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Colin Nagy, a marketing strategist, writes this opinion column for Skift on hospitality and business travel. On Experience dissects customer-centric experiences and innovation across the luxury sector, hotels, aviation, and beyond. He also covers the convergence of conservation and hospitality. You can read all of his writing here.
If you think back to the original wave of boutique hotels, they were pretty revolutionary. Instead of the cookie-cutter lodging that an American traveler was used to, a wave of entrepreneurs created beautiful jewel boxes with personality and sensibility.
The movement started in the early 1980s and grew from one-offs to micro chains, to an eventual spot in the mainstream consciousness. People like Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell (Morgans), Chip Conley (Joie de Vivre), Liz Lambert (then Bunkhouse), the late Alex Calderwood (Ace), and countless others brought visions to life in ways that felt hyper-vivid—almost like living in a magazine, where no detail, scent, or texture was left to chance.
And the inspiration didn’t always come from lodging, it came from porting the glamour of after-hours activities into another context. Instead of a lobby, a bed, and a shower, it was a vibe. According to an earlier Skift Deep Dive on the topic: “Schrager and Rubell were intent on elevating the allure and magic they had perfected in their nightclubs and bringing them directly into their hotel lobbies and bars. This is where boutique hotels as we know them today got their start.”
We’re now in a boutique glut: there are still great ones, but there are also larger brands trying to emulate the boutique ethos and coming off not-quite-sincere in the process. Sometimes it can feel as if a forced focus group of what Gen Z wants was magically manifested into a physical structure. Every booking.com search surely turns up a hastily renovated motor inn made to look Instagrammable, with a nightly rate commensurate to the number of like you can expect.
Why Is This Interesting?
We can see the dead-end in terms of the cookie-cutter ness of boutique hotels. But what could a new equation look like? A new, small project called The Courts caught my eye. It’s a small footprint boutique property near Palm Springs with a few rooms in the form of trailers. What separates it from the rest of what’s out there is its focus on tennis. The micro-resort, if you will, gathers around a shared activity with four tennis courts, complete with a clubhouse and pool. It takes the boutique model but then adds a reason to gather or invite a bunch of friends.
In another realm, I was also intrigued by how someone designed this incredible “Cookhouse” Airbnb. Instead of just positioning it to the market as a cool place to stay, they mapped their positioning to an interest: cooking. The value proposition is clear, and the spot is filled to the brim with amazing appliances and everything you need to try out your best (or most complicated!) recipe. Another one, the Modern Accord Depot in upstate New York describes itself as an “Arts residency + one-of-a-kind Hudson Valley getaway.” Their core value proposition is providing a save haven for artists and dancers to workshop early shows.
The equation that seems to work here is smart design and worldview plus shared interest or activity. We could be heading into an era of hyper-specialization and micro boutique properties serving a very niche but passionate audience. With the rise of modular building and construction, as well as 3-D printing, this becomes even more interesting. Add the increasingly mobile workforce in the future and you can see a trend if you squint.
Also, these types of interesting places don’t need to be large-scale bets with huge investors or giant capital requirements. The Courts, in fact, seem to be the work of a small agency that occupies the property. Similar to the roots of boutique hotels, they are labors of love that can cover their costs and turn a profit in time. Post-Covid, I’m intrigued by the possibilities of these kinds of micro-resorts that can reshape small group travel in new ways.