The inn crowd

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 July, 2006, 12:00am

WHEN CHAN Kam-wah came to Hong Kong on assignment, he used to stay with one of the large hotel chains. Now, he frequents a small, stylish establishment that's designed to be one of a kind. 'You like to have something new, something different,' says the Shanghai-based creative director.

Chan is among a band of travellers driving the market for boutique hotels in Hong Kong. While traditional chains promise a reassuring consistency in comfort and decor, boutique hotels appeal to visitors' desire for more personalised service or an idiosyncratic ambience.

A traveller who shuttles frequently to Hong Kong, Zurich, New York and Paris, Chan has stayed in the Lanson Place Boutique Hotel in Causeway Bay about five times since it had its so-called soft launch in January. And despite some quirks - having a bathroom with glass walls can be awkward when he's holding meetings in his room - he prefers the Lanson to better-known places.

'If I'm in a big hotel, I become one of 1,000 clients,' Chan says. 'I want to stay in a place that's very personal, very simple. I like to feel like I'm at home.'

JIA Boutique Hotel in Causeway Bay was at the forefront of the trend. Although it did little advertising, the 56-room hotel-apartment establishment in Causeway Bay made a splash two years ago, thanks to a funky makeover by French designer Philippe Starck. It was soon followed by the Minden in Tsim Sha Tsui, Lanson Place, Cosmo in Happy Valley, and most recently, the Lan Kwai Fong Hotel in Central. The next addition will be Luxe Manor in Tsim Sha Tsui, which is scheduled to open this autumn.

Although rooms are sometimes pricier, boutique hotels are popular among business travellers or individuals who want to avoid tour groups. 'Boutique hotels aim for a niche market,' says Andrew Chan Wing-kei, an assistant professor at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University's school of tourism. 'They're going for young professionals who prefer to stay in something different.'

For JIA, the combination of eclectic style and attentive service has translated into filled rooms, with a 90 per cent average occupancy last year. 'We're marketing to a select clientele,' says general manager Jason Cohen. 'We don't take groups, and we don't take packages. That may ruin the image of what JIA is.'

This atmosphere of exclusivity worked for Marc Agostini, a French businessman who recently moved to Hong Kong to start a jewellery and watch business. 'JIA is a small hotel, with not so many rooms, so very quickly people know you by name,' he says. 'And you know the staff by their names, so you feel comfortable to ask for anything you need.'

Its personalised service, including secretarial help with his business, was another plus. 'They have things you don't get in other hotels,' Agostini says. 'You can borrow music and videos. This is the kind of service that you don't find everywhere.'

Boutique hotels have been relatively slow to emerge in Hong Kong. Singapore has been quicker to respond to the demand, offering renovated heritage buildings as well as chic designer suites. The trend is well established in the west, where guides such as Designer Hotels and Mr and Mrs Smith have sprung up to inform travellers about distinctive establishments around the world.

Many places are independently owned, but diverse establishments may be operated by a chain specialising in the niche sector.

Tourism expert Chan attributes their rise in Hong Kong during the past couple of years to a shortage of available space for building large hotels. 'It's hard to compete in the residential market, so hotel operators would rather renovate an existing building and try to accommodate a small number of customers.'

That's certainly the case with hotels such as Cosmo and Lanson Place. Cohen says part of JIA's strategy was to buy the property when prices were low. But industry insiders say an increase in visitor numbers and a growing desire for customised service are also driving the trend in Hong Kong.

'The market is certainly very strong because of the economy and the assistance the government has given the tourism industry over the past five years,' says Allan Strahle, general manager of Luxe Manor. 'There's opportunity there for people who wish to be in boutique hotels offering a higher-quality product.'

What draws many customers to smaller places is their homey feel. A team of well-trained staff is essential to create that ambience, says Anita Chan Siu-fong, general manager of the Cosmo. They need to pay more attention when running a smaller hotel, she says. 'I can't say the guests are more demanding, but they're expecting more.'

The layout of boutique rooms also makes guests feel at home. They often come with small kitchenettes and functional work spaces, and common areas offer libraries or sitting rooms.

Beyond these touches, however, is a focus on design and style. At Lanson Place, for example, funky chandeliers are a theme that runs through the complex, while at Cosmo, you can have your choice of colour-themed rooms - green, yellow, and orange. The new Luxe will be a modern interpretation of a European mansion, with antique furnishings and televisions set in mirror frames.

For some travellers, that kind of individuality is what attracts them. 'The big chains are similar no matter where you are,' says Jan Philipp Sendker, a foreign correspondent who has stayed at Lanson. 'Can you really tell whether you're in a Hilton, Marriott and so on in Hong Kong, Bangkok, Istanbul, New York, or Berlin?'

Many of the small hotels do little to no advertising, relying on recommendations from their clients to spread the word. Very often, guests are in design, technology or other creative businesses.

On a recent afternoon, for instance, the dining room in Lanson Place was taken over for a brain-storming session by Louis Vuitton staffers.

There's a buzz that pulls guests such as Chan. 'I think I'll keep going back,' says the creative director. 'For my work and the kind of travelling I do, it's exactly the kind of place that I like to go.'