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‘Boutique hotel’ must be up there as one of the most overused and misused terms. At Smith, not only do we adore genuine boutique hotels, but we love special stays that have their own wow-factor.

So how do we define what makes a boutique hotel or a Smith hotel?


No forms, no rules, no stars, no diamonds – I want to figure out the qualities that really matter when choosing the perfect boutique hotel for two…

As you arrive, is the scene high on wow-factor?
Is the setting sensational?
Does the receptionist treat me like an old friend?
What makes the interiors imaginative?
Are any views remarkable?
Why are those flowers not fresher?
Is there a nothing’s-too-much-trouble attitude?
Would they fix me a bite to eat if I arrived out of hours?
Is there a sign pointing to conference facilities?
How long would I be happy to stay in my suite?
Are the sheets soft-to-the-touch and super-high threadcount?
Can the lighting or temperature be controlled in every bedroom?
Is the bathroom brimming with above-average products?
Will that shower really drench me?
Could you fit two in that tub?
I want a minibar full of surprises – will that just be the prices?
Can I have a full cooked-to-perfection breakfast in bed?
Are the walls thick enough to drown out my neighbours’ antics?
Is the cocktail lounge buzzing with guests and locals?
Are there too many suited-and-booted businessfolk?
Will my glass of white wine be chilled to perfection?
Can the barman mix me a perfect martini?
Am I going to be in trouble if I check out a bit late?
What table’s best for a candlelit dinner?
Could you call this hotel a destination in its own right?
Does it have that magical ambience that’s so hard to put into words?
And, most importantly… will Mr or Mrs Smith like it?

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  • thanks for the detailed explanation and examples. my only question is what differentiates a ’boutique’ hotel from a ‘lifestyle’ hotel?

  • In the same way that a hotel might be a design hotel but not qualify as a boutique hotel (it can be white-hot in its look but lack soul or intimacy) there are definitely distinctions.
    I think to me ‘lifestyle hotel’ suggests a little action and entertainment – Murano Urban Resort in Paris would be a great lifestyler with its out-of-this-world DJ-soundtracked vodka bar and hi-tech in-room audio-visual extras..
    Meanwhile you could pitch up at a cute bite-sized boutique hotel such as Llety Bodfor in Wales and simply expect a stylish place to stay in comfort without expecting all the life-enhancing weekend-away trimmings to keep you anchored in the hotel itself that you might expect from somewhere labelling themselves with the lifestyle tag. ‘Lifestyle’ is kind of an of-the-moment word and so that suggests somewhere is going to be dialled into what’s cool, but that doesn’t instantly equate to boutique; some people might think a W hotel qualifies in this respect (you can go there with your pet dog say, get a spa treatment at Bliss – really experience a taste of aspirational urban living…) but ultimately you’re somewhere about as corporate as big hotels come.

  • Jet Set Life

    Great topic. When we’re evaluating a boutique hotel we often hit the pool first to see what kind of scene is there. Is it chic? High fashion? International? Since we report more on the Jet Set that’s usually a good barometer for us. We also consult Smith hotels before we go!

  • What a wonderful insightful post Juliet. I need some time to digest all and may come back with a post of my own on the subject.

  • Please do! It’s certainly an interesting topic… Especially as what makes a great hotel can be so subjective and based on personal experience.
    It’s not to say that a hotel which doesn’t quite qualify as a Smith hotel isn’t still best-in-class.
    I recently stayed at a really, really great hotel in Toronto, Hotel Le Germain, and the staff were up there with the friendliest (those Canadians!) and the most helpful and competent I’ve ever experienced; the decor was certainly stylish and the amenities were excellent – but it just felt that little bit too corporate and not quite intimate enough to be Smith. Sometimes it is really hard explaining to a hotelier that while we might think their establishment ticks lots of the important boxes and it is undeniably a top-hole hotel in its own right, it just doesn’t have that X-factor that makes it ‘Smithy’.

  • Love the post! I way prefer to stay at boutique hotels over large ones any day. The attention to detail is a key to setting yourself apart. I recently blogged about some great places in the US on my own site. You can check it out if you are interested.
    Continue the great work!

  • Great post, Juliet! You’re spot-on in some of those observations!

    My husband and I are travel writers so we have a long list of criteria we also use from our arrival to the time we check out. (But, do you know what? It’s not all that different from the criteria we used when we were simply ‘travellers’ and not yet professionals.)

    It includes many of those things on your list, but also a few extras. For instance:

    * Staff welcome – I don’t want to be treated like an old friend… some staff can take the whole idea of informality a bit too far. But I want to be treated like a regular guest whose been coming to the hotel for 20 years even if it’s my first time.

    * Hotel welcome – I want a welcome drink and a cold towel – hotels in Dubai and also Thailand do this so well, but very few others do – whether it’s an exotic fruit juice or a glass of champagne or even an icy cold water, it doesn’t matter, but it’s the thought that counts.

    * Smart staff who take initiative – staff need to be knowledgable, intuitive and need to take initiative. I can’t tell you how many hotels we’ve checked into where the desk staff have no personality, you ask them for a restaurant recommendation and they look at you blankly. It’s all about hiring and training, and to be honest, this is where some boutiques are lacking and the big five stars, like the Four Seasons, InterConts and Starwood properties win hands-down unfortunately.

    * Hotel check-in – I want to do this comfortably from a seat or sofa in the lobby (once again, hotels in Dubai and Thailand get this so right, but very few others do!) I don’t want to be standing up at a counter for 15 minutes while the Receptionist handles a phone enquiry – which is what a 5 star luxury resort in Rome did to us recently!

    * Mini-bar – I want to see a thoughtfully put-together mini-bar, not something with a couple of bottles of Coke and beer in it. But I also want to see one that leaves me with a bit of room to put my own bottle of Moet in it that I’ve picked up at the duty free or a nice bottle of white I bought from a little vineyard down the road.

    * Bathroom – like you I look for good quality toiletries, but also conditioner and moisturizer, and in countries where the beach/pool play a big part in my stay, sun-block. I also look at the design: can I sit on the toilet without my head in the sink? Can I wash my face in the sink without the tap sticking into my head? Does the shower leak everywhere? Most do unfortunately. Very few bathrooms are well-designed.

    * Room technology – an iPod docking station wins points for me these days, or a CD player. A DVD player is a must for people like us who spend months on the road and occasionally want a night in. A hotel that provides a library of CDs/DVDs is high on my list.

    * Maintenance – it’s so disappointing to step into a beautifully-designed hotel and be initially impressed but then you start to look closely and notice carpet stains, chipped furniture, peeling paint, mouldy bathroom tiles. Once again, sadly, this is where the big five stars often win out against the little boutiques who don’t put money back into maintenance. Give me a boutique who does keep herself looking good, however, and she tops my list.

    * Bar – agree with you that a buzzy little bar, good music in the background, tasty little snacks, and good bar staff are key, along with premium ingredients mixed well – like you we use the classic martini as a test! Most fail unfortunately.

    As you’ve said, I guess what it all boils down to is attention to detail – whether it’s in the style, design and maintenance of a hotel, the thoughtfulness on the part of management in terms of how guests are greeted and what’s in the mini-bar, and the training/hiring of staff with the right personalities who show they care about a guest’s needs and their experience. If a hotel can get all those things right – especially a boutique hotel – then it’s a great hotel in my books.

  • You are bang on the moolah with the initiative/intuitive expectation of staff; the problem with many employees today is that they’re not passionate about the hospitality industry… it’s a stopgap job. Historically it was a real vocation and career. Hotels often make the mistake of hiring cheap labour and not providing the right training. One hotel I visited for Smith (sadly it didn’t make the cut) in Jersey, where every single member of staff I encountered was Polish. This would be fine, but only a few spoke a little English and none knew the local area. I asked for a recommendation for somewhere charming to eat, perhaps by the coast, on our last day, and he recommended the BOWLING place by the airport for a burger. Yikes.

  • Darren Cronian

    I have only had the pleasure of staying in a boutique hotel once in Port Douglas, North Queensland, and I knew it was special the moment I walked through the entrance.

    So from my experience I think a boutique is something a little bit special, something unique and different, but luxurious at the same time.

  • Erica Johansson

    Juliet, this article is spot on. You’ve covered all the things that really matters when staying in a boutique hotel. As you wrote, a hotel’s style, the service and the amenities are all very important. But what I usually notice first when entering a lobby or reception for the first time is the atmosphere. Even if a boutique hotel looks immaculate, that won’t help if it doesn’t feel good to be there. This obviously depends on the staff and how they treat you, the other guests, and where the hotel is located.

    I think ‘The Gore’ cover all these points to perfection.

  • I think there’s just one tiny-but-vital question missing from your list: do they serve decent coffee?!

  • @ Lucy You mean those tubes of Nescafe no good?
    Yowzers. You are so right. Hotels have been excluded on the grounds of naff said in high-pitched Philadelphia cream cheese ad voice

  • Lisa Corcoran

    A very interesting topic!

    I agree with much of what is said above and think a boutique hotel should definitely have the ‘WOW’ factor from the moment you step through the door. To me,it should be a relaxing experience without any pretension but more importantly, for the duration of your stay there should not be any feelings of disappointment.

    Without meaning to sound mercenary this also includes the price. If I pay handsomely for a room and it is tiny or I am charged for every detail eg. water, Wi-Fi, minibar, DVD’s etc I just feel disappointed. In fact, I think one of my requirements is space. A boutique hotel is usually deemed to be small but this shouldn’t apply to the size of the rooms!

    For me, it really is a sense of not being disappointed. Sometimes hotels do not quite live up to their ‘coolness’ and suffer from too much ‘hype’.

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  • Aya

    Why so few African hotels/lodges/camps? Stunning views, personal service, romantic, small, and many of the (East African hotels) within 12 hours travel of Heathrow. Perfect for a long weekend and not a conference centre in sight!

  • Angel

    Really glad you did this post. There are quite many self proclaimed boutique hotels that just fall short for one reason or another. My biggest bug bears are things like boxy, small rooms and style over function – example no plug sockets because it interferes with the “clean lines”!

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  • Dear Mr/s Smith,

    How to be listed in your website?

    Thank you.


  • jihad

    I loved your article, it really gives an insight.
    I do training for receptionists and It matters for me the guest recognition. The guest who visits for the first time has to be treated as a repeated guest. I believe that when you mentioned treating your guest as an old friend you meant the warm feeling when seeing an old friend, you meant the warm smile and the happiness when meeting an old friend. I also believe that there is a big trust in the people who work for Mr. & Mrs. Smith and that’s why you did not hesitate to say “old friend” because many other companies and big five stars hotels want to keep the distance between the receptionist and the guest. They give more attention to forms, procedures, and other formalities… Hospitality is a people industry and yes to treat guests as old friends . We hire nice people, we do not teach people to be nice…