A cut above the rest: Boutique hotels in India

The best thing about a small or medium boutique hotel is its ability to shift gears and adapt to the new paradigm

Some years ago, I was invited to a private screening of a movie, The Electric Moon, at the British Council in New Delhi. It was about a couple who owned a luxury wildlife lodge somewhere in Central India. Directed by Pradip Krishen and starring Naseeruddin Shah, Roshan Seth and Leela Naidu, this film won the award for the Best Feature Film (English) at the National Film Awards 1992. Though the film was a satire on Western tourists visiting India, some of the scenes depicted Indian hospitality and how the owner hosts tried very hard to manage challenges and preserve the image of India at that time. There were several lodge owners in the audience and the collective guffaws were testimony that art indeed imitates life. 

The point I am making is that this was 1992 and the movie was set on an owner-run lodge where curated experiences were evident. The boutique hotel idea existed in India in some form or fashion for a very long time, they just did not need or have the marketing chutzpa you see today. For one, they were few and concentrated in popular tourist areas like close to national parks, temple towns, hill stations and coasts. Besides, in the absence of marketing tools like social media that we have now, they were often promoted worldwide through personal endorsements, quite effectively I must add. In the RARE Community, Kipling Camp in Kanha opened in 1984 while Chapslee in Shimla was the eighth heritage Hotel in India as early as 1974.  

What sets them apart: When we began RARE India in 2003, we were already promoting small and boutique hotels as a part of the travel company. Those were interesting times and some of the best options had owners as your hosts, who did a swell job and ended up as friends of the travellers for life. I remember Sitla Estate, The Cottage-Jeolikot, Jilling Estate, etc. were some of the first owner run boutique homestays and hotels I had the privilege to discover. Rajasthan had already begun to convert many of their forts and palaces into heritage hotels. Kerala actually began with endorsing homestays very strongly, the word boutique began to be heard more frequently in the travel industry sometime in 2007. And all of a sudden, small to medium hotels began to concentrate on the concept, design and experience. When the focus changed from what you wanted the guests to see to designing what your guests were seeking based on their nationality or their connect with India, boutique, bespoke, curated and artisanal began to take shape. Form and uniqueness began to set in, design principles began to be refined inspired by the location of the hotel, experiences formed the crux of the hotel and off-beat often meant a tough last mile access which travellers did not mind if they were going to experience something rare and local. 

Difficult access just added some extra romance to the destination. However, connectivity continued to pose a challenge for road travel. But many of the boutique hotels helped thread long itineraries together, thereby breaking long drives into four-five hours bits that was also enhanced by the guests’ anticipation of staying in a boutique retreat or hotel. The curious thing is that some of the attributes that a boutique hotel is known for, like its unique design, meant that it did not look anything like the usual hotel such as imposing, wide entrances, reception and lobby, offered a very personalised service, the design and décor were unmatched and finally the cuisine and experiences built the character for the hotel and the destination. 

The stories around boutique hotels:  Around 2009, there was literally a twist in the tale as we began to sense a story behind every hotel and probably were the first company to begin highlighting stories in the narratives around the hotel and the destination. Not that these were not mentioned before, of course the story of the king and queen, or a folk lore associated with the area did exist but it was not a part of the narrative of a hotel. This was about the time when boutique hotels were multiplying and boutique began to get tagged along with forts, palaces, lodges and camps. And the stories were plenty, the destination was the big story, the logo was a story, the owner’s story, concept and design story and so many other stories that awaited exploration were curated as experiences. 

Around this time, marketing of small brands began to gain credence and with social media messaging becoming stronger, content was being crowned the king. Art photography and  beguiling copy about the hotel and the destination delved into these stories, which were picked up for promotions and as talking points for presentations. It was not that some of these things were not done before, but highlighting them and talking about them became important. Not just an image with a turban, the media wanted to know who he was and why his turban was red and a few times larger than his head. Stories sold rooms for hotels. Community stories became important. 

Around this time, the conversation around ethical travel, eco-tourism and sustainable travel was growing louder. Though Responsible Tourism Awards were already set up at WTM, in India Outlook Traveller began looking to award those who set world standards in sustainable travel in 2016. Boutique hotels were now serious competition for the large chain hotels who also came up with boutique offering but in the high-end luxury segment. The undeniable fact is that boutique hotels, small or medium and owner run, from design and location were easily aligned with the hotel idea of sustainability from design and concept stage. To implement goals like elimination of single use plastic, conserving water, aiming for fuel efficiency, training local communities for service in the hotel was fairly easy and rested with the owner hotelier who often did a great job in setting up training or hiring a few people who took up the challenge as an opportunity. 

The boutique hotels were tested for their mettle during the pandemic. Should they close or open to the travellers after the first lockdown? Most opened and how! Everything we highlighted about a boutique hotel like large estate and small keys, away from the cities and close to communities, small enough for a buy-out, etc. found favour with the domestic market and business was brisk by August 2020. The best thing about a small or medium boutique hotel is its ability to shift gears and adapt to the new paradigm, bring down prices, adjust their offering and welcome the domestic market and they were not disappointed. 

So as the gloom of the pandemic lifts and tourism makes an exciting recovery, the age of the boutique hotels seems to be at its peak. A large hotel group like Taj Hotels has set up a boutique brand with Ama Trails, a new experiential hotel group The Postcard Hotel with an opulent service ideology and design came into existence, smaller chains are expanding to manage a string of hotels and many more maverick hoteliers are being born with their first boutique hotel which may have been set up in the pandemic.

This article was published in BW hotelier issue dated '' with cover story titled 'BW HOTELIER - THE WEDDINGS & MICE SPECIAL'


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