Boom in local boutique hotels not abating

From Dali-inspired foyers to fairy-tale-themed suites, Hong Kong's multiplying boutique hotels are providing luxury in every shade of glamour, writes Kylie Knott

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 29 April, 2013, 9:23am

He looks very much at home in the newly opened Ovolo 2AR hotel in Central. That's not just because Girish Jhunjhnuwala heads the group running the joint, but because anyone would feel at home here. And that's the point - Jhunjhnuwala wants guests to feel comfortable in his properties.

In a suite decorated in warm chocolate and cream, the little details make a big impression: a cool stone shower, an Apple TV and super-fast Wi-fi that guests can access all over the city - and a cheeky picture by local artist Tsang Kin-wah.

"We really deliberated over the details: should we have a sofa, should we have a side desk? We are targeting guests who want to be connected for business but also want to have fun. So the rooms appeal to those who appreciate design and art."

Jhunjhnuwala is an authoritative voice on Hong Kong's booming boutique hotels scene. He saw the demand for short-term stays in the city a long while ago, and left his family's successful watch business to set up Ovolo, initially to operate serviced apartments. That was in 2002, and he hasn't looked back since. The group has become one of Hong Kong's largest independent operators, with two serviced apartments and five hotels (including one that is due to open this year), and another property in Melbourne.

"I travelled a lot when I was in the watch industry, and when I was back home in Hong Kong I noticed the city lacked a hip and cool boutique hotel scene. There was real potential for this sort of accommodation, so I followed my instincts and set up Ovolo," Jhunjhnuwala says.

There's no doubt about the rise of the boutique hotel trend globally, and there's no reason why Hong Kong wouldn't follow suit
Girish Jhunjhnuwala, Ovolo Hotel founder

"There's no doubt about the rise of the boutique hotel trend globally, and there's no reason why Hong Kong wouldn't follow suit, especially because an increase in property prices in the city has made the construction of larger hotels more difficult.

"And with more than 48 million visitors coming to this city every year, and just over 65,000 hotel rooms to accommodate them, supply has not yet met demand. So there will always be opportunity to grow and innovate," he says.

Millions of dollars are being poured into the refurbishing and building of "lifestyle" hotels to help meet this demand. Last month, it was the 79-room V Wanchai². But it didn't wear its crown as "Hong Kong's newest boutique hotel" for long - that was handed to the 87-room Lodgewood in Mong Kok, which opened earlier this month.

But that will also have to pass on the sceptre, as the 150-room Hotel Indigo opens in Wan Chai in May. In July, two boutique hotels - the Mira Moon, also in Wan Chai, and the Ovolo in Southside - welcome their first visitors.

This flurry of openings seems a long way from a decade ago when Asia saw the arrival of its first boutique hotel, the Philippe Starck-designed JIA (now known as J Plus) in Causeway Bay.

It was 2004 and the region was playing catch-up with a global trend that started in 1981 when the world's first boutique hotels opened: The Blakes Hotel in London (designed by celebrity stylist Anouska Hempel) and the Bedford in San Francisco.

New York City followed in 1984 with the Morgans Hotel designed by the French stylist, Andrée Putman. Putman's portfolio now includes The Putman boutique hotel in Sheung Wan, which opened in 2007.

The hotels signalled a shift in the global hospitality landscape - a move away from amenity-heavy chain hotels to smaller, more intimate properties. It also showed that the modern traveller wanted "wow" satisfaction on every level: accommodation with cutting-edge style balanced with the comforts of home; interiors and architecture that inspire; a location that tells a story and artwork that challenges.

"Stylish travellers want to take their standard of living with them when they travel. The irony is that in interiors magazines, you'll see the reciprocal influence that contemporary boutique hotel room design is having on people's bedrooms and bathrooms at home," says Grant Thatcher, the Hong Kong-based founder of Luxe City Guides.

For regular traveller Lucie McCullough, it's the personal touches that appeal: "I want to feel doted on when I'm on holiday and not feel like I'm one of 1,000 behind a credit-card key door," says the Hong Kong-based interior designer.

Every taste is catered for. If you want colonial-style comfort there's the Tai O Heritage Hotel and the Hullet House; lovers of abstract art have the Dali-inspired Luxe Manor; and fans of top designers can get their fix at J Plus or the Mira Moon. For minimalistic Asian-inspired elegance there's the Upper House.

The boom in boutique hotels also speaks volumes about the healthy state of the city's tourism industry. According to the Hong Kong Tourism Board, visitor arrivals between January and September 2012 increased 16.3 per cent year on year to reach 35.37 million.

Boutique hotel operators reap a few financial perks. They don't have to pay a franchise fee to become part of a chain, and can survive without costly amenities. They also have a higher percentage of repeat business.

"Today's seasoned traveller prefers smaller hotels to big chain hotels that often lack character,'' says Vivien Chan, founder and chairman of the V Group that operates V Wanchai².

But to keep their competitive edge, boutique hotels must also adapt to the changing needs, tastes and fashions of a market in rapid flux.

"V Generation properties are not homogeneously styled hotels and serviced apartments. Each accents its own individuality," she says. "It offers a fresh take for modern travellers."

Chan, who plays a hands-on role in the seasonally changing decor, points to details on doors as an example. Each features intricately etched carvings of birds and flower motifs that reappear on the headboard of each bed.

Even with the spate of openings, Hotel Indigo general manager Bryan Gabriel believes the trend will continue to grow: "It's an exciting time for Hong Kong's hospitality industry with a number of boutique hotels to open in the next two years."

Although "boutique hotel" has become an overused term, Gabriel is thankful that Hong Kong owners have remained faithful to its original spirit.

"In the 1980s, when the concept first appeared, the understated glamour was an experience. The label is now flung around so often that it's lost its original meaning, slapped onto descriptions by default," he says. "But [here], we're lucky that a few recently opened hotels still do the term 'boutique' justice."

At Indigo, the design highlight is obvious: a giant bronze dragon hugging the building. Gabriel says the target market is equally well-defined. "There's definitely a type of guest: independent, well-travelled, savvy … usually between the ages of 30 and 55 and always people keen to explore the culturally rich neighbourhoods."

One of the city's most anticipated openings is the Mira Moon, under the creative direction of Dutch design star Marcel Wanders. It's not for the minimalist, however. With room themes inspired by Chinese fairy tales, the hotel's decor is as trippy as a big night out in Wonderland with an LSD-fuelled Alice. It all starts in the lobby with glazed ceramics, flowery carpets and cut crystal.

Those seeking more muted decor should opt for Ovolo Group's latest addition to its portfolio, Wong Chuk Hang Road, which opens later this year.

"We've spent two years creating a signature Ovolo hotel that has our hallmark interior design concepts, hi-tech features and services in a building full of unique industrial character," says Jhunjhnuwala.

The variety of boutique hotels sprouting up shows that hoteliers are listening to travellers' growing needs and are more than eager to please.

The city's boutique hotel scene has blossomed in recent years. Here are a few of the best 

Ovolo (2013): New York-style warehouse hotel with minimalist vibe opens later this year

Mira Moon (2013): designers Wanders & yoo were inspired by Chinese folk tales surrounding the Mid-Autumn Festival.

V Wanchai² (2013): abacuses and bird cages are just some of the traditional Chinese design touches.

Hotel Indigo (2013): this 138-room hotel's most striking feature is a bronze dragon coiling the building's exterior.

Lodgewood (2013): L'hotel Group's 87-room urban oasis debuts in Mong Kok.

Tai O Heritage Hotel (2012): a colonial-style parlour with late 19th-century charm.

Hotel Icon (2011): designed by architects including Terence Conran, Rocco Yim and William Lim, the hotel is owned by Polytechnic University.

The Upper House (2009): clean, minimalist hotel designed by Andre Fu featuring work by some of the region's top artists.

Hullett House (2009): blending Chinese and British influences, it sports 10 unique rooms in a classic colonial building dating back to 1881.

The Putman (2007): Andrée Putman's aparthotel has 25 one-bedroom studios: think blond woods and Frette linens.

Hotel LKF (2006): chic 95-room hotel in the heart of Lan Kwai Fong.

J Plus Boutique Hotel (2004): Asia's first boutique hotel (formerly known as JIA) was designed by Philippe Starck.