These are just a few of the adjectives used to describe the boutique hotel experience. Boutique hotels don’t aim to impress, please, or pander. They aim to relate, inspire, and inform by creating unique content. Rocking that upperclassman-sense of self-confidence, boutiques can rebel against standard hospitality rules. They are exempt from the obligatory chain-speak of 24-hour business centers and continental breakfasts. As such, boutique hotels are a great study for content marketers who are tired of being everything to everyone.
The concept of the boutique is nothing new, first emerging in London, New York, and San Francisco in the mid-eighties. Most signs point to entrepreneurs Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager, who orchestrated boutiques like Morgans, Delano, and Mondrian. Kimpton Hotels, on the other hand, claims, “We started it. Blame us,” referring to the new lifestyle sector of hospitality. Both are built on the premise that luxury isn’t about Egyptian-thread count but in delivering an unparalleled experience. It is about the intersection of art and culture and design and personality, and a pre-fabricated lifestyle that makes the clientele feel like they are part of a clique.
Boutiques emerged as the anti-hotel, but eventually, even some of the biggest names in the indie sector found themselves folded into the portfolio of hospitality barons. Schrager “conceived” Edition Hotels as an “approach and an attitude” for Marriott; similarly, Richard Kessler was propositioned to spearhead the vision for Marriott’s Autograph Collection (“#exactlylikenothingelse); and InterContental Hotels Group (IHG) acquired the Kimpton brand (“never business as usual”). Mutually beneficial relationships were established. The multinationals could up the ante on their “cool factor” and tap into a trend without the risk of tarnishing their brand; the boutiques, on the other hand, could extend their reach to global audiences and leverage deep pockets.
Boutiques have a knack for connecting with tech-savvy, slightly irreverent tastemakers who have a penchant for off-the-cuff experiences that make their friends envious. Just trying to keep pace with their discerning crowd’s fickle tastes is a challenge in its own right. Although they might not admit it, boutiques are keenly aware of their target audience—classified as bohemian-bourgeoisie (bobos), creative-culturals, expansive midlifers, latte and laptop lovers. Those who have had success creating a loyal following have not just identified their audience, but actually stepped into their shoes, learned what makes them tick, and created an arsenal of unique content around their brand.
Back of the House’s mission: “Our purpose is to provide a global platform for creators to expose their talents and ideas to the world. At our hotels, we do this by providing an environment that serves as both a sanctuary and inspiration for the creative journey.”
Back of the House is the microsite of Schrager’s Morgans Hotel Group (of the cult-hits, Delano and Mondrian) that panders to the “creator” persona. Content is organized into a dinner party of artists, empire builders, innovators, fashion-forwards, and musicians (imagine the dialogue). The site fabricates an exclusive, behind-the-scenes social club (hence the site’s name). The premise for the site’s state-of-being—besides, of course, driving that dirty marketing word, leads—is lofty: “Provide a global platform” as a showcase for artisans. It’s a community. A congregation. A virtual playground for establishing the artist-in-residence. How very posh—and effective.
Takeaway: Build your content strategy around personas. Cultivate a portal for creativity, a community, and sense of belonging that they can’t get from your competition.
“Development has often led to [boutiques] adding value not just to the building but also the neighborhood it is situated in.” – The Boutique and Lifestyle Hotel Report, 2014
It’s rare to hear a boutique advertise that they’re “centrally located.” They leverage the fringes of up-and-coming neighborhoods, thrive on revitalizing the dilapidated, and establish “off the beaten track” as a destination. Their desire to breathe new life into old neighborhoods makes for a great story, and an opportunity to create unique content.
Case in point: I’ve been watching the refurbishment of the Godfrey Hotel from my window in Downtown Crossing, Boston. In the heart of a once-flourishing retail locale, the bone-white facade presides over a gritty neighborhood sandwiched between the two distinct cultures of Chinatown and Government Center. Former headquarters of the legendary five-and-dime shop, Woolworths, is getting a makeover and has already launched a content marketing strategy that plays into the cocksure pride of the locale—spitting in the face of adversity, and achieving greatness through determination. Cue JFK “We Choose to Go to the Moon.”
Autograph Collection’s has a distinctive selection of iconic properties like the Cotton House, an old textile factory in Barcelona, and the Algonquin, home of the literary roundtable in New York City. The colorful, rich history, and extraordinary design of these hotels is the stuff that stories are made of. The Cotton House is beautifully illustrated through photo, text, and video. As the camera takes viewers on a tour of the hotel’s history, we are guided by a narrator that sounds uncannily like The Most Interesting Man in the World. We meet the interior designer (and his dog, Bosco), and learn about the mystery behind the hotel. This appears to be the first in a series of “Exactly Like Nothing Else” stories, and as a content marketer who wishes she lived in Dorothy Parker’s time, I’m eagerly awaiting the sequel crafted around the legendary New York mainstay.
Takeaway: Play into the location—it is the context for your story. Find history in the grit, and then turn your people into protagonists that move that story along.
“The most powerful existing effect of digital technology…is the feedback loop of websites and social media that plays back the success or failure of each design choice in real time, making it visible to the guest’s friends, and their friends, and their friends.” -VP of Global Brand Design, Ted Jacobs of Starlabs (Starwood’s brand design studio), Time.com, 2015.
The guest book used to be a nostalgic way to share feedback with fellow travellers—a proof of purchase. The “I was here” memento has now been replaced by geolocated hashtags. Today’s digital-savvy visitor takes, tags, filters, and posts in the time it would take to get pen ink flowing. Let the voyeurism, the underlying taunt of “I’m here, and you are not,” begin. The guests now have the upper hand in creating the experience and sharing the hotel through their own eyes. So how do hotels aid the selfie generation?
Sydney’s 1888, coined the first “Instagram hotel,” has designated selfie-spaces and gives away free stays based on social Klout; Marriott offers guests to demo GoPros for self-documentation, while Kimpton provides a pinboard for guests to share their visions. Back of the House enlists visitors to “become a Morgan Muse” right from their computer. If you’re looking for inspiration beyond selfie-sticks, Autograph Collection teams up with Variety for their Actors on Actors series, The Individualists, and Bunkhouse Hotels capitalizes on the canine celebrity.
But before you judge the Millennial guest for living on his or her phone, there is proof that they crave a communal space. “Even when tethered to their laptops…younger travelers seek out social environments more than their elders,” said Bjorn Hanson, global hospitality leader for PricewaterhouseCoopers, to The New York Times. Never underestimate the importance of physical collaboration, even when executing purely virtual social acts.
Takeaway: Empower your audience to create content for you. Give them the tools to set the stage, the space to created it, the high-speed WiFi to amplify it, and reward them when they do.
Boutiques behave like that cool uncle who let you take a sip of his beer when mom wasn’t looking. “Am I allowed?” is rarely a concern. They go out of their way to push the limits on standards. They are not just canine friendly, but offer turn-down doggie bed service with a filet mignon nightcap.
Arrive Hotels, the new kid on the block promising to uproot the well-oiled hierarchy of the service industry (and notably conceived by of the ex-Facebooker, Ezra Callahan) turns check-in on its head. Get your keys (smartphone keys, that is), from the bartenders or housekeeper because everyone at the resort will be “cross-trained.” Harkening back to the notion that even a manager must operate a plunger if it’s called for, Arrive is stripping away traditional hotel accommodations like front-desk personnel and room phones, allowing modern-day habits like texting to take over. Watch this space for Arrive’s content marketing campaign to unveil.
Takeaway: Break the rules. Do something daring that your competition wouldn’t feign to do, that your audience wouldn’t expect from you, because you’ve got to keep them guessing and anticipating your next move. And that ahead-of-the-curve mentality is what spurs innovation.
It would be remiss if I failed to mention the unique content created by these boutiques in the form of audio. It should come as no surprise that these hotels are a haven for indie musicians. Standard Sounds, the Standard Hotels’ version of Rolling Stone, features music videos, profiles and in-depth interviews with the musical guests who shack up, and then (literally) shout from their rooftops. The Standard’s edgy editorial, and glossy cover shoots mixed with Instagram-style concert coverage makes the reader, even if just for a moment, feel like they are backstage until they notice the small, red CTA to “Book Now.”
Bunkhouse Group, the Austin-based darlings of indie hospitality, plays into their musical surroundings. Rockout to Traffic, The Rolling Stones, Leonard Cohen, and The Velvet Underground on Hotel Saint Celia’s Spotify playlist, a curated soundtrack that evokes era and sets the mood. Their sound is part of the quirky, artfully-designed package, set among Anne Sexton and Keith Richard quotes.
Takeaway: Get sticky. Play them something they’ll want to hear—not just what you want to tell ’em.
The boutique audience likes souvenirs. We’re not talking spoons, or paperweights. We’re talking wearables. Lived-in, silk-screened tees, technicolor robes, retro posters, trucker hats, organic miracle creams, even bed spreads (I’ll admit to buying a canvas bedspread from Ace’s Palm Spring location). Online shops cleverly feed a set of brand ambassadors. They take a persona and merchandise it. They cleverly creating an eCommerce channel that complements their content marketing strategy.
Each of these boutiques fabricate unique experiences through a combination of elements. The most successful brands have found story in unexpected places. They empower their audiences, and recognize their efforts. They place a premium on the creative community, and do anything they can to promote that growth. Their content sticks because it is authentic, and they cement their brand in their audience’s mind by offering products to complement their service. And don’t be afraid to do something that challenges status quo—because that daring will set you apart.
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