Boutique hotels: Elegance under the 'Holiday Inn' sign?

We used to know what a boutique hotel was. Now everyone is opening them.

What do you think of when a hotel is described as “boutique”? Urban luxury, right? You assume the toilet was once used by Kurt Vonnegut, U2 picked out the lamps and everybody meets for drinks in the Phillipe Starck–designed bar that’s equal parts Jetsons and Downtown Abbey. But how does that perception change when it’s a Holiday Inn in Kansas City?

The Aladdin, one of the chain’s “boutique” properties, is housed in a restored 1920s building. It features such luxuries as a martini bar, day spa and…AM/FM radios in every room. Holiday Inn is not the only brand chasing the boutique category. There’s also the Best Western’s Hotel Parlament in Budapest, which bills itself as a “stylish boutique hotel with distinctive Minimal Art elegance.” Even Ikea has plans to open 100 boutique hotels across Europe aimed, much like its furniture, to deliver high-concept design at concept-free prices. Are we being duped?


Clockwise from the left: Number Sixteen, London ($220 a night); Best Western Premier Hotel Parlament, Budapest ($210) a night; Holiday Inn Aladdin, Kansas City, Mo. ($169 a night)

By most accounts, the first boutique hotel was Morgans in New York City. Opened by Studio 54 co-founders Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell, it featured cutting-edge modern design and a non-rigid approach to each room’s decoration, a step away from the rigidly standardized look perfected by Conrad Hilton and long-favoured by most major hotel chains. Since then, the definition has evolved to be wide enough to cover lobbies that double as communal workspaces (New York’s Ace Hotel), once seedy, now chic motels (L.A.’s Farmer’s Daughter Hotel) and 42-room mid-Victorian London townhouses with private gardens and afternoon tea (Firmdale Hotels’ Number Sixteen). Boutique means anything and nothing, like “rock music.” Or “taupe.”

Nicholas Gandossi, the general manager of Opus hotel, which Wallpaper magazine once named one of Vancouver’s coolest hangouts, says the word has been diluted. “It’s thrown around so easily these days,” he says. “I always laugh when I see a 300-room hotel calling itself a boutique. You simply aren’t able to provide as personalized a service on that scale as we can.” Michael Davis, founder of New York–based review and booking site Tablet Hotels, says the term hasn’t evolved with the product. “The trend now is toward more specialized boutique hotels aimed at different crowds and offering different experiences.”

Ultimately, the word has evolved to become meaningless. And that’s fine. You can buy a “gourmet” frozen entrée and no one mistakes it for French Laundry. Customers are either savvy enough to see through the marketing—or lack the experience to know any different. Plus, if you squint hard enough at the art in your Holiday Inn, it’ll look like a Rothko.