It seems like just yesterday that boutique hotels—unique, stylish properties such as San Francisco's superfunky Phoenix and the historic Peery Hotel in Salt Lake City—were all the rage. Everyone wanted to stay in the renovated peach cannery or the cool new spot with high-tech decor. Pioneered in the 1980s by Ian Schrager in New York and Bill Kimpton in San Francisco, boutiques proliferated during the dot-com heyday of the '90s, when young entrepreneurs broke tradition with both luxury digs and cookie-cutter chains, staying instead in one-of-a-kind boutiques.
But the last few years have been tough on the hotel industry and brutal on boutiques, where occupancy rates have dropped faster and further than at other properties. Because they are often small, these hotels can't rely on the convention business that flocks to the Hiltons and Hyatts even during slumps. And they've taken a drubbing in the press: "Boutique hotels are terribly Nineties," proclaimed a London Guardian story last year about travel to New York City.
Definitions of what constitutes a boutique hotel vary: Some people insist that a true boutique has fewer than 200 rooms, others put the cap at 100, and others still consider fun, creative amenities and packages a crucial piece of the equation. San Francisco's Hotel Triton, for example, offers a So Hip It Hurts package: The price of your room includes a credit for a tattoo or body piercing.
Here's what everyone agrees on: A boutique hotel offers a strong sense of place and design and is often situated in an unusual building. The charming Andrews Hotel in San Francisco, for instance, was originally a Turkish bath. As David Curell, general manager of Vancouver's Opus Hotel, puts it, "A boutique hotel caters to the traveler who is looking for an experience, not just a bed to sleep in."
So—are boutique hotels really going the way of Beanie Babies?
Almost certainly not. According to Rick Swig of RSBA and Associates hospitality consultants, the boutique hotel industry will likely pick up once the travel industry as a whole rebounds. "When times get better, when there's more demand for hotel rooms and less price competition, the value proposition offered by boutiques will rekindle," Swig says.
Meanwhile, deals abound—particularly in San Francisco. Boutique hotels have dropped their rates to historic lows. Rooms at the Commodore near San Francisco's Union Square currently start at a rock-bottom $79 a night. Other hotels have added perks such as parking and restaurant credits.
Here are a few tips to help you play the boutique game today.
- The Internet is invaluable in locating boutiques. Web sites such as www.boutiquelodging.com and www.hiphotels.net will help you find hotels. For advice on vetting your options, check out the candid guest reviews at www.tripadvisor.com.
- The hotels' Web sites usually offer the best deals.
- AAA guidebooks don't categorize hotels as "boutique," though many boutiques are AAA approved and offer member discounts.
- The great thing about boutiques is that they have personality, but do your homework before you book a room to be sure that the hotel's matches yours. Check out the list below to find a boutique hotel that best suits your style.
Kennedy School, Portland
Bed down in a classroom at this renovated 1915 elementary school.
(503) 249-3983, www.hotellucia.com.
Hotel Lucia, Portland
Stay at a bona fide art gallery with works by local artists.
(877) 225-1717, www.mcmenamins.com.
Peery Hotel, Salt Lake City
Guided fly-fishing excursions and ski packages.
(800) 331-0073, www.peeryhotel.com.
Heathman Hotel, Portland Guests can borrow from a library featuring 4,000 first edition books. (800) 551-0011, www.heathmanhotel.com.
Monticello Inn, San Francisco A hotel library, Borders delivery service, and weekly author readings. (866) 778-6169, www.monticelloinn.com.
Each kid chooses one toy from a treasure chest.
(866) 415-0704, www.hotelargonaut.com.
Alexis Hotel, Seattle
Pups go for walks with the hotel bellmen.
(866) 356-8894, www.alexishotel.com.
Hotel Palomar, San Francisco
Dinner at the hotel's Fifth Floor restaurant is divine.
(877) 294-9711, www.hotelpalomar.com.
Opus Hotel, Vancouver, B.C.
Überchic decor such as Arne Jacobsen egg-shaped chairs in the lobby. (866) 642-6787, www.opushotel.com.
Standard, Downtown, L.A.
The rooftop sundeck doubles as a nightclub with deejays and poolside water beds. (213) 892-8080, www.standardhotel.com.
Hotel Bijou, San Francisco
Nightly film screenings in the hotel's minitheater.
(800) 771-1022, www.hotelbijou.com.
Hotel Del Sol, San Francisco
Choose from 12 different types of pillows.
(877) 433-5765, www.thehoteldelsol.com.
Hotel Monaco, Seattle
Solo travelers can request goldfish for company.
(800) 715-6513, www.monaco-seattle.com.
Siena Hotel Spa Casino, Reno
From Swedish massages to mud body wraps.
(877) 743-6233, www.sienareno.com.
Photography by William Duke
This article was first published in March 2004. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.