boutique in its own right. Their Perth property, The Treasury, is housed in the historic State Buildings and embodies a contemporary, wellness-inspired theme. The original architecture is evident in each of the guestrooms, which all have slightly different layouts.
Pictured: COMO The Treasury
Deer Path Inn, Lake Forest, Illinois
Set just outside bustling Downtown Chicago, this English Tudor-style hotel whisks you back at least a hundred years with its stucco facade, traditional afternoon tea, and well-mannered staff. The building is on the National Register of Historic Places, but there are plenty of modern amenities too, like free bicycles and Frette linens.
What’s Trending in the Boutique Hotel Industry?
Since the first boutique hotels only opened about 40 years ago, there’s always room for innovation in the boutique hotel industry and the broader hospitality industry. What can we expect in the next decade? Two leading trends are a focus on sustainability and a rise of branded boutique collections.
The “green” trend can be seen in the entire hotel industry, but since boutique hotels have more freedom and flexibility to make on-site changes than the big brands do, we’re seeing some exciting progress on the boutique side. Since boutique hotels often have strong ties to their local communities, they’re even more determined to make a positive impact on their local environment by using produce from nearby farms and limiting their amount of waste, for example.
Pictured: The Autograph Collection’s Carlo IV
As boutique hotels grow in popularity, global hotel brands want their piece of the pie - and brand loyalists want a boutique experience without sacrificing their loyalty perks. The solution? Branded boutique “collections,” or soft brands, that give boutique hotels the support of a global brand, open more options to brand-loyal guests, and generate a slice of revenue for the brand. An example of such a soft brand is the Autograph Collection by Marriott. Each hotel in the Autograph Collection is an individually owned and operated boutique hotel, but Marriott Bonvoy members can earn and redeem points at these hotels. The hotels themselves also benefit from increased exposure and brand recognition that comes with the Marriott brand.
Are boutique hotels better?
Well, that’s a question of personal preference. If you value personalized service, design, and a sense of place, then a boutique hotel may be the right choice. If you want affordability, global loyalty perks, or specific amenities, then you might not find what you’re looking for at a boutique hotel. Some destinations might have very few boutique hotels, and some boutique hotels might not suit your tastes. Some boutique hotels are also less family-friendly than chain hotels, which can be a consideration if you’re traveling with kids. From an ownership and management perspective, boutique hotels can be more challenging than chain hotels since you do not have the support of a brand.
Many travelers want their getaways to be unique so a highway adjacent branded property just doesn't cut it. When enthusiasts check-in to a boutique hotel they get a feeling or vibe that cookie cutter properties just can't match (especially small hotels in the boutique segment and luxury boutique hotels). From Bangkok to Bali you'll find these bespoke accommodations welcoming guests to authentic local experiences in destination.
Whether you’re traveling, investing, or opening your own hotel, a boutique hotel is a great choice. As travelers prefer an increasingly local experience, boutique hotels can deliver personality, service, and a sense of place in a way that chain hotels cannot.