Boutique Hotel Summit 2017: Review Notes & Key Highlights

30 May 2017 / By Jase Rodley
Boutique Hotel Summit 2017: Review Notes and Key Highlights

On May 22nd and 23rd I attended the “BoHo Awards” and Boutique Hotel Summit in London. This was by far the most enjoyable event I have attended in 2017.

May 22nd included a tour of 3 hotels, the awards and a speed networking session. May 23rd was the Summit, where speakers gave presentations on industry trends and issues, while panel sessions allowed industry leaders to give their opinions and debate over a range of topics.

As I know it’s not possible for everyone to attend events such as these, I am making a point to recap the things I have learned during this process. Given the number of notes I have, this won’t be as polished as our usual posts.

Breaking the Ice

As I’m not from the UK, I was new to this community of people – walking into a room of people I’ve only ever “met” on social media or email. This event really worked for me for two reasons:

  • Attendees either managed/owned boutique hotels, or businesses providing goods/services to hotels
  • Less formal activities allowed everyone to “break the ice” early on in the event
The Ned London Hotel Tour at Boutique Hotel Summit

The Ned London Hotel Tour at the Boutique Hotel Summit

The “ice breaker” was a hotel tour in London. We were split into small groups and toured some exceptional hotels;

With the tour ending at Montcalm Royal London House, we had a half hour or so of downtime before the BoHo Awards for a drink and some networking – for most of it, it was an opportunity to debrief about the hotels we’d just visited. I think we were all impressed!

2017 BoHo Awards London

2017 BoHo Awards London

After the awards, it was time for some “speed networking” where we were given ~1 minute with 25 people. While some had their pitch fine tuned and repeatable, due to the rushed nature everyone was forced to adapt quickly. Frankly it was less formal and a lot of fun.

By the time the Summit began on Tuesday, the ice was well and truly broken – I’d already met 20% of attendees.

Travel for the Agile Elite

Mandy Saven from Stylus gave us a run down of changing trends in today’s travelers – most importantly in the elite traveler space. While there was simply too much to note, the key takeaways for me were:

  • Luxury hotels are increasingly incorporating nature.
  • Time poor, experience hungry travelers are growing demand for all-inclusive adventures. This gap is currently being filled by businesses such as Much Better Adventures.
  • Transcendence is now becoming something many individuals are looking for from travel.
  • The Transformational Travel Collaborative are helping both the travel industry and travelers to facilitate this type of travel, which is set to grow significantly into the future.
  • “Local” and “experience” is played out, overused.
Luxury travel is increasingly valuing the nature and the environment

Luxury travel is increasingly valuing the nature and the environment. Source: Gibbons Whistler

The European Hotel Market – Performance, Pipeline and the Airbnb Effect

Overall, things are looking positive. North America, Central America, South America, Europe, Africa and Oceania all enjoyed growth, with only the Middle East and to a lesser extent, Asia seeing negative growth.

In Europe, Occupancy, ADR and RevPAR all improved in 2016. In 2017, Occupancy, ADR and RevPAR continue to improve.

Are travelers trading down in their choice of accommodation?

Are travelers trading down in their choice of accommodation? Source: STR

Luxury and “Upper Upscale” accommodation saw decreased occupancy in 2016, while Upscale, Upper Midscale and Midscale & Economy all saw increased occupancy. In the extremes of Luxury and Midscale & Economy, RevPAR has seen greater improvements for unbranded properties than branded.

A key take away was laying rest to the “fear” that Airbnb is killing hotels. While its success is hurting them, Airbnb travelers are different than hotel travelers – typically those staying with Airbnb take a longer stay. Overall, the opinion was that hotels and Airbnb can live happily side by side.

The GM Speaks

Angela Ellis, Anthony Cox, Robin Sheppard and Ben Maybury spoke about the need for their businesses to have a “personality”.

GMs on the panel believe in using technology, especially automation, but mostly for streamlining operations, accounting and procurement. They are looking to automate the “elements that don’t touch the customer.” This may explain the clear move by many hotels (including those I was lucky enough to tour) to begin including more in the standard room rate. Free WiFi, snacks, drinks and so on. It adds value and, when you consider the cost of staff/systems to provide this service on demand, it’s actually an efficient form of automation in itself.

Hoteliers know they need social media and want it managed 24/7, but to achieve this they need 3 staff which they can’t afford, so they “need a great partner.” The panelists ask if social media “has compensated for a personal touch?” They don’t know. “Love it or hate it, it’s huge,” says Ben. More and more guests are using social media for requests while staying at the hotel – GMs are “getting tweets at night asking for a glass of port!”

The panelists note an increase in requests for bespoke corporate events/retreats itineraries. Where many hotels used to be a venue with food, drink and accommodation, now hotel teams are organising the activities that take place for many groups.

New Owners on the Block

A really great session where “fresh” hotel GMs were able to give insight into the challenges they have been facing and where they’re heading in the future.

Justin Salisbury

  • Been running hotels for 8 years
  • Now has 4 hotels, opening another next year
  • “Want to create something that is amazing”
  • “It’s a brand that people either love or don’t like”
  • “People that book directly have the right expectations”
  • “People find Artist Residence through social media” (he considers this “crucial”)
  • Also through referrals and TripAdvisor
Artist Residence Boutique Hotel

“It’s a brand that people either love or don’t like”. Source: Artist Residence Hotel

Nick Davies

  • Been running Cottage in the Wood for 2 years
  • Plans to “build the brand and buy more hotels… This one is a template.”
  • Doesn’t like guests to know he is the owner – he hears better feedback this way
  • Hotel has to have the best location first – it’s a “natural USP”
  • Considers OTAs a “necessary evil”
  • Prefers Facebook reviews over Trip Advisor – Facebook allows a conversation around bad reviews
  • Believes in the need for social media to be closely aligned with business if it is outsourced (which we advocate if you want to keep it genuine)
  • Believes in stories; telling the tales (aka, great content) rather than straight up marketing

Oliver Heywood

  • Strong advocate of building a brand
  • Uses freelancers to get things done
  • Used crowdfunding to fund one hotel – “Hotel investing in crowdfunding is a long way off”
  • Has a mix of leasehold and freehold properties

All of these hotels do a great deal of food and beverage, representing around 60% of revenue. Each one of these GMs consider their properties to be a “restaurant and bar with rooms”. This helps them to be less seasonal than a hotel with a restaurant that never gets any walk ins.

The March of the Hybrids

Possibly one of the most enjoyable sessions of the event, Bill Barnett guided Meininger and YOTEL CEOs, Navneet Bali and Hubert Viriot, along with travel blogger Kash Bhattacharya, through a discussion around the future of hotels, hostels and the future of luxury travel while on a budget.

Firstly, Kash makes it clear: “No one likes the term poshtel, they’re luxury hostels.”

Flexibility of hotels is key in future, from the room to the entire hotel themselves. Even hotels within a hotel are becoming more common – I’ve seen this one a lot throughout Asia where it’s the norm for a standard branded hotel to also house a boutique hotel and a hostel; 3 different brands under one roof. Similarly, anyone that has stayed in a Meininger hotel/hostel knows that the buildings are built with adaptability of rooms in mind. What may be a hotel room today could quickly be converted to a hostel room in a week. YOTEL prides itself on rooms that can be used in a number of different ways.

YOTEL's adaptable standard airport cabin

YOTEL’s adaptable standard airport cabin. Source: YOTEL

Hubert considers social media to be really important for YOTEL. As they choose strategic locations, they get a lot of walk in guests, meaning they’re only taking 10-15% of their bookings from OTAs. Meininger, on the other hand, “partners with OTAs,” taking up to 50% of bookings through them. All three agree that OTAs are good for “penetrating a new market,” but Kash notes that “from a consumer perspective, OTAs are boring and bland.” He sees the rise of “niche OTAs” such as One Fine Stay in the near future.

While YOTEL does a lot to create a great guest experience by running a lot of “optional activities,” Kash believes this isn’t enough and that we’ll see an even greater convergence between hotels and hostels. “There are lots of things that hostels do that boutique hotels can learn from,” he says, “Hostels offer a 5 star service at a 1 star price.” Simple things such as somewhere to wash your clothes make a huge difference to how memorable a stay at a hotel or hostel can be. “The lines between luxury and budget will blur,” he says.

Operators Got Talent

I can’t help but feel as though there was a divide in the room during this session between independent hoteliers and the larger brands. The panel consisted of executives from IHG, Hard Rock Hotels, Legacy Hotels and Bespoke Hotels. While many of the topics may have been less relevant to the smaller hotel GMs, there were some great takeaways:

The panel doesn’t know what ratings mean anymore, and asked:

  • What is a boutique hotel?
  • What is a lifestyle hotel?
  • What does 4 star mean? Which standard is that in?
  • Is a 5 star rated AirBNB share house a 5 star now?
  • Which country is this standard in?
  • Does it even matter?
  • Some claim “3-4 star is useful.” 1 star is useless. 5 star is useless – it can be exceptional and is still only 5 star.

The panelists consider the terms “boutique” and “lifestyle” very shallow. The hotels doing well lead with experience, they know what their customers want and they provide it. The words “execution of experience” were used.

Interestingly enough, it was noted that hoetliers value content marketing and influencers, but don’t know exactly what they need to keep an eye on.

With the rise of OTAs and increased demand for independent hotels, the panel discussed “is this the end of the brands?” Does “Hilton” mean anything anymore? Does it still mean something positive?

The Hotel as Music Venue/Club/Co-Working/Pop-Up/Lobby Event Space

As someone that has done their fair share of “down to earth” travel, is into their 3rd year of being location independent and is actively building a distributed team for Otium Boutique, I was very excited about this session. With quality internet spanning more of the globe, businesses opening their eyes to the potential of a world-wide workforce, and the cost of living continuing to increase in major capital cities, more and more people are choosing to become location independent workers. It’s not without its troubles though – often it’s a very lonely route, working only with a team that is on the other end of an internet connection and sometimes living in a country where you don’t speak the local language.

For these reasons and more, opportunities for co-working and co-living spaces are popping up everywhere. Of interest were two very clever businesses.

Roam Co-living's Communal Kitchen in Bali

Roam Co-living’s Communal Kitchen in Ubud, Bali. Source: Roam

Bruno Haid spoke about his company, Roam. He considers it “not a hotel, and not a sharehouse.” The average age of someone that stays at Roam is 38. Typically they’ll stay for 8.5 weeks. Roam offers accommodation ranging from 24-60 rooms, but also co-working, food & beverage, events, yoga and so on – all under one roof. When asked how they decide which spaces are the most important, Bruno noted that they are able to use WiFi analytics to track which spaces are most in demand, something they intend on using more of in future.

Grant Powell gave us an overview of Central Working, a membership subscription model for co-working. Central Working find that 25,000 sqft is the sweet spot for their spaces, but operate between 10,000-40,000 sqft at the moment. Central Working don’t own or lease the spaces they operate in, instead they work with property owners who will pay the fit out fees and allow Grant’s team to do the management in exchange for a percentage of sales.

Digital Personalisation and Timely Content

To wrap up the day was a session on digital personalisation where technology providers and hoteliers combined to give their thoughts on this fast growing space. Samsung has found that 92% of hoteliers believe their guests will expect a personalised experience around a set of choices they make before they arrive by 2020. Despite this, most websites still treat the guest the same way – even if they came to your website via a video on Facebook or from a Google search for “hotel room tonight.”

This isn’t always due to lack of trying though. It’s currently very hard to personalize, as booking engines, WiFi, PMS, channel managers, CRMs and so on, aren’t always integration friendly, notes Suzie Thompson from Red Carnation Hotels. “It’s also hard to keep the team educated.” Suzie has since switched to a CMS that allowed her to create personas. It helps her to display different content depending on the buyer persona, which we covered in our Winning Boutique Hotel Marketing Strategy post.

While OTAs such as Booking.com offer filters and ways for their users to self-personalise their search, HotelTonight don’t offer filters. Their app shows 15 hotels based on personalisation data. Amir Segall states that their driving goal is to personalise it as much as possible, maybe even down to a single property.

For hoteliers, ultimately, you need the booking engine and website to talk. It’s “not easy,” says Suzie.

A lot of people say that “voice” is going to be massive for personalisation, but the industry leaders don’t see it yet (thankfully). For now, social media can be a great way to connect with your guests. There’s a lot to be said for giving guests touch points on your property – creating spaces for Instagram content to happen.

The panel recommends:

  • Focusing on the 80/20, as trying to cover 100% of your bases is just not practical for most hotels.
  • Being wary of assuming too much with personalisation – your assumptions can be risky and damage the brand.
  • For smaller businesses that don’t have a lot to invest in personalisation, keep it very simple.

At this point in time, unless you’re able to engage an expert to set up your digital personalisation, it may be best to wait until a web-system can do it for you, off of the shelf. Done poorly, personalisation can be creepy rather than awesome.

Suzie from Red Carnation Hotels challenged the room to push their vendors to allow greater integration and information sharing between products. Email marketing, channel managers, OTA communication channels, social media and so on – much of it doesn’t talk properly to each other at the moment. She suggests “looking for an end to end solution,” but knows it doesn’t exist yet.

Other Findings During the 2017 Boutique Hotel Summit

My overall takeaways are that hoteliers know they need social – it’s not if, but what or how. Many of them don’t quite know how to make it work for their boutique hotel or have the capacity to do it well. It’s no surprise that our content on hotel social media campaigns seems to generate more buzz than other topics.

Content is another big deal – hotels that have a solid USP and produce great, inspiring content have thick margins, while the rest are really struggling, giving 20%+ to the OTAs. I do think this is the divide we’re seeing more and more. Some hotels are going out there and creating a strong brand for themselves, while others are rolling over and letting the OTAs dictate the terms. Our team has always seen this as a draw card of boutique hotels – their uniqueness is much more marketable than a traditional “commodity” hotel.

Unique properties can really benefit from great content

Unique properties can really benefit from great content. Source: Gibbons Whistler

Throughout the Boutique Hotel Summit, I made a point of asking hoteliers, “What is your biggest problem right now?” Without fail, the answer would include their recruitment and talent pipeline. Staff are becoming harder to find, retain and, with the Brexit, nobody knows how hotels will be affected. It’s a concern for hoteliers right now.

Will We Attend Again?

If you can’t tell already, this is the best event I’ve attended so far in 2017. At this point in time details on the Boutique Hotel Summit in 2018 are scarce, however there is mention of it being in May. We’ve already made a note of it and will be doing our best to make sure we can attend!

Did I miss anything? Probably! There was a lot to take in. Get in touch with us on Twitter and let us know!

About The Author

Jase Rodley

Jase is a frequent traveler, digital marketer and mountain biker. His combined experience in IT systems, digital marketing and tourism has given him a unique perspective on marketing. Now he focuses on using SEO to turn his clients' websites from being a cost on the business, to being a profit center.