Confessions of an Unconventional Hotelier: Boutique is dead, long live boutique!

Simon Bennett of Augill CastleSimon Bennett runs Augill Castle, a15-bedroom hotel between the Lake District and Yorkshire Dales.

His book, Undressed For Dinner was published in 2013 and was Lakeland Book of the Year in 2014.

It was inspired by his experiences of running a hotel while bringing up a family under the same roof and trying to lead an ordinary life in an extraordinary place.


Yet another glossy trade magazine has plopped onto our doormat – a trade magazine full of lovely pictures of beautiful people running their fabulous places.

This month the magazine, aimed at the Boutique Hotel market asks if the boutique hotel concept is being diluted by the invention of ‘boutique brands’ by the big international hotel chains.

Hotel sign 

An interesting question, particularly after the same magazine’s editor asked in her foreword, last year what is a boutique hotel? She then went on to tell us that the concept of boutique hotels, coined at the back end of the 1980s is now dead. It seems the magazine doesn’t quite know itself what it is representing.

We are told over half the world’s hotel rooms are now branded and, keen not to miss out on the business that the other independent half of the world’s hotels are clinging on to, big hotel corporations such as Intercontinental, Marriot and Hilton are rolling out their own boutique brands.

This month’s debate went firmly in favour of the No camp, arguing that customers know the difference between manufactured off the shelf boutique and the genuine, truly individual thing.

Really?

I am on the drive assuming the familiar role of pothole monitor. There is a science to potholes that I am convinced nobody else understands and so it remains an undelegated task.

I step aside to allow an arriving car to pass – the first of our weekend guests and am then surprised, three-quarters of an hour later, to see them leave.

‘Where have they gone?’ I ask in the kitchen.Augill Castle bedroom

‘They walked out,’ Wendy tells me in a long suffering, world weary sort of way.

‘Why? Didn’t they like the room?’

‘No, no, they loved everything, the room, the menu, the British bar. In fact they even had a couple of drinks before they were shown their room,’ Wendy explains.

‘So?’

‘We aren’t boutique enough is what they said.’

‘What the…’

‘Apparently they wanted muted colours, ultra modern furnishings and a Nespresso machine in the bedroom.’

They were looking for a branded boutique style.

Surely boutique and brand shouldn’t be found in the same room let alone sharing a bed!

The editor of the magazine seems to acknowledge this and goes on to say that since every Tom, Dick and Harry is claiming their hotel is boutique none of them actually is any more and so a new moniker is needed: Welcome the lifestyle hotel.

The originator of the original boutique hotel label says a lifestyle hotel is the same as a boutique hotel – it’s not just about design but about attitude, approach and focus.

Hmm, another convoy is preparing to leave town folks, all aboard the lifestyle bandwagon.

Of course there are many of us who have always known what makes a true boutique hotel and it isn’t something that those big global brands are going to be able to emulate. James Lohan, founder of the hotel website Mr & Mrs Smith says the number one element of the boutique hotel experience is design.

Rubbish.

Those interContinental and Marriott brands can have all the cash in the world thrown at them and they’ll not be individual, quirky and interesting which is what a boutique anything is supposed to be.Augill Castle

But he does go on to regain his credibility when he says that after design comes service  – and by good service he doesn’t mean slick, he means authentic.

Customers want to be close to the hotel, they don’t want to just feel like a guest any more, they want to feel part of it, he argues.

Spot on Mr Lohan and that’s something no brand can deliver. It’s all about authenticity and you can’t get that from an operating manual or translate it from a mood board.

We have never called ourselves a boutique hotel, but that is exactly what we are, although I do prefer the lifestyle badge.

A stay at Augill Castle is not a stay in a hotel. It is a slice of life in a real family country house. We don’t sell services, we sell an experience. That’s what makes us unique. 

What we do and the way we do it doesn’t suit everyone and that’s what makes us, and others like us boutique.

It means there is a place out there for everyone but everywhere is not for everyone. We consciously strive to reach a certain type of guest who will enjoy the experience of staying in our castle because the whole thing hinges on a castle full of happy people.

We aren’t all things to all people, don’t try to be and don’t want to be and thank fully half the world’s hotel rooms are still run by people like us.