Yesterday's announcement of the merger between two heavyweights in the boutique hotel business may signal a shift in momentum for this much-discussed, still-not-completely-understood segment of the U.S. lodging industry. In case you missed it, West Coast boutique powerhouse Joie de Vivre Hotels combined with East Coast trendsetter Thompson Hotels to form JT Hotels, a 45-property chain with the drive, smarts and money to significantly increase its footprint across the U.S. and elsewhere.
Just a few years ago, it seemed as though the nascent boutique/lifestyle segment would fall under domination of the large brand companies. Indeed, Starwood quickly emerged as a leader based on its success with the W Hotels brand. IHG also entered but has yet to dominate the segment with Hotel Indigo. Later, Marriott and Hilton made attempts to discover their own boutique DNAs. Hilton's effort fell victim to a nasty legal tussle with Starwood, and Marriott is still trying to get its footing with EDITION, a much-hyped launch that perhaps has stalled for now.
The formation of JT Hotels may show boutiques are best imagined, created, developed, nurtured and improved by smaller, more entrepreneurial groups as pioneered by early boutique legends Kimpton, Schrager, Conley, Balazs and others. JT is a creation of two families that have made their marks in different ways in the hotel business, but equally with distinction. Of course, John Pritzker is the son of one of the founders of Hyatt Hotels. Enough said there. Thompson was controlled by the Pomerancs, a family that obviously isn't in the same stratosphere as the Pritzkers, but which built a reputation for judging what's new and hip in East Coast culture and creating lodging products catering to this vibe.
But then again, maybe the global reach, technology and marketing firepower of the big brand groups will eventually prove they can dominate the business. No one, including me, really knows.
If you're still confused about the boutique and lifestyle hotel business, or if you see the vast opportunities ahead in the segment, you should consider attending the Lifestyle/Boutique Hotel Development Conference later this month in Miami Beach. The event, which will be held Oct. 19-21 at the iconic Fontainebleau hotel, brings together many of the top dogs in the boutique business for three days of discussion, schmoozing and undoubtedly some dealmaking. Check out the conference website for more information. I hope to see you there.