BLLA Conference touts boutique sector’s successes as trade group announces name change
From Lodging to Leaders
The Boutique & Lifestyle Lodging Association, more commonly known as BLLA, the trade group whose members include many of the world's most prominent boutique and lifestyle hotels, featured lifestyle hotel pioneer Jason Pomeranc, fashion designer John Varvatos, La Colombe Coffee Roasters Co-Founder and CEO Todd Carmichael and Vox Media Chief Commercial Officer Lindsay Nelson among speakers and panelists at its annual Boutique Hotel Investment Conference at The Times Center in New York on Wednesday, June 6th.
Pomeranc, who co-founded Thompson Hotels in 2001 and is Founder and CEO of Sixty Hotels, highlighted how the growing popularity of boutique and lifestyle hotels has forced their larger, branded competitors to copy the boutique hotels' design approach to guestrooms and public spaces. "There's been a seismic shift in the perception of what acceptable and creative lodging is," said Pomeranc, who sold Thompson Hotels in 2004 to what is now Two Roads Hospitality. "The smart guys at the big companies started to follow that playbook. It pushes us as independent operators to change the parameters of what we do."
Meanwhile, Varvatos, Nelson and Carmichael all spoke of the concept of boutique as a common thread that applies to fashion, retail and media as well as the food and beverage industry.
Varvatos, who said he was in discussions to partner on a small hotel project in Malibu, Calif., spoke of his appreciation of boutique hotels because of what he said was their attention to detail. "It's about creating your brand, DNA and soul that gives someone a reason to want to come back. It's something that's yours that's identifiable," said Varvatos. "It's what separates us from the mire that's out there, and the sameness."
Nelson said the same approach applies to Vox, whose industry-specific websites include Curbed and Eater. "People want curation. They want life to be simplified," she said. "The danger brands find themselves in is trying to do it all, so you end up with this very thin strategy. You've got to pick a zone and lean really hard into it."
Carmichael said such a specialized approach applies to coffee roasting as well and has allowed him to charge more than three times what many of his competitors charge because of his product's higher quality. "The word I use is authenticity," said Carmichael. "'Industrialized' is a thing that's our parents' generations. You don't want to feel like you're in an airport. You want that feeling you get creating those micro experiences."
With such a broader scope in mind, BLLA Chief Operating Officer, Ariela Kiradjian, announced that the company, which was founded by her mother Frances Kiradjian in 2009 and boasts more than 850 member hotels as well as more than 100 designers, suppliers and other purveyors, is changing its name from the Boutique & Lifestyle Lodging Association to the Boutique & Lifestyle Leaders Association.
"The word 'lodging' didn't describe our association anymore," said Ariela Kiradjian, citing the common philosophy the BLLA's members had with coffee shops, fitness studios, restaurants and art galleries. "No longer is boutique just a category within hospitality. We're our own industry."
Kiradjian also said that the BLLA's Stay Boutique conference will be renamed Stay Boutique Live and will next be held in the Los Angeles area next February.
The conference, which attracted more than 350 attendees, feted a swath of the lodging industry that continues to outperform the overall hotel sector. Last year, rooms at U.S. boutique hotels fetched $221 a night, 74% more than the overall U.S. average, while boutique hotels' 74% occupancy rate was eight percentage points ahead of the overall average, according to STR.
As a result, financial institutions that formerly regarded boutique hotels as a riskier play than branded properties, have evolved to recognize such higher demand levels for boutique properties, said conference panelist Thomas Fuchsman, vice president at J.P. Morgan. "It's never been a better time to be a borrower in the boutique-hotel industry," Fuchsman said. "Slowly, the debt markets have recognized the place the boutique hotels have in the market."
Such success within the boutique and lifestyle sectors not only helped the redeveloper of Washington, D.C.'s Watergate Hotel raise the funding necessary to buy and rebuild the iconic property but gave it the confidence to reopen without the association of a larger brand, said panelist Jacques Cohen, founder of Watergate Hotel owner Euro Capital Properties. "The original vision was, 'Wow, this was the prime address in D.C. and it became that terrible building, and we can bring it back to better than it ever was,'" said Cohen, whose company reopened the Watergate Hotel in 2016 after a nine-year closure and a $200 million renovation. "We can bring that great energy of lifestyle luxury into D.C., and there's no other project that's tapped into this market."
Meanwhile, the early success of New York-based boutique chainlet Arlo Hotels is fueling its expansion efforts, said panelist and managing director Javier Egipciaco. He announced on stage that the company will build its third and largest hotel at New York's Hudson Yards project. "We employ individuals that live the brand," said Egipciaco. "We always say, 'Everything is fair game.' Even if someone's done it before, it's how you execute it."
Cohen's recounting of the Watergate Hotel redevelopment resonated especially well with first-time conference attendee Cindy Hamilton, vice president of Philadelphia-based Heritage Consulting Group, who said she found many of the conference's speakers -"dynamic." "The boutique industry recognizes opportunities with historic buildings, and they're willing to let the building help shape the story and identity," she added.
Additionally, Carmichael's efforts to have his company's cafes be an integral part of their local neighborhoods and his willingness to serve customers in need for free struck a chord with first-time conference attendee Brett Jones, an associate with San Francisco-based David Baker Architects. "I appreciated his wanting to be part of the community," said Jones. "I was inspired."
Frances Kiradjian (BLLA)
Founder, Chair & CEO
Phone: +1 818-264-4810
Fax: +1 805-419-9415
About The Boutique & Lifestyle Leaders Association (BLLA)
BLLA is the world's most innovative and progressive organization dedicated to the luxury independent boutique lifestyle industries. The association connects the world's most dynamic executives with cutting edge business and operational insight. BLLA's membership benefits allow access to the world's leading minds in the space through events, research and education. Our mission is to provide leadership and opportunities for global recognition and connections to the world's best companies. All resulting in strategic interactions and access to information that helps people and organizations thrive. Join the movement that BLLA gave birth to in 2009 and become a part of something that is truly unique, exciting and inspirational. www.blla.org