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Small Comforts
Checking In to the `Boutique' Hotel Boom

By Gary Lee
The Washington Post
Sunday, December 21, 1997; Page E01
   


I trace my love affair with Hollywood's Mondrian Hotel to the lemons. To be sure, the piped-in sounds of Beethoven's Fifth, tickling my ears four feet below the steel-blue waters of the pool, helped soften me on the place. Not to mention the three babes who arrived in a red Mustang convertible and fluttered to the front desk, champagne flutes hoisted. And, not to be forgotten, the appearance of actor George Clooney, nestled in his regular perch at the hotel's SkyBar (surely the trendiest hotel watering hole since the Oak Room at the Plaza) wearing the most falsely modest smile I have ever seen.

But it was the lemons that finally did it for me. Following an hour on a state-of-the-art treadmill, I reached for a glass of water and there they were. Freshly cut, as yellow as a New York taxi, floating atop a silver pitcher of icy Evian. A few slices of citrus may not seem like a big deal. But to water aficionados like me, who can hold forth at length over the relative virtues of Perrier vs. Pellegrino, drinking lemonless aqua is like sipping a martini without an olive.

Touches like lemons in the drinking water, at once minor and unforgettable, are helping make the Mondrian -- and others of a rising breed known as boutique hotels -- all the rage in urban accommodations.

Each boutique property, which you'll now (or soon) find in most major urban leisure travel destinations and priced similarly to a typical business hotel, has its signature sweet nothings. At the Mansfield in New York City, it's Monday night harp concerts in the lobby, complimentary cappuccino around the clock and a rose in every bathroom. At the Phoenix in San Francisco, it's the fresh pair of unisex boxer shorts the maid leaves out when she turns down the bed. At the Astor in Miami, it's Belgian linens covering the beds and chairs.

Hotel guests everywhere seem to be wowed by these and other aspects of boutique accommodations. In most big American cities (and some European capitals), the best of the boutiques are gaining a major following. The Impala, one of a number of posh boutiques in Miami's South Beach, is already taking reservations for winter 1999. At the Commodore, a favorite among swingers visiting San Francisco, the occupancy rate has been 86.5 percent this year, above average even in everybody's favorite city.

The special extras are only one of reasons for the growing popularity of boutiques. Their individualistic, sometimes homespun design is another strong drawing point. In contrast to chains like Holiday Inn, which offer look-alike rooms and lobbies across the country, the boutiques promise guests an ambiance that is different from any other place they have stayed for, sometimes, only a small additional cost.

The Hotel Rex, which opened earlier this year in San Francisco, is one place that has made good on that promise. Using avant-garde writer Kenneth Rexroth as his inspiration, hotelier Chip Conley, president of the Joie de Vivre hotel group, conceived of it as a place with the feel of a literary haunt. The result is a lobby with book-filled mahogany shelves, plush leather chairs and art deco reading lamps -- the perfect place to curl up for an evening of reading or banter among the chattering classes.

In New York, Miami and Los Angeles, too, where I made a recent tour of boutique hotels, I found a wide range, each with its own personality, character or mood.

On the upper east side of Manhattan, there is the Wales. Featuring spacious, wood-paneled rooms and crunchy granola for breakfast, it has the feel of a relaxed kind of brownstone where you can kick off your shoes and thumb through back issues of the New Yorker. With its brightly colored walls and funky music that seems to come out of the walls, the Phoenix in San Francisco has become an institution among visiting rockers. And South Beach's Delano, with towering white columns in the lobby and posing places everywhere, has became a magnet for models and other members of the gym and tonic set.

The boutique hotel trend first emerged in the late 1980s, but many of the most popular ones were opened in the past two or three years. In some cases, the owners bought tired hostelries that dated back as far as the turn of the century and remade them into fashionable dwellings.

For originality of presentation, it would be hard for any place of lodging to top the Royalton, in New York. Ten years after its opening, this is still the stop for anyone who needs to impress on a client (or a date) that he or she is in the loop in the big city. With its recessed lighting, zany array of designer furniture and waterfall/urinal in the men's room, the place rarely fails to knock the socks off first-time visitors. Owned by Ian Schrager, who first made his name as co-creator of New York's Studio 54 disco, the Royalton is credited with boosting the popularity of boutique accommodations in New York and elsewhere in the United States.

Another attraction of boutiques is the service. Most of them have no more than a hundred rooms, making it possible for the front desk clerk to call every guest by name and remember the likes and dislikes of frequent visitors. Once the staff at the Miami-based Impala realized that I was a night owl, for example, they volunteered insider advice about Miami's best late-night restaurants and cafes and even gave me free passes to some of the posh (and pricey) South Beach nightclubs.

While smaller than major chain hotels, the boutiques are larger than bed and breakfasts or guesthouses. The intimate size usually allows them to have tighter security than more sprawling hotels provide. That in turn, has made them more and more popular among female travelers, who sometimes feel vulnerable in larger hotels.

Unlike most B&Bs, boutiques usually have a restaurant or bar on the premises. In some cases the eating and entertainment options have become as big a draw as the lodging. The Blue Door, the restaurant at the Delano, ranks among the most acclaimed eating places in Miami. Backflip, the bar and restaurant at the Phoenix, is fast becoming a big-time gathering place for musicians, groupies and other really cool people.

In some cases, boutique hotel owners are trying to offer everything a hotel guest would want, from a bed to a trampoline and a place to watch other guests watching them.

Mondrian designer Philippe Starck has succeeded in creating an environment that responds to the fantasy of every hip guest. The minimalist-style rooms, with white-covered furniture, kitchenettes and breezy atmosphere, are a big attraction for visitors looking for a sleeping place with a hip style. The SkyBar, so popular that it is restricted to guests (and a few Hollywood celebrities) on the weekends, attracts a crowd of Beautiful People. In the lobby is a long communal dining table with musical instruments in one corner, just waiting for merrymakers to create their own mood.

This all-inclusive aspect has made the Mondrian as popular among locals as out-of-towners. "We have been surprised to find how many residents of Hollywood and other parts of L.A. check in for the weekend, just to be part of the scene," Mondrian manager Kevin Dann told me during a tour. "That has made us truly an organic extension of the city."

In spite of the chic aura they strive for, most boutique hotels try to keep their rates competitive with midprice hotels. Double rooms average about $140, for example, making them attractive to some business executives. But many offer rooms at $99 or less, in an attempt to appeal to younger travelers on a limited budget.

At some boutiques, extras are often complimentary. At the Shoreham in New York, for example, video rentals and cassette rentals, continental breakfast, parking and evening dessert are all included in the price, which averages $245 for a double room.

"I used to hate to find my room bill loaded up with extras when I came to check out," Shoreham owner Bernard Goldberg, president of the Gotham Hospitality Group, explained in an interview. "That's why I try to come up with a reasonable price and try to include everything in it. I don't want guests to be surprised with added-on costs at the end of a stay."

For all of their advantages, boutique hotels are by no means for everyone. Many travelers express disappointment with the compact rooms in many of them. Some guests check in to a boutique on a whim, only to find that its style directly clashes with their own personality. Upscale-business executives often prefer a place with greater stature, such as a Ritz or a Hay-Adams. And very few boutiques seem to be family friendly.

In contrast to their "small is beautiful" image, boutique hotels are hardly isolated operations managed by an individual or a family. To the contrary, many of them are owned and managed by large enterprises. Schrager owns the Royalton, the Delano, the Mondrian and New York's Paramount (all of which were designed by Philippe Starck), for example, and is in the process of expanding his hotel empire to San Francisco and London. Bernard Goldberg's Gotham Hospitality Group includes five New York City boutiques: the Mansfield, the Shoreham, the Wales, the Franklin and the Roger Williams. Joie de Vivre, located in San Francisco, owns or manages 11 boutique hotels, including the Rex, the Commodore and the Phoenix. Its biggest rival is the Kimpton Group, managed by longtime hotelier Bill Kimpton, which lists 14 San Francisco hotels under its umbrella.

Joie de Vivre approaches the design of each hotel just as a developer might view the creation of theme parks. It has one place especially designed for movie buffs, another for hip young business executives and a third for rock music enthusiasts.

"We try to create an atmosphere that we think will appeal to a particular niche market," explained spokesman Rob Delameter. "Once guests check into a place that seems especially tailored for them, they become incredibly loyal to it."

As for me, something about nearly every boutique hotel I try seems to tickle my fancy. Unless they can offer fresh lemons in the drinking water, I may never opt for a Holiday Inn again.

Details: Boutique Hotels

Prices for the same room at some hotels vary widely, according to season and occupancy rate. Many feature regular specials, particularly on weekends. Haggling in many cases is welcome; prices are often negotiable, depending on length of stay and availability. What follows are average "rack rates" for double rooms.

NEW YORK CITY

Royalton, 44 W. 44th St., 1-800-635-9013; $275

Mansfield, 12 W. 44th St., 212-944-6050, Ext. 321; $175

Hotel Wales, 1295 Madison Ave., 212-876-6000; $195

SAN FRANCISCO

Phoenix, 601 Eddy St., 1-800-738-7477; $89

Hotel Rex, 562 Sutter St., 1-800-738-7477; $135

Hotel Bijou, 111 Mason St., 1-800-738-7477; $79

Hotel Monaco, 501 Geary St., 415-292-0100; $225

Villa Florence, 225 Powell St., 1-800-553-4411; $99

LOS ANGELES

Mondrian, 8440 Sunset Blvd., 213-650-8999; $265

MIAMI

Delano, 1685 Collins Ave., 1-800-555-5001; $310 in winter, $180 in summer

Astor, 956 Washington Ave., 1-800-270-4981; $145

Impala, 1228 Collins Ave., 1-800-646-7252; $199

-- Gary Lee

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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