by Tom Isler | February 01, 2006

viceroy santa monica lobby

Dramatic d}cor: The lobby at Viceroy Santa Monica

Brad Wilson, partner and COO of New York City-based James Hotels, resents the term boutique. “Boutique tends to imply lesser service, a 94-room hotel with one desk agent,” he says. “That doesn’t apply to what we do.”
    Whatever the terminology, the reality is indisputable: Owners of boutique hotels a label that’s evolved to describe hotels of approximately 230 rooms or fewer with a unique design and an emphasis on personalized service are increasingly adding new properties under an established hotel’s name, creating the apparent oxymoron of the “boutique brand.”
    Unlike a brand as conceived by major hotel chains, which are designed to be comforting in their uniformity, boutique brands are more varied and conceptual. The individual properties might only resemble one another in name and by general characteristics: Hotel Gansevoort properties, for example, all have distinctive rooftop pools and lounge areas, but they might differ greatly in their layout and design.
    Boutique hotels are increasingly popular and profitable. According to Hendersonville, Tenn.-based Smith Travel Research, through the first three quarters of 2005, occupancy levels in that segment (among properties with 232 rooms or fewer) averaged 72 percent, up 5.1 percent from the same period in 2004. The average daily rate, which is a standard measure of a hotel’s health, was up 11.3 percent from the same period in 2004, to $181.64. In just the first three quarters of 2005, revenue at boutique properties surpassed $1 billion. 
    Here’s a look at five new and expanding independent boutique hotel brands that, in addition to bold visuals and personalized service, are providing space and support for meetings.

Alden Houston lobby

Inner space: The lobby at the Alden Houston

Alden Hotels
Currently, Alden is a mini-chain of one; the flagship hotel opened in downtown Houston last September. But Tim Miller, Houston-based president of Alden Hotels, is hoping to open a second property by the end of this year and five over the next five years. 
    Miller explains that the key to understanding the Alden identity is its name, which derives from the Old English word for “old friend.” Miller wants guests to feel like they’re entering a place as comfortable as a friend’s home.
    Alden properties are conceived as luxury entries in the “easy living” or “residential” mold, full-service hotels on the opposite side of the style spectrum from the airs of white-glove service. Guest rooms will have plush, upscale  furnishings, DVD players (guests can borrow DVDs from a box at the front desk) and residential-quality installations in the bathrooms. Alden hotels also offer complimentary town car service, “if you need to run to the pharmacy or to an appointment,” Miller says. 
    The Houston property, housed in the former Sam Houston Hotel, offers a 2,400-square-foot veranda, capable of accommodating groups of up to 200 people, plus two meeting rooms and a boardroom. Whether attending to the needs of business or pleasure, Miller’s staff of 140, which periodically outnumbers the guests at his 97-room hotel, is trained to offer highly focused, personalized service.
    According to Miller, cities under “active consideration” for future hotels are Atlanta, Austin (Texas), Phoenix and Denver. “A tremendous number of cities, I would say, need an Alden,” Miller says with a smile.

Hotel Gansevoort
Having opened in March 2004 as a full-service luxury property in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, Hotel Gansevoort feels more like a chic lounge or nightclub than a hotel, with exposed stage lights illuminating the lobby, staff members guarding the elevators like bouncers and music pumping throughout the place (including the swimming pool, underwater). “Our clientele is there to do business, but they are looking for pleasure as well,” says Michael Achenbaum, president of New York City-based Gansevoort Hotel Group.
    With a second Gansevoort opening on the northern end of South Beach in Miami at the end of this year and a third in downtown Los Angeles in mid-2007, Achenbaum says his brand will be defined by properties in trendy or up-and-coming neighborhoods and by a signature rooftop pool, bar, lounge and terrace at each location. (The rooftop at Gansevoort South in Miami will be the largest, at 28,000 square feet.) Achenbaum also says the hotels’ guest rooms will be larger than the average rooms in each given market.
    Achenbaum wants Gansevoort to offer five-star-level service in a hip environment (“We’re not staffing with actors and waitresses. We’re hiring people who want hotel careers,” he says) and pledges to select interesting buildings for conversion. Gansevoort West in Los Angeles, for example, is being constructed in the former Trinity Church, which has a 1,800-seat amphitheater that Achenbaum plans to preserve.
    The new Gansevoort Hotels have more meeting space than typical boutiques. Gansevoort South will feature 16,000 square feet of dedicated meeting space, including a 6,500-square-foot ballroom. Gansevoort West will feature approximately 6,700 square feet. The original Gansevoort in New York has about 3,500 square feet of meeting space. The rooftops at the properties can be used as additional function space.
    Achenbaum said he’s close to securing a deal for a fourth Gansevoort in Las Vegas and will pursue other opportunities cautiously.