INSIGHTS FROM THE BIGGEST UK EVENT DEDICATED TO THE LUXURY, BOUTIQUE & INDEPENDENT HOTEL INDUSTRY:
In its fifth edition, The Independent Hotel Show once again provided valuable insights from one of the UK’s most thriving industries – serviced accommodation. Great Britain is the world’s 8th biggest tourist attraction ranked by visitor numbers and 6th when ranked by visitor expenditure. With overseas residents responsible for 36.8 million visits to the UK in the 12 months to August 2016 and an expenditure of £22.1 billion for the same period, it’s safe to assume that UK hospitality continues to thrive – not only from inbound tourism, but also from domestic visits which comprise local tourism and business travelling.
In terms of innovation and influence, the UK independent hotel sector is stronger than it’s been in a very long time. Although shrinking in its overall size and as a proportion of the country’s serviced accommodation sector, the world of boutique hotels continues to stand out and comprises more than half of the total number of serviced accommodation rooms in the UK. The hotels that survived the cuts have thrived due to their ability to rebrand and redefine themselves as to better appeal to the 21st century hi-tech-driven consumer. Those who didn’t are part of the cluster of 40,000 rooms that have closed over the last 10 years, due to their failure to invest, innovate and understand the needs of a new demographic altogether.
The consumer is far more discerning today, and much better informed. This is the age of technology, after all. On top of that, hotel brands and online travel agencies have stronger marketing strategies and have honed their ability to adapt to the constant change in trends and preference. It’s a dog-eat-dog world even for the sweethearts of luxury accommodation, and the notion of ‘survival of the fittest’ applies.
Most importantly, independent hotels have acquired a different sort of power over the past few decades – boutique is a trendsetter now. Designers and developers look to them for inspiration and style. Charles Caleb Colton once said that ‘imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,’ after all, and even though he didn’t not have the hospitality industry in mind at the time, it certainly describes the present picture. The best practices and innovation often pass into usage by the hotel brands, as boutique venues now set the tone with their choice of elite designs and accessories, along with the latest in comfort and hospitality technologies.
Even so, boutique hotels continue to show their adaptability in this ecosystem: some collaborate with hotel brands through affiliation, in order to access their reservations and distribution systems without adhering to the strictures of a more formal brand; others fiercely defend their independence and strive to build their businesses on foundations of originality, authenticity and service.
These defenders of boutique values are often the eye-candy of the hotel industry, as they frequently turn to iconic designers for their interiors and styles. Why spend the night in a ‘mainstream’ five-star when you can spoil yourself in a room designed by Marcel Wanders specifically for that singular corner of heaven, right? It makes sense, then, to see the independent hotel industry happily provide interior designers with space and occasions to apply innovative aesthetics and technologies.
The Independent Hotel Show was an interesting affair, to say the least, as it showed a predominant tendency on behalf of hotels to intensify their search for bespoke designs and unique objects for their interiors. In this day and age, if you offer the world a boutique hotel, it had better look amazing – otherwise you’ll find yourself in the no-name ‘slush pile’ that still struggles to earn a fifth star. So, it was interesting to observe surge in designers whose speciality in hotel interiors produces stunning visuals, from surface to accessories.
Right from the heart of Chelsea, for example, Channels makes a habit of creating careful and considered design through stunning woodwork. Awarded twelve Design Guild Marks until now, Samuel Chan’s work focuses on clean, contemporary design and excellent craftsmanship. The brand was launched in 1995, with a showroom in Chelsea and a workshop in Shropshire, keeping the design-make-sell process in-house and giving consumers an impeccable source of top quality furniture and bespoke work.
Born in Hong Kong and thoroughly educated in Britain, Samuel Chan spent most of his early years honing his skills in hotel design. Channels’ contribution to the hotel industry is easily recognised by now, his gorgeous woodwork gracing the very first Jumeirah in Shanghai, The Langham and Malmaison in London, to name but a few. The brand’s methodical approach and attention to detail, combined with a sheer love of stylish yet contemporary forms make it a top choice for a boutique hotel in search of unique designs that can satisfy the aesthetic needs of a discerning and demanding customer.
Where fabric design is concerned in the hotel industry, GP & J Baker is a frequent choice for boutique venues, as the brand has built a solid reputation around its superb designs and exquisite quality. Holder of Her Royal Majesty The Queen’s Royal Warrant since 1982, GP & J Baker owns two comprehensive showrooms – one in London’s Chelsea design quarter, and one on Paris’ ‘design street’. The brand specialises in fabrics, wallcoverings, furniture and trimmings of exceptional aesthetics and intricate detail work.
Their specialist team of highly-skilled designers have increased their take of bespoke projects recently, a good percentage of these being allocated for boutique hotels. Over a century of tradition keeps GP & J Baker in great spirit today, as the company first opened its doors in 1882 and established an inheritance full of innovation and drama at the time. Discerning collectors of rare and iconic design, the Baker brothers started what is now one of the largest and most beautiful privately owned textile archives in the world. With such a history behind it, it’s no wonder that more and more high end hotels turn to GP & J Baker for interiors assistance – and there is plenty to pick from, with multiple brands under this name, including Mulberry Home, Brunschwig & Fils and Threads.
Getting the right feel and look for a hotel is often a challenge, especially when escaping the conventional and aiming for ‘exceptional’. Bespoke is usually the way to go, and it’s where we’ve seen brands like Style Matters emerge and take the helm, delivering splendid work. From clean lines to beautiful upholstery, Style Matters is responsible for gorgeous and custom projects across the UK, including MNKY HSE, Coppa Club and Blues Kitchen in London, The French in Manchester and Hampton Manor Hotel in Warwickshire, to name but a few.
Armed with a team of fiercely creative designers and eminent craftsmen, the brand takes pride in its ability to create a full customer experience, from a projects inception and design – all the way to execution and the final touches and accents. One simply has to peruse their projects to understand how strong the relationship between client and designer can be, and what great things can come out of it. The amplitude and visual richness of venues like M Restaurant, Bibigo, The Botanist or On The Roof With Q in London alone tell the tale of putting one’s vision into a grand physical form. Their creative versatility and ability to adjust colours and lines to different circumstances are key factors that draw more and more boutique hotels into the Style Matters mindset.
Accessories are just as important. In fact, accessories are everything in this day and age, and especially for a hotel that aims to attract a specific audience, and cater to a specific consumer. Accessories can make the difference between a drab overnight stay and an immersive experience complete with beauty, pampering and well-deserved luxury. It sounds dramatic, we know – but it’s true; turning a boutique hotel into a masterpiece is no easy job. Smart hotel owners will draw focus to details and tableware elements – geniuses will look at Agentia, for example, and instantly recognise the finesse and design heritage behind brands like Christofle, Legle and GIOBAGNARA, and their obvious place in a stylish hotel setting.
Christofle’s new MOOD collection actually shakes up the classic codes of table setting with a concept that appeals to those who keep up with the times. Of course, the brand is already known and loved for its stunning yet traditionally simple tableware and accessories – yet in this day and age, Christofle will still surprise with new and contemporary designs, as part of its mission to reinvent its brand ethos and adapt it to what works for consumers today. Boutique hotels that don’t want to be in the aforementioned ‘defunct 40,000’ have a lot to learn from Christofle – also a lot to buy, but that’s just our advice.
The almost manic attention that is paid to fine fabrics and smooth surfaces must be equally granted to tableware, and this is something that more and more hotels are becoming conscious about. Sourcing the finest porcelain from Limoges and masters of a patented technique for solid colour that is vibrant and lasts much longer than the average, Legle is a brand that deserves nothing but adoration and respect. Their simple and tasteful designs, their dramatic contrasts and simply beautiful colours are only matched by the high quality of the porcelain that they’re drawn upon. It’s not a boutique hotel if it doesn’t have at least a little bit of Legle in it.
GIOBAGNARA, on the other hand, focuses on the fine Italian leather artistry that we’ve all come to view as ‘iconic’. The brand specialises in the manufacture of luxurious home furnishing and accessories from over seventy types of leather. Each object is handcrafted in their factory in northern Italy and exudes the very buzzword that boutique hotels long for: craftsmanship. Their latest collection offers perfect applications in luxurious settings that aren’t limited just to hotels – GIOBAGNARA works just as well for yachts and high end residences.
As far as technology is concerned, there is absolutely no point in arguing about its essential role in how boutique hotels are now designed and built. After learning its lesson from its slowness in adapting to mobile velocity in the first place, the travel industry has been quick to embrace the novelty of tech gear like Apple Watch, for example. With travel companies now more aware of the technology that their customers use, hotels have now taken a step deeper into the circuit jungle and have begun implementing smarter environments for their guests.
Entertainment is now focused around smart screens, phones and tablets, laptops and other similar devices. Its function is now tied in with social media and the guest’s essential need for connectivity. Hotel rooms are now more likely to become customised in order to keep up with something like the Apple Watch – guests wearing such a device will be able to use it to check in, thus sending signals to the ‘connected room’, which can then immediately be configured exactly how they would like it, based on their user data. Lighting, air, temperature, music or TV settings can all be automatically set this way, providing a home away from home for the discerning guests.
With branded hotels increasing their presence on the hospitality market in the UK, independent hotels are faced with new challenges that they need to overcome in order to stay relevant – one is technology, and the other is innovative design, and this is no longer a trend but a fact. Some independent hoteliers have now joined consortia while others became a part of ‘collections’ founded by major brands; others have sought to become franchises of the major brands. However, many of the independent hotels are too small or require too much investment to fit with such strategies, and they need to make use of other virtues.
As mentioned in The Independent Hotel Show’s report for 2016, there are five key differentiators that boutique hotels can play on as strengths against the big brands: individuality, locality, freedom, personality and innovation. Obviously, design and technology play crucial roles in at least three of the above.