Like with most things, it’s hard to nail what a boutique hotel is exactly, yet you’d get an idea if you look at its history and contrast it with more traditional hotels. 

The term was coined by American entrepreneur Steve Rubell, who co-owned the famous New York nightclub, Studio 54. In the mid-80s, something exciting happened in the Big Apple. Rubell and his friend Ian Schrager opened a small property, the Executive Hotel, on Madison Avenue and renamed it ‘Morgans’. Rubell likened it to a boutique rather than a department store. Where the latter was characterised by monotony, the former revelled in intimacy and idiosyncrasy. Though there’s some debate as to who lays the claim on the first boutique hotel ever, Morgans is generally considered the most notable.

Forging lasting emotional connections

Boutique properties may not be able to compete with their larger cousins in terms of size or facilities but where they have an edge is in ‘emotional character’, writes Jane Renton. Renton, GM at Jumeirah Lowndes Hotel, believes forging emotional connections with guests should be the main priority of these properties. What guests take away from properties is the experience, not just the comforts of their rooms, but also feelings and interactions, and with their ambience and intimacy, boutique properties are well positioned to deliver on these.

Sala Boutique Hotel in Male is one such property, having opened its doors almost a decade ago. A beautiful restored six-room mansion, it exudes a warm, decidedly Thai ambiance. The old-school rooms are kitted out with mahogany and bamboo cabinets, parquet flooring, king-sized four-poster beds, but they also feature mod cons: flat screen TVs, nespresso machines and WiFi. 

“My goal was to create a Thai style oasis in the heart of Male,” says Thomas Stahl, CEO of Salafamily which operates the boutique. “Combining [Sala Thai] restaurant with the hotel, you get the feeling that you’re not in the city but a calm and inviting place that instantly makes you feel at home.”

Stahl believes being guest-centered is at the crux of operating boutique properties. “My time in the office is very limited,” says Stahl. “I take the lead in serving and I try to be a model for my staff in dealing with guests so that they can learn from my example. That’s something you will be hard pressed to do at larger hotels where you’re inundated with emails and meetings; you have little time to attend to those who matter most, the guests.”

Cordial interactions between guests and top management is key. “Little problems can crop up anywhere,” explains Thomas. “What matters is how you handle them. If they’re handled in a kind and friendly manner, all is well.”

Consistency is something Stahl stresses on. He believes clients, especially returning guests, know what to expect and must have their expectations met. 

Soneva Jani – 1 Bedroom Water Retreat with Slide – Livingroom with view by Stevie Mann

Intimate islands

Where neighbourhoods and locales matter to those opening up boutique properties in the city, boutique resorts aren’t as dependent on these. They set up shop on islands, much like any other resort, with the same gifts of nature.

So how do they stand out? Where do they differ? Intimacy again plays a role. A lot of places pay lip service to this but when you’re on an island like the small, 30 villa Kandolhu in Ari Atoll, you can’t help but feel it. 

“I don’t think larger properties can offer the level of intimacy that a property this size can,” says Marc LeBlanc, resort manager at Kandolhu Maldives. “You put this together with great, genuinely engaged staff, then you get a feeling of real kinship between team members and guests, something that I feel cannot be replicated at a larger resort.”

Due to the size of such properties, guests and staff are in close contact; when you see the same faces, especially when those faces are few, it’s much easier to remember who is who. Plus, you have a management that acts as hosts, meeting guests every day. This results in great rapport; you share stories and laughter, and really get to know one another. 

And of course, for those guests wishing to experience a truly small-island vibe, a boutique resort is perfectly poised to deliver.

An old-school cottage at Banyan Tree Vabbinfaru

Understanding guests: smaller is easier

Small resorts are better equipped to understand their guests; they can engage in ‘hypercommunication’ from the first point of contact, from that first inquiry. Staff can get to know guest preferences over email or their preferred mode of connection. 

When guests arrive at the property, it provides an even better opportunity for an engaged, invested management to get to know their guests. Small resorts with fewer guests can take personalisation to a higher level, customising product and service offerings.

A lot can be done through simple observation; easier again at boutique properties than at their larger counterparts. Whether it’s sending guests a bucket of ice at same time every day, stocking the minibar with products they enjoy, selecting music to their preference, pre-booking water-sports excursions best matched to guest profiles, good observation will lead to these thoughtful touches that get noticed, all without asking guests.   

“Keeping up with guests’ expectations is key to success,” explains LeBlanc. “And we’re able to do that well because we understand our guests a lot better than most, we know their preferences, especially those of our repeat guests. It’s really about knowledge and application.”

Operational advantages 

Is smaller easier from a management perspective? In a sense it is, especially if the property is small physically. It can result in increased efficiency in communication between team members, who can take swift action on requests. A smaller team means all departments become aware of issues relatively fast, and as a result service becomes more efficient.

Managers find it easier to keep an eye on details at greater frequencies. With fewer rooms, there’s less ground to be covered so the management can scan for issues more frequently and identify them quickly. 

Moreover, if a new product or service needs to be tested out, smaller hotels are at an advantage. They can swiftly implement a plan and monitor the results, resulting in greater agility and adaptability. 

On the other hand, a resort manager of a boutique hotel will have fewer resources at his disposal compared to larger properties. “It results in a more hands-on experience,” explains LeBlanc. “You have to be involved in every aspect of the business whether it’s sales or marketing or retail.”

Nika Island Resort – Beach Villa

Does the popularity of boutique properties spell doom for big luxury brands? Some industry experts, like Filip Boyen of Small Luxury Hotels of the World (SLH), claim that luxury travellers have become ‘bored’ with big names. Luxury itself has been evolving, it’s less about amenities now than experience, it’s more about the connectedness to the destination and its people. If innovation on these fronts is happening at boutique properties, big brands do have cause for concern.