Jan 10, 2014

    Boutique hotels all the rage in digital age

    IN THE age of rail, luxury hotels mimicked European palaces. When rich people arrived at their destination, they wanted to be treated like nobility.

    Then, in the age of the jet, a new sort of hotel emerged, sleek Hiltons and Sheratons. These hotels offered the comfort of familiarity. You could go around the world and the hotels were largely the same. They were efficient and bland, offering quality service and ease of movement.

    The computer age has brought yet another new kind of hotel: the mass boutique.

    Boutique hotels started in the early 1980s in London, with Blakes, and in San Francisco, with the Bedford. These hotels had entirely different goals than the big hotels at the time. Instead of offering familiarity, they offered difference. Instead of offering beige, they offered edginess, art, emotion and a dollop of pretension.

    Boutiques cater to the sort of affluent consumer who is produced by the information economy, which rewards education with money. This is a consumer who is prouder of his cultural discernment than his corporate success; who feels interested in, rather than intimidated by, a hotel room stuffed with cultural signifiers - cerulean sofas or Steichen photos.

    In an age when Hotels.com and Travelocity turn hotel rooms into commodities, these are customers who are willing to pay extra, sometimes a lot more, for a hotel with sensibility.

    The boutique Soho Grand in New York is currently offering rooms at US$339 (S$430) a night. The Hilton Garden Inn, a very adequate hotel a couple of blocks away, is charging US$139.

    Painfully hip boutique hotels used to seem like a fad, but they've spread and spread. Over the past few years, they have gone mass. Starwood has planted large, boutiquey W hotels on five continents. Hyatt has Andaz. And as Mr Brooks Barnes reported in The Times' most recent Sunday Business section, Marriott is creating a chain of mass boutiques, called Edition. When Marriott enters the boutique business, everybody has entered the boutique business.

    Boutique hotels are, on one level, kind of ridiculous. They are almost invariably too dark throughout, making it hard to read. The bed is often too low. The bathroom door is sometimes a flimsy sliding shutter, sacrificing privacy for style.

    But they do exemplify a shift in the consumer market, which you might call the shift from the lima-bean economy to the edamame economy.

    It's easy to forget how much more boring the marketplace was a few decades ago: more boring cuisine, more boring restaurants, more boring hotels. Recently, there's been a creative brand explosion, to go along with nichification and segmentation.

    Companies are much more interested in creating emotional arousal. Hotels, sneakers, iced tea and even ice cream is now marketed to people on the basis of psychographic profiles, and the result is a profusion of unusual products and distinctive experiences. Consumers have been educated by the market and, now, the median level of cultural competence is much higher.

    A basic rule of happiness is don't buy things; buy experiences. The market has taken one commodity product after another and turned it into an emotional experience - even hotel stays.

    I don't know how you measure how much better off we are because of that, but we are significantly better off. The world's a sweeter place when, for an extra 200 bucks a night, you can lodge like Afrojack.