Connect the Dots

On a recent tour of a $1-million-per-key brand boutique hotel in New York City, I asked my guide, “What is the experience I should expect?” She replied, “We are here to help you design your own experience.” To me, that’s like inviting a group of friends over for a dinner party and expecting them to cook for you.

The hotel appeared to have it all: an A-plus location, opulent and refined finishes by renowned designers, and a food and beverage operation run by a celebrity chef. Yet it lacked one essential element—an ability to establish a personal connection with the guest.

The big brands may be experts at designing, deciphering, calculating, constructing, procuring, and delivering the best product to the market. And it is undeniable that brands deliver expected consistency, which is appreciated and sought after by millions of travelers. However, there is a sector of hotel guests seeking unexpected experiences and they are willing to pay a premium for it.

It’s this premium that has enticed so many big brands into the boutique portion of the market. Intercontinental, Hyatt, Starwood, Marriott, and Carlson have all jumped into the boutique space with Indigo, Andaz, W, Edition, and Radisson Blu. These boutique brands have massive budgets, but in many ways they’re playing on a level field with independents when it comes to creating something distinct and special at each property.

As principal of Dixon Development in Milwaukee, Wis., I have developed real estate for more than 20 years, including apartments, weekend retreats, office buildings, and medical complexes. Much like a brand hotel, these spaces are programmatic, functional, and beautiful.

When an opportunity arose in 2006 to develop and own a hotel, I decided to take the plunge. Although I had absolutely no hospitality experience, I had a keen understanding of design, construction, and complicated finances as a seasoned developer. By 2008, I opened the Iron Horse Hotel in a 100-year-old former warehouse in downtown Milwaukee.

I cannot speak to the development or ownership successes of brand hotels, or advise anyone on the choice between developing an independent versus a brand boutique. I can, however, share what I see as a continued opportunity for independents to meet and beat the big brands in the ever growing, competitive, boutique hotel arena. Here are a few tips:

Make it credible. Everything has story, even a hotel. Get your story straight, and tell it though branding and visual cues. Every associate needs to know the story and be willing to tell it. Continuity is key. Like a novel, if guests fail to connect with the story, they will close the book and never return. Find inspiration from the context of the environment.

Make it approachable. The Iron Horse is the first luxury and only four-diamond boutique hotel in America that caters to the business traveler as well as the motorcycle enthusiast. The typical hotel guest and motorcycle enthusiast share the same demographics: 40-plus, married with kids, college educated, and affluent. We need to make sure the business traveler visiting on a Tuesday is as comfortable as when he or she revisits in full motorcycle leathers on a Friday night.

Make it functional. Frank Lloyd Wright, one of the world’s greatest architects, believed in form and function joined in a spiritual union. Too many hotels concentrate on big name designers to create their space with little thought on the actual use and flow of their guest and customers.

Make it social. Every boutique should have a bar. Make sure you provide opportunities for interaction, not just a pretty place to sit.

Make it relevant. Word of mouth is the greatest advertisement. The Iron Horse has 47,000 social media contacts and the majority of them are locally based. Fifty percent of the hotel’s revenue comes from food and beverage. At 100 keys, that is impossible without the acceptance of the local community to support the food and beverage. How many times have we traveled and asked the hotel bartender, “Where do the locals hang out?” The Iron Horse’s entire food and drink menus are designed, priced, poured, plated, and marketed to the locals. Every Thursday at 4 p.m., we e-blast the weekend specials, events, and programs to our nearly all-local social media friends. We are the place to grab a drink with the locals. And for our hotel guests, we bring the locals to them.

Make it personal. A hotel is a home away from home and a respite from the daily routine of business and life. As such, it is capable of offering a distinctly personal experience. When it comes to getting personal, independent boutique hotels are uniquely positioned to transcend guest expectations throughout their entire stay.

Tim Dixon is owner of the boutique Iron Horse Hotel in Milwaukee and principal of Dixon Development.