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Boutique hotels: from rock'n'roll to hardcore business

The first boutique hotels sprang up more than 30 years ago. Fulfilling the thirst of customers for something new and fancy, boutique hotels are ready to serve all around the globe, however, the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle of golden days has changed to professionally designed rooms, atmosphere and service. 

It all started, as so many trends do, in London in 1978. In a side street of South Kensington, former actress Anouska Hempel made her name and fame with her hotel, the Blakes. It had only 41 rooms, some of them as small as broom cupboards, a tiny cool bar, and a restaurant more resembling a black hole than a sacral Chakra of gastronomy. Yet, if you were a rock and roll figure, or just a wealthy eccentric, you stayed at Blakes.

But however well known Blakes was, the funky chic – a term derived from a little known essay by Tom Wolfe in Rolling Stone Magazine – of boutique hotels had to spread from London through Paris to the USA to achieve fame and fortune on the West Coast at LA’s Mondrian, and in New York’s definitive first statement, Morgans. The motto was simple: Life imitating art, hospitality imitating rock ’n’ roll.

Throughout the decades, boutique hotels appeared across the globe and also became somewhat tamer. Nowadays there are way too many boutique hotels to spot rock stars and actors in each and every one of them. However, their appeal is still rising despite the harsh economic conditions, even if there is no correct – or widely accepted – definition of what a boutique hotel really is.

Some ten years ago, Architecture NOW defined the phenomena from the design of point-of-view: “Boutique hotel has become shorthand for a hotel with a high-concept design and 
unique atmosphere.” Any boutique hotel owners will tell you that carefully selected equipment, well-designed rooms, a facade that grabs the attention of passersby and all the little details are essential to creating a warm and welcoming atmosphere.

“We choose the slogan ‘Enjoy the difference’, indicating the aim of creating a ‘second home’ for our customers for the few days they spend in Budapest,” Boutique Hotel Budapest general manager Árpád Kaltenecker explains.

Size matters in the hospitality business as well, but in an opposite direction, when it comes to the boutique sector: the smaller the better. Contrary to most hotel chains, boutique hotels have only 50-100 rooms. And not just because huge hotels are often impersonal and easy to get lost in, but also because these buildings sometimes create an atmosphere of a suburban housing estate.

And atmosphere, as the sum total of the physical facilities and all the intangibles that comprise a memorable hotel experience, may be the single most critical factor a boutique hotel has to offer. That includes decor, ambience, personalized service, the attitude of management and staff, and how all these ingredients must combine to create a genuine sense of intimacy. 

All-in-all, an intimate atmosphere may be the one absolutely essential component without which a hotel cannot be called boutique, and that has to be caring, warm, personalized, yet totally professional.

But all the attention to detail by hotel designers, owners, managers and staff, pays off. “Tourists turn to smaller establishments that can provide something new, something additional,” Lánchíd 19 hotel sales director Ágnes Dömötör says. Lánchíd 19, which claims to be the first “design hotel” of Hungary, really focused on the details: a diver morphing into wavelets on the façade, the archaeological remains of a water tower below the stairs, the overhead glass suspension bridges holding sandblasted fingerprints all want to enchant and entertain. 

And, as a matter of fact, size matters in times of crisis too. Fewer rooms are easier to rent, so even when larger chain hotels are suffering to maintain previous levels of occupancy, boutique hotels can outperform traditional establishments. “We felt the impact of the crisis, but lowered the room prices a bit, so with a higher occupancy, we could make up the shortfall of last year,” Ma Maison boutique hotel operation manager Gergő Franciscy said. However, the location of these smaller hotels is also crucial, as lower room rates have not hit downtown Budapest as hard as other parts of the city.

One way or another, boutique hotel owners can dream large, as the small hotels’ market share is growing constantly in Hungary, according to market participants. Most customers arrive from “traditional” countries of origin, such as Germany, Italy, France and the homeland of boutique hotels, Great Britain and the United States, looking for something special and something new that only a well-managed boutique hotel can provide.