Business

IT’S ALL IN THE DETAILS

Service, style and comfort are making pricey boutique hotels popular

JOHN INTIM November 24 2003
Business

IT’S ALL IN THE DETAILS

Service, style and comfort are making pricey boutique hotels popular

JOHN INTIM November 24 2003

IT’S ALL IN THE DETAILS

Service, style and comfort are making pricey boutique hotels popular

Business

JOHN INTIM

STEP INSIDE Toronto’s Hôtel Le Germain and it doesn’t take long to realize you’re not at the Holiday Inn anymore. There’s modem Italian furniture in the lobby and polished South American hardwood floors in the library. Poetry adorns the elevator walls. The urban-chic design of the hotel’s 118 suites is complemented by imported linens, audiophile stereo and original art. And that says nothing of the hotel’s specialty—customer service. You don’t just want to stay there; you want to move in.

And it’s not alone. The $25-million Le Germain, which opened last March, is one of dozens of so-called boutique hotels popping up across Canada. High-end travellers, on business or holiday, are staying at the Murray Premises in St. John’s or Opus in Vancouver, smaller hotels where the service and amenities often exceed those in larger luxury properties. A trend that began in the early 1980s in New York, boutiques are fast becoming a major presence in Canada’s $11.3-billion-a-year hotel business. And they, unlike so many homogenized chain hotels, go at things with more flair. “Designer furnishings and fine food are the prime ingredients of a boutique hotel,” says Don MacLaurin, associate professor of tourism and hospitality at the University of Guelph. “Boutique hotels also have a tendency to hire staff that look as if they stepped out of a fashion magazine.”

Le Germain gets its style from its owner, Christiane Germain, who’s involved in even the smallest decisions, helping to choose everything from book titles for the hotel library to the brand of coffee served at breakfast. “I’m not obsessed with detail, but the

little things are very important to a boutique’s success,” says Germain, a silk scarf draped perfectly across her shoulders. “And why wouldn’t I spend time on how things look? My family’s name is on the hotel.” It’s through her family that she got into the industry. Her father, Victor, was a successful restaurateur in Quebec City, and she and her two younger brothers, Jean-Yves and Richard, joined him in the family business. But during a trip to New York in 1986, Christiane and Jean-Yves’s stay at the Morgan Hotel inspired them to sell all but one of their five restaurants and start what would

become an award-winning series of hotels.

The first, Hôtel Germain-des-Prés, opened in 1988 in an old and previously rundown former office building in Sainte-Foy, Que., that they converted for $4.5 million. Then, in 1997, the Germains swung open the doors of the Hôtel Dominion 1912 in Old Quebec City (where Richard still works as general manager), followed by Montreal’s Le Germain two years later. The group is also developing a property east of Montreal in the Eastern Townships. “We’re not in a race,” says Christiane Germain, who studied restaurant and hotel administration

at Toronto’s Humber College in the 1970s. “We’d rather have five great hotels than a national chain of average ones. Our hotels are hands-on operations that require a lot of intensity and time.”

Service and comfort are the main attractions of boutique hotels, says Glenn Chin, a senior director of marketing with Redwood City, Calif.-based Electronics Art. He stays at Vancouver’s Opus Hotel, a celebrity haven that opened a year ago, at least two days every week while on business. “It’s as if one of my really stylish friends tossed me the keys to their place,” says Chin, 39. “It has a really cool vibe and I don’t feel like I’m travelling when I stay here. And I have to admit, the heated bathroom floors are welcome during the winter.” That’s exactly the reaction hoteliers are seeking, says John Kearns, general manager of another Vancouver boutique, the 122-room Hotel Le Soleil, that opened in 2001. “We customize our guests’ stay,” says Kearns. “We keep a database of their preferences—right down to what wine they ordered at the restaurant during their last stay. It helps us remain more capable than a large 400-room luxury hotel of anticipating our guests’ needs.” Boutiques have also gained a foothold in Atlantic Canada, where cozy bed-and-breakfasts have long been a popular choice for tourists. It’s slow progress—the 28-room Murray Premises in St.John’s, which opened in 2001, is still the only hotel of its kind in Newfoundland. But it’s attracting customers. “Everyone wants to feel like they’re the only person travelling in the world,” says general manager Hilda Byrde. “Our staff knows all of our guests by name. People feel like they’re at home when they stay with us.” That warm and fuzzy feeling is nice, but the price is not in everyone’s budget. Room rates at most boutique hotels start at around $300 a night and climb into the thousands for some suites. By comparison, the national average room rate in 2002 was $108.54. And while some people consider the style a tad pretentious, others think of boutique hotels as a status symbol, says MacLaurin. “These are people looking to see and be seen,” he says. “They’re the antithesis of a chain hotel guest. They’re chained-out and boutiques help them make a strong statement that they’ve made it in the world.”

HÔTEL LE GERMAIN, Toronto (top right) On-site fitness centre and personal trainer Massage room

In-room Bose stereo and Frette linens

HOTEL LE SOLEIL, Vancouver (top)

Elle Suites-designed for the female traveller. Rooms are closer to elevators and stocked with lifestyle magazines, discount vouchers for clothing stores and low-fat snacks and juice.

MURRAY PREMISES, St. John’s (right) Most rooms have view of the harbour Rooms furnished with custom-made maple beds and armoires

OPUS HOTEL, Vancouver

Free hotel car service in Mercedes S430

Heated ceramic floors in bathrooms

Byrde says baby boomers and high-end business travellers, especially women, make up a large part of her clientele. Le Soleil re-

cently unveiled a national advertising campaign to show how it focuses on women’s needs. “Every suite has a separate bedroom and sitting area,” says Kearns. “Female business travellers have told us that they appreciate this feature. If they’re having a meeting in their room, they’re not forced to stare at a bed the whole time.” Female guests also enjoy the small personal details at Le Soleil, Kearns says. “Our mini-bars,” he adds, “are stocked with low-fat snacks and three different-coloured pairs of nylons.”

There are travellers who want nothing more than a bed for the night. But given the dramatic increase in small hotels’ popularity, there’s clearly a constituency that likes its luxuries. Occupancy rates at boutique

hotels are often 10 to 15 per cent higher than the national industry average, which in the first nine months of 2003 was 63 per cent. Le Soleil, for instance, has had more than 70 per cent occupancy so far this year. Meanwhile, due to SARS, Le Germain in Toronto suffered through a slow start after opening in March, but things have turned around. “October was a very strong month,” says Germain, while sipping a coffee in the hotel’s breakfast nook. “People are hearing good things about us. Word of mouth is critical in this business.”

Larger luxury chains such as Fairmont and Hyatt have taken note of the newcomers’ success. “They have tried to emulate boutique hotels by installing their own boutique hotel within a hotel,” says MacLaurin, citing the Fairmont President’s Club and Hyatt Regency Club as examples. These usually include dedicated check-ins, lounges with complimentary snacks, and premium services and amenities. Germain welcomes the challenge. “There was a lot of competition when I was in the restaurant business, so I’m used to it,” she says. “Competition makes for a better product and keeps us on our toes. There’s nothing wrong with that.” Style-conscious travellers couldn’t agree with her more. (I'll