Boutique Hotels Go Mainstream

ACE Hotel NYC, Douglas Lyle Thompson

It used to be that the words "chain hotel" conjured up images of beige rooms that are exactly the same from city to city. Not anymore. A new crop of boutique hotel groups is turning the chain concept on its head with smaller properties that incorporate local style and flare with the service and stability that you expect from major chains. "Travelers are increasingly looking for one-off, 'bespoke' experiences and the cookie-cutter people-mover product that was entrenched until the 1990s seems to have had its day," says veteran travel journalist Gretchen Kelly.

The boutique chain trend has been steadily growing and it now seems like every large hotel chain is trying to cash in. In fact, 18 chain-owned boutique hotels are slated to open in the U.S. in 2010. San Francisco-based Kimpton Hotels, founded in 1981, was at one point the largest boutique chain in the world and more recently gave birth to two additional boutique brands, Hotel Palomar and Hotel Monaco. Starwood has been one of the forerunners and opened the sleek W hotels, probably the world's best-known "boutique" brand, in 1998. They launched two more brands in 2008, Element and aloft. Hyatt's Andaz has four properties and will open another on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue in summer 2010. Ritz-Carlton's The Reserve launched in February 2010 with a 54-villa resort in southern Thailand and has five more properties planned around the world. Marriott is introducing two new boutique brands this year. Their Autograph Collection has seven properties in four states slated to open in spring 2010 while the first of Marriott's high-profile Edition brand will debut in Waikiki in July 2010. Edition is being launched in conjunction with hotelier Ian Schrager, who knows a thing or two about boutique hotels. His Morgans Hotel Group launched in 1984 with the Morgans Hotel on Madison Avenue.

Not all boutique brands are tied to major chains, though. NYLO has three hotels and has ambitious plans to have 50 boutique hotels either open or under construction by 2012. California-based Joie de Vivre has dozens of hotels from Sacramento down to Los Angeles while ACE Hotel started in Seattle and now has one of the buzziest hotels in New York.

All this begs the questions: what exactly is a boutique hotel? Like the words "green" or "eco," the word boutique has become so hot and trendy and, well, vague, that it may have lost its credibility. Wyndham's new Fashion 26 property in New York's Chelsea neighborhood is being marketed as a boutique hotel, despite the hotel's 280 rooms, 20 floors, three bars, restaurant, boardroom, and meeting space for 80 people. Overall, the hotel has the scale of a department store more than a cozy boutique. "I see a boutique hotel as having some sort of special edge, be it in design, cutting-edge technology, cuisine, or history," says Kelly, who has slept in hundreds of hotels in more than 60 countries. "Boutique hotels are usually small, and have a distinct personality that a big chain hotel doesn't."

So which boutique chains live up to the name? Here are our five favorites, all known for their creativity, independence, and innovation:

This spin-off of Starwood's W Hotels is an earthier and younger, yet still stylish, sister brand. Its rise has been meteoric since its first hotel in 2008, and aloft now has 62 properties either open or in the works from Alabama to Abu Dhabi. The cool hotels are known for their use of primary colors, huge windows, laid-back vibe, playfulness, and social hangout spaces with communal kitchens, DJ lounges, and live music venues. Locations in Manhattan and Brooklyn will open this year.

ACE Hotel
This four-property chain was born in 1999 when a Seattle halfway house was converted into a bohemian hotel appealing to the creative class and now has hotels in Palm Springs, California; Portland, Oregon; and New York City. Their lobby in Manhattan is the current hipster hangout, with a DJ, long communal tables, huge sofas, and an adjoining dark wood and leather restaurant. Rumors are also circulating about future ACEs opening in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Element Hotels
Another Starwood brand that opened in 2008, Element focuses on environmental awareness, from floors made from recycled materials to energy-efficient lighting. Rooms are open, airy, and bathed in light colors, creating an atmosphere of peace and tranquility. Twenty-four hour on-site gyms, healthy breakfasts of wraps and smoothies, and outdoor social spaces with fire pits and barbeques emphasize a physically and mentally healthy lifestyle. Element currently has seven properties open with four more planned, all in the U.S. Their next launch will be a Times Square hotel, slated to open in October 2010.

Joie de Vivre
This pioneering boutique chain launched in 1987 when then 27-year-old Chip Conley bought the decrepit Phoenix Hotel in San Francisco's seedy Tenderloin district. He turned it into an artsy, funky magnet that attracted guests like David Bowie and The Red Hot Chili Peppers. The chain then went on to scoop up ramshackle '50s and '60s roadside motels and turn into fun, colorful, and modern hotels with a personal sensibility. It now has dozens of unique small properties all over the Golden State.

Hotel Indigo
This upscale boutique chain, owned by InterContinental Group, has 29 hotels in the U.S. Rooms at all of the hotels have oversized beds, hardwood floors, and spa-like baths, but each hotel is designed to incorporate themes, colors, fabrics, art, murals, and shops native to its locale. Hotel Indigo also pioneered the travel industry's first collaborative response to environmental issues by founding the International Hotels and Environment Initiative in 1991. Their newest U.S. hotel is the Hotel Indigo San Antonio at the Alamo and a downtown Atlanta location will open this summer.
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