In the age of rail, luxury hotels mimicked European palaces. When rich people arrived at their destination, they wanted to be treated like nobility.
Then, in the age of the jet, a new sort of hotel emerged, sleek Hiltons and Sheratons. These hotels offered the comfort of familiarity. You could go around the world and the hotels were largely the same. They were efficient and bland, offering quality service and ease of movement. A business traveler could stay in one of these hotels for days and barely notice anything about the place.
The computer age brought yet another new kind of hotel: the mass boutique.
Boutique hotels started in the early 1980s in London, with Blakes, and in San Francisco, with the Bedford. These hotels had entirely different goals than the big hotels at the time. Instead of offering familiarity, they offered difference. Instead of offering beige, they offered edginess, art, emotion and a dollop of pretension.
The first boutique hotels were founded by entrepreneurs who seemed more like rock producers or psych professors than corporate executives. Chip Conley founded Joie de Vivre Hospitality in the Bay Area when he was 26. He designed his hotel Phoenix around the personality of Rolling Stone magazine. He later organized his business strategy around Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
At the bottom of the pyramid, Conley’s hotels offer a comfortable bed, but at the top of the pyramid, Conley said his hotels offer “identity refreshment” and “mass therapy.” As he writes in his book “Peak,” “If we get it right at our boutique hotels, we don’t just satisfy our guests’ physiological, safety, social and esteem needs: We bring them an awareness of self-actualization.”
Boutiques cater to the sort of affluent consumer produced by the information economy, which rewards education with money. This is a consumer prouder of his cultural discernment than his corporate success; who feels interested in, rather than intimidated by, a hotel room stuffed with cultural signifiers — cerulean sofas or Steichen photos.
Boutique hotels hold up a flattering mirror. When guests arrive, they are supposed to feel like they are entering an edgy community of unconventional, discerning people like themselves.
In an age when Hotels.com and Travelocity turn hotel rooms into commodities, these are customers willing to pay extra, sometimes a lot extra, for a hotel with sensibility. The boutique Soho Grand in New York is currently offering rooms at $339 a night. The Hilton Garden Inn, a very adequate hotel a couple of blocks away, is charging $139.
Painfully hip boutique hotels used to seem like a fad, but they’ve spread and spread. During the past few years, they have gone mass. Starwood planted large, boutiquey W hotels on five continents. Hyatt has Andaz. And as Brooks Barnes reported in the Times’ most recent Sunday Business section, Marriott is creating a chain of mass boutiques, called Edition. When Marriott enters the boutique business, everybody has entered the boutique business.
It seems as if there is an endless supply of middle-class consumers who have boutique identities and aspirations, especially among people in their 20s. Consumers now use hotels differently. They bring their laptops down to the lobby rather than working in their rooms. Fewer people bother to unpack their bags. Therefore, room desks and closets are less important, but having a happening lobby scene is more important. People need a civic space where they can have their contiguous but individualized iPad experiences.
Boutique hotels are, on one level, kind of ridiculous. They are almost invariably too dark throughout, making it hard to read. The bed is often too low. The bathroom door is sometimes a flimsy sliding shutter, sacrificing privacy for style.
But they do exemplify a shift in the consumer market, which you might call the shift from the lima bean economy to the edamame economy. It’s easy to forget how much more boring the marketplace was a few decades ago — more boring cuisine, more boring restaurants, more boring hotels. Recently, there’s been a creative brand explosion, to go along with nichification and segmentation. Companies are much more interested in creating emotional arousal. Hotels, sneakers, iced tea and even ice cream are now marketed to people on the basis of psychographic profiles and the result is a profusion of unusual products and distinctive experiences. Consumers have been educated by the market and now the median level of cultural competence is much higher.
A basic rule of happiness is don’t buy things; buy experiences. The market took one commodity product after another and turned it into an emotional experience — even hotel stays. I don’t know how you measure how much better off we are because of that, but we are significantly better off. The world’s a sweeter place when, for an extra 200 bucks a night, you can lodge like Afrojack.
David Brooks is a columnist for a New York Times whose work is syndicated nationally.