London's boutique hotel sector is booming. Despite the wider climate of declining hotel occupancy and a spluttering economy, the British capital's boutique hotels have enjoyed startling success - and an increasing proportion of hotels are branding (or re-branding) themselves 'boutique'. Indeed, there is such a upwards trend that London now boasts twice the number of boutique rooms it did in 2011.
Yet for all the evident success of 'brand boutique', there is one thing that remains decidedly unclear.
What exactly is a boutique hotel?
Back at the birth of the boutique hotel - generally considered to be in the late 1970s/early 80s, with the opening of The Blakes Hotel in South Kensington, London and the Bedford in Union Square, New York - the lack of variety in the sector meant that broad brushstroke definitions could be applied. Boutiques were small and independent, luxurious and intimate, with a commitment to elegant design and exceptional service.
But then the label was adopted by the mainstream, and the definition became distorted, squeezed and stretched beyond recognition. Now, in 2013, there are thousands of 'boutique' rooms in London alone - many of which have surprisingly little in common. At one end of the scale you have the small indie boutiques such as Hazlitt's and The Adria, while at the other you have the large chain boutiques owned by the likes of Intercontinental and Marriot; expect 100-plus rooms, multiple restaurants and perhaps even a spa. In London and across the world, boutique hotels can be grand Victorian or contemporary chic, family-friendly or couples-only.
With such inconsistency, it is tempting to simply write off the term as a catch-all marketing moniker. But when many hotels branded as boutique in London charge upwards of £400 a night, isn't it important for potential guests to be clear about what they're buying? Surely boutique customers deserve a definition.
An eye for design
In an attempt to secure a modern-day definition of the boutique hotel, I spoke to two prominent London boutique owners. They explained what the term means to them - and why they chose it for their own hotels.
"Boutique hotels offer something different," begins Aldo Melpignano, developer and owner of San Domenico House in upmarket Chelsea. "While top chains offer outstanding service, they do so in a standardised way; guests are looking more for unique, local and personalised experiences. In a boutique hotel you see genuine warmth and care which feels natural."
"Boutiques should offer a personalised experience, with special care and attention given to each guest. In San Domenico House, guests feel comfortable enough to leave personal belongings in their favourite room for next time. We're more a private residence than a hotel."
Service also comes top of the list with Richard Massey, Communications Manager for Unlisted Collection Hotels (owners of the London boutiques One Leicester Street, 196 Bishopsgate and Town Hall Hotel). "A boutique is measured by the quality of service," he asserts. "To us, a boutique hotel allows for a more personal service, ensuring guest stays are comfortable and relaxed. A small boutique hotel is usually full of charm and we work hard to maintain an intimate atmosphere headed by local staff. A home from home of sorts... a one-off stay without the feeling of duplication that happens in bigger establishments."
Yet service isn't everything. They both also talk about the key ingredients of size and design. "While some people do associate the definition 'boutique hotel' with scale, to me it is more to do with uniqueness," says Melpigiano. "A boutique hotel should be different from the hotel next door." He asserts that the term itself comes from the independent shopping boutiques; the personal alternative to a department store. Massey adds that boutiques are for "people who like individuality and want to express it through the places they choose to stay. We tend to pay a lot of attention to [design] detail, meaning everything is of the highest quality." He also adds that boutique designs should "remain true to the area and location."
While there is no questioning that many London hotels break the rules - readily cashing in on the 'boutique' label with no commitment to its distinction - it is also clear that both men believe there are key factors that define a true boutique. They find common ground in their beliefs that boutiques should be small and intimate (San Domenico House has just 16 rooms, while Unlisted Collection Hotels' One Leicester Street has 15), offer ultra-personal service with an aura of homely - rather than fusty - luxury, and have an original, coherent design theme for the architecture and furnishings.
Small and luxurious, with a commitment to personalised design and service. Perhaps, even following the enormous boom in the sector, the original definition of a boutique hotel still holds true today.