main lobby and entrance of the Market House Hotel main lobby and entrance of the Market House Hotel The main lobby and entrance of the Market House Hotel in Tel Aviv. (Photo: Atlas Hotels)

What makes a boutique hotel so special?

These travel hotspots run the gamut from historic to quirky, but they all have a few things in common.

Boutique hotels are always making the lists of the world's coolest, including the Ellis Hotel in Atlanta, the Library Hotel in New York and the newly opened Market House Hotel in Jaffa Tel Aviv, all very different, and all especially nice. But how did the word “boutique,” usually associated with upscale clothing shops, come to be applied to hotels? And how is a boutique hotel different from a regular hotel?

Simply put, a boutique hotel is one that doesn't feel like a chain. Even though they may be part of a luxury hotel association or owned by a larger management company, these destinations eschew the cookie-cutter accommodations you may associate with high-end hotels in favor of a hip, even quirky, look and feel.

“Each property contains its own unique style and creative atmosphere which allows it to stand out,” said Jordana Neeman, social media and guest relations manager for Atlas Hotels, a boutique hotel chain in Israel.

Boutique hotels are typically on the small side, and are often situated in the heart of a city, making them hot spots for travelers.

“Most hospitality pros agree that for a property to be considered a boutique hotel, it should not be much bigger than 100 rooms,” writes Karen Tina Harrison, luxury travel expert for “Often, the small size of an urban boutique hotel affords it a chi-chi, dead-center location in the heart of town.”

The concept of boutique hotels began in the 1980s with the opening of Morgans in New York City, according to USA Today. Founders Ian Shrager and Steve Rubell, who coined the term “boutique hotel,” wanted to differentiate Morgans from big-box hotels, which they compared to department stores. The hoteliers sought to give guests more personalized service, such as they might expect to receive in a boutique clothing shop.

Since then, more and more boutique hotels have sprung up in the United States and around the world. Some have whimsical concepts, like the Library Hotel in New York, which houses 6,000 books, with each guestroom dedicated to a different topic based on the Dewey Decimal System.

Library HotelThe lobby of the Library Hotel in New York City was designed by architect Stephen B. Jacobs. (Photo: Library Hotel) 

Many are in historic locations, such as Atlas Hotels’ Market House, which was built on the site of the archaeological remains of an 8th-century Byzantine chapel in Tel Aviv. A clear glass floor in the hotel lobby provides guests with an impressive view of the magnificent remains.

“The hotel design takes inspiration from the history and soul of the vibrant atmosphere of Jaffa and the famous flea market nearby,” said Neeman. “The entire hotel space and its rooms are filled with objects, artifacts and artworks collected and created to express the charming atmosphere and unique hidden feeling of the streets of Jaffa.”

Boutique hotels are also frequently celebrated for their restaurants, which often have local and seasonal menu offerings that add to guests’ authentic experience of the area.

At the Ellis Hotel in Atlanta, for instance, the farm-to-table menu incorporates “organic ingredients sourced from local and regional farmers, fishermen and producers” and specializes in showcasing the cuisine of the American South.

“Guests are becoming increasingly informed… about their choices,” explained Piers Brown of Boutique Hotel Media. For example, he says, travelers frequently ask questions about the food in hotel restaurants: “Is it locally sourced? How sustainable is it?”

Unlike large hotel chains, which may be slow to innovate, boutique hotels can be more agile, constantly evolving to meet the needs of their discerning guests. Key trends for boutique hotels include more targeted amenities, flexible meeting space, quick and easy mobile booking and a streamlined check-in experience, says Brown in the video below. 

In fact, it seems likely that we may see boutique hotels usher in a new era of travel in the near future.

“There’s some interesting stuff that Google is doing with Google Glass and facial recognition,” notes Brown. “Are we going to see front-of-house reception wearing Google glasses to ultimately recognize their guests?”


Photos and SlideshowsPhotos and Slideshows

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What makes a boutique hotel so special?
These travel hotspots run the gamut from historic to quirky, but all boutique hotels have a few things in common.