News & Reviews News Why chain hotels are better than independents

Gotcha.  My clickbait made you think that I’d suffered a neurotic breakdown.  You probably opened this under the impression I now thought of myself as an aquatic goat-like creature that could only escape my predicament by pleasing a Hilton-endorsed genie with some bullshit post.  The thought does occasionally cross my mind.   Finding inexplicable joy in the mundane is reserved either for drug addicts or those with a few decades on me. I’m still miserable me.

Back to my point.  There are the rare exceptions where boutiques lose – not that they put up much of a fight.

First things first, my definition of a boutique hotel: 100 rooms, ideally a lot less; not part of a chain, but can be part of LHW, Fine Hotels and Resorts, Relais Chateaux, etc; unique and normally tries to excel with service.

Assuming I was a good boy and actually published my weekly article, you are reading this as I’m passed out on a lounger in Bulgari Rome, exhausted but desperately pleased with myself for having done no more than expected of a four-year-old – writing more than 500 words in a week.  A few weeks later, I’m going to the new Mandarin Oriental Costa Navarino.  I was at The Peninsula London on Wednesday, the day after it opened.  Last year, I travelled to New York just to try the new Aman.  Even for me – someone so immune to marketing that I don’t consume food, cos that’s what big business wants me to do – I’m suckered in, fully aware they are rarely the true gems. There’s a reason Coca-Cola still advertises, and there’s a reason all these hotels fill all the pages of the travel websites I read during the six hours a day I spend browsing on the toilet.

With the news this week that Rosewood will be taking over three New Zealand lodges, none with more than thirty rooms, chains are getting more spread out in what they stand for. It’s little surprise that sometimes they are the winners.  But I would still contend it is the exception, not the norm.

I think it’s fair to say that Philadelphia is definitely one of those places.  I challenge you, nay, I beg of you, to suggest somewhere other than the Four Seasons.  And whilst you’re at it, please do the same for Lisbon.  I’m not here to pick on Four Seasons; Philadelphia and Lisbon are good hotels, but they’re certainly not world-class.  I like many Four Seasons, although I’m less keen on their never-ending expansion and quest to turn every hotel in every city into one.  In the next decade, humans will land on Mars and find there’s already a Four Seasons waiting for them. It’s just it shouldn’t be the gold standard.  It shouldn’t be that there’s no alternative.

Boutique hotels have so much to offer, but in Lisbon and Philadelphia, they offer so little.

My favourite properties tend to be not only boutiques but owner-led boutiques.  Most hotel chains do not own the building, causing a conflict between the management company, trying to please the customer, and the building owner, trying to maximise revenue.  When they’re both targeted the same and heading towards the same goal, that’s where greatness can occur.  Park Hotel Vitznau, Alpina Gstaad, Velaa, Ellerman House, Arijiju, Ol Jogi. All owned as passion projects, all managed by wonderful teams.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Four Seasons’ best property is in Paris, where the co-owner of Four Seasons happens to own the building. It’s why it was so upsetting to see COMO get involved with Laucala and Marriott with North Island. It’s not to say everything is well in boutique paradise – just take Necker Island.  The thing about owner-led businesses is sometimes there’s no third party to tell them what they’re doing wrong.  Fregate made a mistake to leave Oetker for this very reason, but perhaps they’ve started to now listen due to the vast refurb they’re undertaking.  Only one thing needs to go wrong to ruin something, but everything needs to go right to make it perfect.  Boutiques tend to get it right, they just haven’t managed to get it right everywhere just yet.

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Tom Cahalan

Written by Tom Cahalan on 15th Sep '23

Dorsia Travel’s co-founder Tom Cahalan’s take on travel is reliably candid. Here’s his take on what’s good, bad, and luxurious.

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