Chain vs. boutique hotels for business travelers
Weighing the pros and cons of a more personal inn versus the predictability of chain hotels.
The New York Times
Northwest travel guides
When I’m traveling on business, as I have been the past two weeks, I require the following in a hotel: a comfortable bed, a bathroom, reliable Wi-Fi, adequate space to work and a good location. And there have been times when reliable Wi-Fi was at the top of that list.
The Marriott Courtyard Iberville on the edge of New Orleans’ French Quarter, where I stayed for 13 nights, fit those requirements. I had a small suite with a couch and a desk, and I was as comfortable as anyone could reasonably expect to be when living in a big, busy hotel for two weeks. My room rate was about $200 a night.
If I wanted a “sense of place,” a phrase of choice in the hotel industry these days, I could get it a block away, either downtown or on Bourbon Street. Downtown was a jumble of crowded hotels, fast-food joints and tourist shops along Canal Street. Bourbon Street has always struck me as a version of the boardwalk in Seaside Heights, New Jersey, without the charm and with far more alcohol.
Of course, you can find a far better sense of place within the French Quarter — and I did, at the Soniat House, whose owners describe it as “New Orleans’ only small luxury hotel.” The 31-room hotel, where I spent my first night here, is on relatively quiet Chartres Street.
It gave me the opportunity to compare two of the various types of accommodations available to business travelers. One, a big chain hotel, with all that entails in a tourist destination, including raucous wedding parties and college students trooping through the halls. The second, a small and quiet boutique hotel that has received rapturous reviews in glossy travel magazines — prominently displayed in frames on a wall in the Soniat House’s ornate little courtyard.
I understand that many travelers prefer small hotels with personal service and a sense of place. But give me a quality chain hotel where I can expect consistency in rooms and amenities. When I am working on the road, local color is not high on the agenda.
Soniat House certainly has charm. The hotel, with its pretty interior courtyard, reminded me of the set from the most recent Broadway production I saw of Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” All it needed was Big Daddy bellowing off the balcony.
In this instance, though, he would have been hollering not about mendacity, but about the size of the room. Soniat House claims that its “superior” rooms are 225 square feet, but my windowless Room 26 ($277.85 for the night), reachable by poorly lighted wood stairs, seemed quite a bit cozier than that. Other observations: There was no place to use a laptop, which was less of an issue given the spotty Wi-Fi. The rug was shabby. The TV was smaller than my laptop monitor. And, hey, I remember those aged bathroom fixtures from what my grandmother used to call her country house.
“Room 26? Why, that’s the tiniest room we have,” Frances Smith, who owns the hotel with her husband, Rodney, said with tone of surprise when I called to ask about the accommodations. “Now, Room 27 next door? That’s a great room. In fact, we’re going to combine Room 26 and 27 to make a beautiful junior suite when we redo the hotel this summer.”
That will be nice, I guess. But like I said earlier, consistency matters to the business traveler. And incidentally, many chain hotels provide that and a sense of place. Last year, my wife and I stayed in a Hilton Hampton Inn at the Zócalo in downtown Mexico City that was housed in a beautiful 18th-century monastery. The rooms were big and airy, the Wi-Fi worked perfectly and the free breakfast in the lobby was sumptuous.
As I said, Soniat House (which does not welcome children younger than 12, incidentally) gets great reviews. On Tripadvisor.com, the hotel has 128 reviews in the “excellent” and “very good” categories (“a beautiful, romantic and historic inn complete with a charming courtyard,” says one from April), and just 24 reviews in the “poor” or “terrible” categories (“room the size of a closet with no windows and an unbearable musty smell,” someone griped, also in April).
Smith said she and her husband did get business travelers as guests and had a meeting and reception room available for corporate events. “We’re out there looking for business travelers,” she said, adding: “I hate ‘boutique,’ which is the word for a store. I prefer ‘inn.’”
But let’s not be too hard on the boutique concept. Vivian Deuschl, a luxury hotel consultant formerly with the Ritz Carlton hotels, told me that the “boutique hotel” appellation has been overworked in recent years, especially by bed-and-breakfast-type inns trying to put on airs.
On the other hand, she said, female business travelers often seek both the “sense of place” and the privacy (including intimate dining) afforded by true luxury boutique hotels in major cities around the world, rather than the public commotion of chain hotels.
“By definition, a boutique should be no more than 100 rooms,” she said. “Any place with an escalator is definitely not a boutique hotel. Many celebrities and CEOs, especially women, prefer the quiet luxury of a boutique,” even one operated (as many are now) by large hotel companies.
On the other hand, she said, “smaller is not always better.”