No boys allowed: Hotels seek fortune with women-only zones

As hotels get ever more desperate to invent new niches to lure customers, we've have been hearing a lot about the "girlfriend getaway," vacations women take with just their girlfriends.

I confess I don't entirely get why we need the concept. Fun things to do are universal. Often, these packages include spa treatments, free cosmos, or something like that, which strikes me as more than a little sexist -- as if it's only women who like massages, and as if Carrie and Samantha would have no interest in, say, museums.

But whatever. Here's a woman-skewed concept that seems to have a place. The Naumi, a luxury hotel in Singapore, has launched a female-only wing for women guests. The concept, secured by private key-card access, reeks of boutique styling, complete with fancy Aesop skin care products, aromatherapy frills, and an entirely female staff. Since its introduction, staff says, the rooms have been at 80% occupancy, which isn't bad for a hotel, especially one charging $420 to $600 a night.

So far, the women-only zones are mostly confined to properties in Asia, Australasia and in Arab countries (such as this one in -- surprise -- Saudi Arabia), where presumably there are more women who prefer segregation for religious or privacy reasons. But the luxury execution goes way beyond simply providing a safe space. In fact, a manager at the Naumi says a big chunk of his clientele is women on shopping trips -- Singapore, a tiny city-state that is practically one big mall, is particularly attractive to the long-distance spree set. But women executives, too, not normally known for being timid, are also indulging in the new concept.
As with so many truly catchy trends, this one seems to have bubbled up from the low-budget front lines. Hostelling International has segregated by gender for years, even as independently run hostels often mingle the sexes in the same dormitories. That's a big reason why HI is favored by school groups and parents sending their little ones on their first big foreign trip.

The turning point, though, came in the early '00s when stylish Base Backpackers, a super-budget hostel chain in Australia and New Zealand, created a girls-only wing for its properties. Base was savvy enough not to simply cordon off the femme zone with a fire door. It gave the area a swishy name, Sanctuary, and without charging the girls more than the boys, gave them luxury-imitating amenities like sheets with high thread counts and fat bath towels. The result? Base mushroomed from a couple properties to a dozen today.

Would women-only areas of hotels fill up in the West, where genders are more integrated? So far, the idea isn't ruling the zeitgeist. Last year, a Marriott in Grand Rapids tried it, prompting fire truck-chasing lawyer Gloria Allred to cry discrimination. Three years ago, the Grange City Hotel in London gave it a try, but today, its website makes no mention of any specialized areas for the ladies. But who knows? Maybe it will switch back after girlfriend getaways sweep the nation. I suspect that will be a mighty long wait, though.

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