Ms. Renton

Boutique Hotels

Managing a Boutique Hotel: Working with Less Means 'Getting to Know You'

By Jane Renton, General Manager, Jumeirah Lowndes Hotel

Industry pundits tell us that the appeal of boutique hotels is based on good location, distinctive character (physical as well as emotional), personalized service and perceived value. It would appear that these are qualities that resonate with today's consumers who increasingly seek "experience" in whatever they do, whether it is a museum with interactive learning experiences, a resort stay where they learn to Scuba, ski or knit, or a shipboard program of lectures, seminars and cultural performances on their Mediterranean or Caribbean cruise. Across all price points but particularly at the high end, consumers expect, or at least wish for a hotel that is more than a bed in a room. And the expectations go beyond state-of-the-art communications technology to those more difficult to quantify or even define qualities such as "ambience," "character" and "personality."

As a manager of a boutique hotel, however, there are limits on what can actually be "managed." The location - good or bad - is a given; you live with it, in the case of the latter, or revel in it - make it an integral part of the guest experience - in the case of the former. Indeed, those of us blessed with ideal locations strive to make the hotel synonymous with our neighborhood. Our branding, our marketing strategies, focus as strongly on the guest experience beyond the hotel doors as they do on the character within. The hotel becomes a friendly and welcoming character in the neighborhood, for out of town guests as well as area residents.

Facilities also are a given; you have what you have. You turn your one restaurant into a neighborhood favorite and you seek ways of providing customers with access to other facilities. That might mean complimentary membership in a local health club, a dine-around program or partnerships with area facilities that can provide unique meeting or special event spaces. Boutiques that are members of a portfolio that includes larger properties nearby, of course, have a special advantage in being able to make those facilities conveniently accessible.

Short of total renovation, there are limits to what a boutique hotel's manager can do with a property's physical character. The building, its architecture and style, its history, are what they are; they either warrant celebration - if there is a story to tell - or careful avoidance if the structure has little character or pedigree. There's great advantage to having the former because the hotel itself then becomes a personality that guests relate to. On the other hand, how many of us return to a hotel because of the architecture or history of the building?

Far more important than physical character, is the ambience of the hotel, the emotional character - the experience that the guest takes away with her, and remembers fondly and appreciatively. Here is where the unique challenges, and rewards, of boutique hotel management really come into play. This experience ultimately creates value as perceived by the guest, which, in turn, generates all-important customer loyalty. All segments of the industry strive for brand loyalty. For boutique hotels - which usually cannot compete with larger properties in terms of facilities, size, pricing structure, including discounting - the repeat customer is absolutely essential.

The first talent a boutique manager needs is the ability to recognize and reach those customers - the optimal demographic markets that will provide loyal guests. Who are the travelers most likely to be captivated by your unique character? Most urban properties probably do 60 percent or more in corporate, mid-week business; who are these people? What about you appeals to them? Many boutique hotel companies report that 20 percent or more of their business is in small meetings and conferences. What are these meeting planners and corporations looking for in a boutique?

Among leisure travelers, does your ambience appeal to young trendies or families, or both? As a woman executive in the business I am particularly aware of the expectations and needs of women travelers - especially those traveling alone. It has been my experience that the boutique hotel has a strong appeal for this market, probably because the size, friendliness and, often, informality of these properties create a sense of comfort, acceptance and security. For a woman traveling alone, sitting by herself in a hotel restaurant and feeling good about may be reason enough to make that hotel a favorite.

Luckily, the very nature of a boutique hotel enables you - in fact, forces you - as manager, to find out who your customers are and what they need, and to surprise them with what you can provide. In the final analysis, this is a boutique hotel's competitive edge: the happy interaction between guests and the hotel based on service at a very personal, friendly level, from the very highest levels of management to front desk clerks, wait staff and room cleaners.

As the manager of a 78-room hotel in a city of hundreds if not thousands of hotels, my challenge is to make our guests feel that we are the one and only place they want to be. Comfortable, even luxurious accommodations, good food, a great location certainly help. But, whatever success we have in making customers feel at home - and feeling at home is a very different feeling than enjoying a hotel - ultimately comes from the pleasure they derive in believing that we know them, enjoy them and welcome them, even as they get to know us. I venture to say that this is true of any boutique in any part of the world.

If true, this says much for the type of person working in a boutique hotel and for training priorities. In addition to wearing many hats simultaneously, a boutique GM above all else has to love working with people, because there are few other managers to delegate to and essentially nowhere to hide. If success is based on getting to know your customers - and not just on paper - then there is only one way to do it. With experience in hotels large and small and in many parts of the world, my one advice to anyone considering a boutique hotel management position is, "If you don't like to talking with people on a constant basis, look elsewhere."

Similarly, a top priority in managing a boutique must be identifying and training staff who can be great personal ambassadors for the hotel. In addition to being skilled at the job they are hired for, above all they must be able to smile, converse and interact with guests. Properly trained staff attentive to guests' needs and expectations can also be crucial in understanding and making use of customer feedback.

For some of us in the industry, a boutique hotel can be a training or proving ground on the way to managing on a grander scale. Others have found that challenges on a small scale to be the most exciting, enduring and enjoyable challenges. Still others may look at the perfect, small gem of a property as a rather idyllic place to wind down a busy career. Let me close with a personal note: It is unlikely that I will find a more richly rewarding or satisfying experience than managing my boutique hotel.

Jane Renton is GM at The Lowndes Hotel, London. She has experience in all areas of hospitality. A graduate of the Gwent College of Higher Education, she began at The Gateway Hotel & Conference Centre, Newport where she was deputy head housekeeper, accommodation services manager and Events and Banqueting Manager. At The Lowndes Hotel London she continues to pursue personalized service and creating a unique ‘home away from home’ for her guests. Jane Renton is a member of the British Hospitality Association, Hotel & Catering International Management Association, the London Chamber of Commerce. Ms. Renton can be contacted at 44-20-7823 1234 or jane.renton@jumeirah.com Extended Bio...

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