Nowhere in the world has been as hospitable to the hospitality industry as China has been in recent years. It has provided a wealth of opportunity to both international luxury hotel brands and budget chains alike. Amidst the uniformity of the hotel franchises, boutique hotels, which aim to offer something unique, stand out.
Asia’s boutique hotel industry is still in its infancy, unlike Europe and the US. But enough boutique hotels now operate in China’s main cities to offer an alternative to the chains.
“The trend towards boutique hotels is increasing. The plan is for more hotels, with less rooms, that are more service oriented. People are looking for more of an experience than just a place to sleep,” said Marcel, general manager of boutique hotel Red Capital Residence in Beijing.
Not just for vacationers
Contrary to popular belief, boutique hotels are not merely the domain of wealthy vacationers. Business travelers are looking for new experiences too, and they are finding it in boutique hotels.
Both Marcel and Toffler Niemuth, of Shanghai’s Ruijin Hotel, report that business travelers are a majority of their customers.
“I would say that people who come on business constitute 60 to 70% of the hotel’s customers,” Niemuth, marketing and sales assistant manager at the Ruijin, said.
What actually characterizes a boutique hotel is a matter of some debate.
“There is no strict definition of a boutique hotel,” says Nigel Summers, director of hospitality consultancy Horwath Asia Pacific. “Typically they’re smaller, independently run, relatively high-end properties, usually with less than a hundred rooms,” he said.
Niemuth offers another view. “The perception is that boutique hotels have to be small, but this is less the case as it is being used to describe super trendy luxury hotels as well as those that have less than 10 rooms. What it comes down to is the level of service: Whether the staff know the guest’s name; what their preferences are.”
Who stays in China’s boutique hotels? Employees of multinationals are less likely to stay at independents, whatever their preference. Multinationals often have contracts with hotel chains, so lodging options are limited for corporate employees. Well-traveled entrepreneurs, on the other hand, can make their own decisions about where to spend the night, so they can choose independents, especially if they are suffering from ‘franchise fatigue’.
“A business traveller who goes overseas to 32 cities around the world a year wants to see something different,” Niemuth said.
A boutique hotel’s popularity hinges on its uniqueness. Each one offers something different, from the ultra-trendy designer hotels to outlets that put in the extra effort to connect with the history of their locale. A good boutique hotel also strives to insulate guests from their everyday work environment.
“We have no business center facilities so you wouldn’t want to hold a meeting here. We are providing a kind of escape for business travelers,” says the Red Capital Residence’s Marcel. “Our customers are attracted to the concept and decoration of the hotel. Our hotel is a restored Qing dynasty house, which is found less and less in Beijing, so we’re providing something that is very unique.”
That’s the kind of uniqueness that draws guests like Jack Blanks to boutique hotels. As director of strategic alliances for Project Hope, a non-profit organization that offers health education solutions across the developing world, Blanks travels often. Whenever he or Project Hope’s visiting doctors come to Shanghai, they stay at the Ruijin Hotel. One of the reasons for this is that the hotel’s bucolic setting creates a comfortable contrast between work and leisure.
“[The Ruijin Hotel] has acres of grounds, which is highly unusual in the city; there’s the old villa itself, and there’s the new wing, so there’s a lot of charm and ambience. If you spend your day explaining how to do open-heart surgery on children, it’s a nice place to come back to at night,” Blanks said.
The boutique hotel that can capitalize on its surroundings to offer a retreat from the stresses of work will score points with many business travelers. In a country where doing big business can be an intense experience, going back to a smaller, quieter, hotel after-hours might be a winning formula.
Selected independent hotels
Red Capital Residence, Beijing
Phone: +86 010 8401 8886, Web: redcapitalclub.com.cn
Beijing’s first boutique hotel is located in a Qing dynasty house in the Dongsi historical district. With only five rooms, the Red Capital Residence is about as boutique as it gets. A tour of Beijing in one of the hotel’s Hongqi, a limited edition car built for top cadres in the ‘60s, will impress even the most jaded businessman.
Ruijin Hotel, Shanghai
Phone: +86 021 6472 5222, Web: ruijinhotelsh.com
Spread across four British-style mansions built during Shanghai’s pre-war heyday, this hotel oozes history. The property used to belong to Benjamin Morris, owner of the North China Daily News. When the communists came to power, it became a Shanghai government guesthouse, hosting guests like Richard Nixon and Ho Chi Minh. Today, its spacious gardens, a rarity in Shanghai, are a popular wedding venue.
Phone: +86 021 6217 9000
Following the success of the award-winning JIA hotel in Hong Kong, the chic boutique hotel is opening in Shanghai. The hotel is designed by Melbourne’s BURO Architects, and is located on one of Shanghai’s main thoroughfares, Nanjing Xi Lu. When it opens in March it will have 55 rooms that are intended to be “theatrical, warm and sexy spaces, for the modern design-conscious traveller”.