MANILA, Philippines — The last decades have seen the lodging industry become increasingly oversupplied with monopolies of five-star hotel brands that have succeeded in selling consistency across the globe.

Anywhere around the world, it’s common to come across yet another Marriott, a Shangri-La or an Intercontinental. But in last year’s first Philippine Hotel Investment Conference, Merril Yu, CEO of Y&S 1847 Hotel Investment and Development, shared that a trend now with first-time hotel entrepreneurs is a tendency to stay away from the big brands. “There’s a lot of individual owners that really want to go into the business, and if you take a look at the whole of Boracay, most of the hotels there are privately driven by owners of different levels,” Yu shares.

It’s the same story you see in Tagaytay. Drive along the ridge, and you’ll come across hotels of six, 10 and 12 rooms. “The story that started in Boracay is now moving into other sites—the economy is good,” says Yu.

Combining Art and Flair
The hotel business is not for everybody. It takes a lot of perspective to analyze between going with a foreign brand, a local brand or going the way of Ian Schrager who revolutionized the whole boutique concept in New York in the ’80s.

In Manila where most of the big hotel brands dominate the market, competition is especially intimidating, and it takes vision—and a lot of guts—to enter the hotel arena as a boutique brand. Such is perfectly illustrated in The Picasso, a Makati-based boutique serviced residences whose concept is rooted upon its namesake’s penchant for staging transformations. “Picasso was one of the most influential artists of his time—he transformed the way people viewed art,” shares Jean-Michel Gautier, general manager of The Picasso. “With this boutique hotel, we took on the name of the great artist because this project was a transformation in itself.”

What used to be a crumbling old building in the heart of Makati transformed itself into a first-of-its-kind boutique serviced residence that marries the quality and comfort of a five-star hotel with a unique concept that revolves around the arts. “A lot of transformation is being done here—the very concept of lodging itself,” shares Benjo Marquez, director of integrated marketing services. “Everywhere in the world there’s a trend for alternative2accommodations, but still expecting the same level of service that’s present in traditional hotels. In The Picasso, we try to do that and more.”

Art in House
Travelers nowadays, even business expatriates sent to head satellite offices in Manila by global companies, expect more than simple comfort and convenience. An increasing number prefers to be “surprised”—positively, needless to say—and they tend to seek properties that are noticeably different in look and feel from branded hotels.

In The Picasso, the boutique hotel concept comes into fruition with regard to the art behind it. “We have this program called ‘Art in House’ wherein we change the artwork every eight weeks,” Marquez shares. “We use common areas as fractured spaces for art gallery exhibits, and we also have a dedicated fourth floor gallery space. All the elevator landings also exhibit artworks, and in terms of our room designs, the accessories and interiors are Picasso-inspired. Even the hotel’s façade is used to exhibit art, pushing the envelope of what public art is.”

Good Value Proposition
Here in the Philippines, a number of small hotels have taken to labeling themselves as boutique. But it’s actually a concept that not a lot of hotel owners understand. “Some people think that if it’s small, then it’s already boutique,” clarifies Gautier, “but that’s really not the case. Maybe it’s a bed and breakfast, but not boutique. There’s good value proposition in boutique hotels, and what really defines it is that there is a solid insight and concept that drives the whole thing. You don’t become a boutique hotel by having well-designed chairs in the lobby. It has to be a sum of a thousand great ideas.”

Putting up a boutique hotel—and competing with the bigwigs—entails three things: originality, quality of service, and design. “It’s not design in the sense that you have to be modern or crazy,” says Gautier, “it could be design in terms of functionality or way of life. You can have a beautiful old Filipino art hotel and say it’s a boutique, but you need rooms of at least 40 to 50 square meters because that’s the standard in a five-star hotel. A boutique hotel will give you, like in our case, 75 sq.m per room so we’re spacious and comfortable and you feel right at home. That’s boutique. But if you’re a hotel and you just paint your rooms pink and blue and red and you make it crazy, it won’t work.”

As in the music biz, there are artists who just have it and those who don’t. For a boutique hotel to succeed, “you can’t fake the funk,” injects Marquez. “If you’re a businessman and you want to put up a boutique hotel, you need to partner with somebody with an artistic and creative touch to make that property a bona fide and substantial boutique hotel.”

It isn’t just about market research revealing that, indeed, boutique hotels are all the rage these days. “While that may be correct, if the businessman doesn’t find the right partner or manager to realize his idea, then it’s not going to work,” shares Gautier. “Unfortunately here in the country, I’ve seen a lot of people taking too many shortcuts. If they’re a small property, they call themselves a boutique, which they’re not. A boutique hotel, more than anything, requires originality. Unlike big brands, we have limited offering, which is actually the key factor. We work with less, but we give what we can and we try to understand what is hassle-free for the customer. Anything they want, we deliver even before they want it—and more than our unique concept, that’s really what keeps them coming back.”

Published in the May 16, 2011 issue of the Manila Bulletin Business Agenda section.