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Jul 02

Why Small Local Boutique Hotels Beat Big Bland Multinationals

Chakrabongse Villas, Bangkok.

After a couple of months staying in boutique hotels in Siem Reap and Bangkok, we’ve reaffirmed something we’ve increasingly felt over the years and that’s that when it comes to choosing accommodation when we travel, boutique hotels suit us better. We much prefer small local boutique hotels to big bland multinationals. We’ll take more intimate, interesting, idiosyncratic accommodation, preferably family-owned – in other words, places with stories to tell – over large, characterless franchises owned by a corporation.

While we will always prefer to stay in an apartment rental for a stay of over three nights, for anything less than that we will opt wherever possible for boutique hotels with character, a choice reinforced after a month spent in Bangkok and a further three weeks (so far!) testing out boutique hotels here in Siem Reap for some stories we’re working on.

In four weeks we did one 10-day apartment rental followed by a dozen boutique hotels and one big five-star resort. We haven’t done that kind of trip since we were in Melbourne and Sydney last year and while it’s not fun (it’s exhausting!), we don’t review places we haven’t stayed in and staying in so many consecutively puts us in a particular critical frame of mind where we’re constantly questioning and comparing.

We stayed in everything from atmospheric B&Bs such as the Asadang and Bhuthorn set in charmingly decorated, hundred-year-old heritage properties restored by their architect-owners to the Bangkok Treehouse, a contemporary eco-friendly tree-house built by its environmentally-conscious young owner.

Now nearly all boutique properties have trade-offs, many of which put off the business traveller – whether it be a lack of an ironing board, no business centre or slow internet. We can generally overlook these things, especially when the idiosyncratic nature of the property is endearing – well, except for slow internet. There’s no excuse for that these days.

However, despite their shortcomings, these hotel stays have reinforced our thinking boutique properties will always make a far better accommodation choice than big brand hotels and I don’t think we’re alone in our shift in thinking towards the notion that smaller is better when it comes to accommodation. I’ve also noticed a number of travel and tour companies opting for boutique places over big hotels. For instance, in Bangkok, I noticed that Audley Travel was booking guests into beautiful colonial-era, family-owned property, Ariyasom Villas (one of our many favourites), which is wonderful to see.

Nothing irks us more when people spend money on a tailor-made trip and do fascinating things like contemporary art tours and cooking classes only to find that the company has them return at the end of the day to a Novotel. So many travel companies book clients into those big bland franchises because they stand to make more money, rather than think about where their clients are going to have the best experience of the city that matches the activities they’re scheduled for them.

Small properties also fit better with our local travel, slow and sustainable travel, and experiential travel philosophy. Often the owners live in or near to the property and are likely to greet you or at least try to meet you during your stay. Most are well-travelled and can see what kind of traveller you are just by talking to you and can recommend great local bars and restaurants. This is particularly helpful as often boutique properties are located in everyday residential neighbourhoods not always covered by the guidebooks.

For instance, we needed a new carry-on bag when we were recently in Bangkok. Instead of being sent to MBK by the concierge of a large hotel, the hotel owner said “walk out the door, turn left and then right, and you’ll see a small luggage shop”. As it turns out the owner of the shop makes her own travel bags to her own specifications. Impressive.

As perpetual travellers, we always enjoy seeing how these owners put their own personality into the property and often it’s a fascination reflection of their own travels. Many times it makes us want to settle down and reflect upon our own travels. But what we like most about them is that they are often such a labour of love.

This love, however, can only take you so far. All the good intentions in the world don’t mean anything if the usability of the rooms is seriously compromised or the staff don’t understand travellers’ needs. You can make allowances for creaky floorboards in a charming old wooden hotel (clearly unacceptable in a corporate chain hotel where those ‘kinks’ would be ironed out), but if the wi-fi doesn’t work or doesn’t extend to your room, it’s a deal-breaker for most guests these days.

And if you have trouble finding a staff member who actually understands why your lack of wi-fi matters and can get it fixed, that’s another fault of boutique hotels we often find. In cities like Bangkok, it’s increasingly hard to find good hotel workers who speak and understand English and want to work in a small hotel (or restaurant for that matter). Also, many small boutique hotels can’t possibly offer the regular training programs that an international chain can. We know larger boutique-style brands that do, but they push the upper limits of what constitutes ’boutique’.

While you always know what you’re getting when you book into a chain hotel brand (and yes, that *is* a positive for us when we do decide to stay in one), boutique hotels require a little more research to make sure you get the best experience.

Some tips on how to choose the right boutique hotel for you:

1. Location, location, location. Boutique hotels tend to pop up quicker than chain hotels and the owners generally have a good feel for up-and-coming locations, so do a quick search to find out whether the latest bars and restaurants are nearby and you’ve made the right choice.

2. If you plan to do some work (and let’s face it, most us have to do *some* work when we travel these days), confirm that there is fast internet. Communicate your needs to the hotel and they might have a room with particularly great reception. Also check if there is a desk in the room – you’d be surprised how many don’t have them these days.

3. If you’re after a true boutique experience, we would recommend a small hotel. Look for properties with no more than 25 rooms. True boutique hotels are meant to make you feel special – not like the idiots who accepted room 1111 adjacent to the service elevators and the boiler room with no view.

4. Check the hospitality experience of the hotel owners on the hotel website’s About page. Have they ran a hotel before? We don’t recommending checking TripAdvisor’s reviews that often oscillate wildly, but check if the hotel is a member of a small luxury group you can trust, or on online booking sites such as Mr and Mrs Smith.

5. Remember that boutique hotels nearly always have trade-offs. A great location in the heart of a destination might mean cramped rooms and a tiny breakfast area. Hotels that offer themselves as a ‘retreat’ could mean no television in the rooms – not good for the sports junkie. Make a list of what you want and what you are prepared to sacrifice.

6. If you’re travelling with young children, you really need to carefully check the amenities list. Some are family-friendly, some are ambivalent, and some discourage families from staying in discrete ways – just check the amenities list for tips. Keep in mind that trying to “shhhhh!!!!” your kids in the pool when all other guests around the pool are romantic couples is not good for anyone.

Above all, remember that some people just aren’t boutique hotel people. If you want to be coddled, have a huge TV, a gym, a massive swimming pool, assistance from a concierge, and access to a business centre that looks like the local Kinko’s printing shop, boutique hotels probably aren’t for you.

10 comments

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  1. 2 Global Nomads

    We have grown to like more spartan, plain and simply accommodation which is both cheaper and more ecological. For us it is more important to keep our footprint small than our comfort and luxury. We are currently in a hostel in Manuel Antonio Costa Rica which is an exception to the rule as they have a swimming pool.

    So far our only boutique experience was a budget hotel in Jaipur India where we stayed last year. They were in the process of transforming formerly backpacker place into boutique hotel.

    1. Lara Dunston

      We’ve long outgrown our backpacking days. People travel differently at different times in their lives. Plus travel is a full-time job for us – we work on the road so hotels or apartments are our offices – so spartan doesn’t work for us. It’s also possible to travel in comfort and travel sustainably. Maison Polanka, the boutique hotel we’re staying at right now in Siem Reap is a good example, with an ice-box (esky, coolie bin) instead of a mini-bar and hot water provided in a Chinese thermos instead of providing an electricity-sucking kettle.

    2. 2 Global Nomads

      That is the difference between our travelling styles: for you travelling is full-time job and for us it is lifestyle. We outgrew our business lives to become backpackers and have enjoyed that full-time since 2004.

    3. Lara Dunston

      Yes, our travel styles are certainly very different. But travel is a lifestyle for us too obviously – we live on the road. And that is *exactly* why we work as travel writers and Terence also a photographer – to be able to travel continuously and tell stories and make images from our travels.

      For us, travel is our way of life but it’s also our work and we love it passionately. When people tell us we have the best jobs in the world, we certainly don’t argue with them. To be able to experience the places we do, and get under their skin, and have people let us into their lives so we can tell their stories is a wonderful thing. It’s something we treasure – even if we’re ordering room service at 2am because we’ve had to submit a story to a newspaper or magazine half way around the world! We’re certainly not complaining.

  2. Danny Delnison

    Thanks about good tips :)

    1. Lara Dunston

      Anytime, Danny. Thanks for dropping by.

  3. TM Claude

    The smaller boutiques are like visiting someone’s home. The warm, welcome feeling can’t be matched by the big guys. Thanks for this.

    1. Lara Dunston

      Exactly – a very lovely home. That’s how we feel too.

  4. Happy Hotelier

    Ah

    Next big question: When with your huge experience will you start your own boutique hotel?

    1. Lara Dunston

      Ha! Ha! Perhaps when we ‘retire’, because we will probably never truly want to retire. I guess I don’t need to ask you your opinion on whether you prefer big to boutique, with your elegant little property, do I? :)

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