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Lifestyle hotels: Gotta have soul
Travelers beware. A similar trend began about a decade ago. Word got out that boutique hotels were more profitable than other hotels, and suddenly hotels large and small were calling themselves boutique. But then a number of players tarnished the boutique reputation by emphasizing style over comfort and hiring mannequins for staff. When the big hotel chains got into the action, the boutique reputation suffered even further. Soon hotels couldn't distance themselves quickly enough from the contemporary boutique moniker. A new buzzword was urgently required. Along came the next generation of boutique hotels: the lifestyle hotel.
What exactly is a lifestyle hotel? No one really knows. Essentially, a lifestyle hotel offers services and amenities that cater to a demographic with shared tastes, income levels, habits, attitudes and/or values. As a traveler, no longer are you obliged to leave lifestyle preferences at home while on the road. If you can't bear to put Muffy the teacup poodle in a kennel, you can bring her along. Your hotel might even offer special meals, a spa and Pilates classes for canines. Whether you're a vegan environmentalist, a Crackberry-addicted techno-geek or a yoga-loving lesbian, there's bound to be a lifestyle hotel for you. But don't call it a theme hotel; themes are for amusement parks and kids. This is sophisticated stuff.
This time the chains are leading the charge. Starwood has Element and Aloft; Marriott has Edition; Hyatt has Andaz; Intercontinental has Indigo; the list goes on. In many ways lifestyle hotels are a great fit for the chains. Whereas boutique hotels tend to be high-priced, exclusive and urban, lifestyle hotels tend to be more reasonably priced, inclusive and accessible, located in secondary markets like small cities and suburbs.
The biggest challenge for the chains is to fulfill the inherent promise of lifestyle hotels: to keep current with traveler preferences. This can be exhausting-and expensive. Running a traditional hotel is far easier; you can maintain the same décor, employees and services for decades and pass them off as old-world charm. By nature the chains are slower to react because they have a lot of players to please. Let's take a fictional chain, Guilty Pleasures Hotels & Resorts, for example, and say they've decided to roll out a signature scent. Hotel scents, a questionable trend in my mind-when I travel all I want to smell is lemon-scented disinfectant-are intended to round out the multi-sensory experience while subtly signaling to guests that they have arrived at their preferred hotel, they will never stay anywhere else, and they will spend lots of money.
So corporate office eventually settles on a scent that combines hints of jasmine, apple pie, whisky, opium and hundred-dollar bills. They dispatch samples to member properties and, of course, everyone hates it, particularly the manager of the Riyadh, Saudi Arabia property, where whisky is forbidden. He suggests oil as an alternative, which offends the manager of the chain's eco resort in Montana. The debate goes on for months, until corporate office issues a decree that all hotels must use the scent or face expulsion. By then, however, travelers tastes have changed, and hotel scents have been found to be directly responsible for global warming.
When I joined the opening team of Opus Hotel in 2001, I came from a traditional hotel background and had no clue how to market a contemporary boutique hotel. Fortunately, by then a number of boutique hotels in other cities had gotten things terribly wrong, and I was able to learn from their mistakes. I wrote a manifesto for staff that specified the vocabulary we used to describe the hotel. Words like hip, sexy, cool and trendy were banned. If you use these words to describe yourself, you just aren't.
Back then, all we had to work with were a few design boards, a chaotic construction site, and the ownership's vision, which encompassed three key words: fresh, warm and sensual. From this we developed our mission statement and values and recruited a management team with classic luxury training who were entrepreneurial enough to adapt to a contemporary boutique environment. Today freshness, warmth and sensuality pervades every aspect of Opus, evoking not only the lifestyle preferences of our guests but the hotel's soul.
Soul? Soul is an essential part of any hotel, and of lifestyle hotels in particular. It is everything abstract: personality, culture and spirit, that intangible feeling that prompts a guest to remark either "It just felt right" or "Something was missing." Soul is often overlooked by hotel executives because we can't see it, write it into an operating manual or charge a fee for it. Some hotels have all the right elements-beautiful design, quality amenities, competent service-but feel like the other definition of soul: the spirit of a dead person. Soul cannot be factory-produced or mass-marketed; more than anything it's shaped by employees. By defining the hotel's vision and values and using them to guide every decision, management develops the hotel's culture and, over time, its soul evolves organically.
Will lifestyle hotels endure or be relegated to the garbage heap of overused and abused travel trends? Only time will tell. Regardless, given the stresses of our troubled economy and the headaches of modern travel, the timing couldn't be better for a boom in hotels that contribute to travelers' wellbeing by catering to lifestyle preferences.
Author and hotel consultant Daniel Edward Craig has worked for hotels large and small, most recently as vice president and general manager of Opus Hotels. His popular blog provides a frank and entertaining look at issues in the hotel industry at www.danieledwardcraig.com. Craig's third mystery novel set in hotels, Murder at Graverly Manor, is now out.
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