What makes a great hotel? A clean room and a comfortable bed, sure. A good location and customer service, yes. But sometimes we look for even more…. Maybe something small and intimate. Maybe a place with an authentic connection to its neighborhood. Or something that’s even a little quirky.
For those experiences, we may have to venture beyond reputable hotel chains or sprawling resorts and enter the world of the boutique hotel. But what does that term mean, really? What are the defining characteristics of a boutique hotel? And why might boutique hotels sometimes be the best family-friendly hotels we can choose?
My First Experience As A Parent At A Boutique Hotel
It surprised me to learn that the boutique hotel concept dates back only to the 1980s. It just so happens that my very first hotel stay as a parent was at the hotel that coined the “boutique hotel” term and launched the world-wide trend: Morgans Hotel in New York City. (I admit, I am delighted by this random fact.)
I found my way to Morgans in 2017, with a 7-week-old baby, after an extensive search for a hotel with very specific requirements that will likely sound familiar to some of you: We needed a hotel room with a separate living area for work and unwinding after the baby went to bed. An on-site restaurant and bar where we wouldn’t mind spending some time were critical; we had friends we wanted to see after work, but felt a touch nervous about leaving a newborn with a sitter in a hotel. If the hotel lobby is appealing, we schemed, friends will come to us.
Morgans Hotel fit the bill. The lobby restaurant transformed into a cozy cocktail bar in the evenings where we could socialize. The friendly staff put as at ease even with a baby. This was our maiden voyage with a baby, and I have spent years chasing that experience.
The Characteristics of a Boutique Hotel
Let’s back up. Are you still wondering about the difference between a boutique hotel and hotel? You wouldn’t be alone. After reading many sources’ attempts to define it, I’ve landed on these five key characteristics of a boutique hotel:
- Small (usually between 10-100 rooms)
- Independent, or at least independently operated (not part of a hotel chain)
- Has inviting gathering places where people can connect (lobby, restaurant, bar)
- Offers personalized service to create an intimate guest experience
- Design-focused, with a unique and memorable aesthetic
None of these are rigid requirements. For boutique hotels, you will know it when you see it. They can include small hotels with high-end, luxury rooms: crisp white linens, large windows, and indoor-outdoor living. Or unpretentious hotels with thoughtfully designed and comfortable rooms and a focus on the guest experience its people create.
At the end of the day, the term “boutique hotel” is best used to describe a small hotel with a true sense of place – something that becomes part of your trip, not just a place to rest your head at night.
A Brief History Of Boutique Hotels
I took a deep dive recently into the history of boutique hotels, which is how I made the Morgans connection. Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell – the owners of the infamous Studio 54 nightclub – opened Morgans in 1984, which was later coined the first “boutique hotel.” They set out to bring the energy and innovative design choices (if not the legendary party scene) they had prioritized in their nightclubs to the hotel experience through sophisticated and inviting lobbies and bars.
Around the same time, on the other side of the country, Bill Kimpton launched the Clarion Bedford Hotel in San Francisco. His mission was to create a set of welcoming and comfortable hotels that guests would be eager to visit. He included high-quality and memorable restaurants serving more than breakfast and burgers.
Together, these innovators sparked a movement to give travelers something more thoughtful and intentional. (If, like me, you can’t help but want to know more about how this phenomena evolved and spread through the hospitality industry, head down the rabbit hole with this complete oral history of boutique hotels).
Boutique Hotels with Kids
After our first parental success at Morgans, I increasingly sought out small hotels for travel with my kids. I’ve noticed that many parents stay away from boutiques in favor of familiar chains, perhaps out of fear that boutiques are a riskier choice. Parents are nervous that these stylish places may not welcome kids in their well-designed common areas.
But as I wrote in my guide to finding family-friendly hotels, I’ve had a different experience. Independently owned, boutique hotels can be extremely kid-friendly. They often create an atmosphere where parents can feel like they are showing their kids something special, while enjoying their vacation too. Here are a few reasons these hotels can be great with kids:
- Many boutique hotels offer unique room configurations, including suites with enough space for the whole family.
- Traveling with kids is easier when a hotel has inviting common areas where kids can stretch their legs and explore, which boutique hotels strive to offer.
- A focus on service and attention to detail means that, when you find a kid-friendly boutique hotel, the staff will go out of their way to make your kids feel as important as any other guest.
- Finally, a good on-site restaurant and bar leaves parents feeling like they haven’t missed out by eating at least some meals at the hotel, which is inevitable with kids in tow.
Don’t get me wrong: I understand the choice to go with a well-known hotel brand. A regular hotel is a known quantity, which puts many parents at ease. Travel with kids can be so unpredictable that parents may lean towards choosing a hotel where they know what to expect.
Consider this my gentle encouragement to at least think about the alternative.
A Happy Medium? Lifestyle Hotels
One final thought: There is increasingly a way to split the difference: many large hotel chains have started launching their own small hotel collections with the characteristics of a boutique hotel, sometimes referred to as lifestyle hotels, which I’ll talk about in a separate post soon. Have you tried one? Let us know in the comments below.