Did something happen a while back to make sundry investors and real estate moguls shut themselves in boardrooms and cry, "Quick! Buy a decrepit old building and turn it into a trendy hotel"? It must have, because five years or so later, here we are with a hotel baby boom. And these aren't just any old hotels. They're the kind with aromatherapy candles, maté tea and colored lightbulbs in the minibars, Japanese anime comics and British Hello! on the newsstands, aquariums in the elevators, DJs in the bars, Chupa Chups on the pillows at turndownthe kind where the restaurants eschew silver domes and fistfuls of flatware but not trendy young chefs. In New York alone, eight brand-new, high-profile, mostly small-scale hotels have opened since last May. Miami is the other hot spot. And half the new hoteliers are also real estate shopping in Palm Springs, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., New Orleans...No city is safe.
In any discussion of boutique hotels, sooner or later one name comes up: Ian Schrager, the man who started it all back in 1984 with a sexy, black-and-white, low-lit, apparently registration deskless, off-midtown-Manhattan hotel named Morgans. But now that his name's come up, I'm largely going to ignore it. Enough ink has been spilled about his original hotel and its newer restaurant, Asia de Cuba; about his most recent work, New York's Hudson hotel, and its Cafeteria; about his commissioning the Basel firm of Herzog & de Meuron (architects of the Tate Modern) and Rem Koolhaas to collaborate on yet another Manhattan showplace. But we cannot ignore Schrager completelynot only because he was the first to corral visionary designers (Andreé Putman, Philippe Starck) into hotel service, but also because so many of the new hoteliers were involved with him at some point.
Hipness can have its problems, as anyone knows who's spent a sleepless night with boom-boom-chatter-chatter from the happening hotel bar leaking through the wall, or who's been iced by snooty fashion victims behind the front desk, or who's suffered the nonappearance of room service. Hotels need both drop-dead gorgeousness and efficient, unobtrusive service to be great. That's obviousyet mistakes are legion, and the new boutique hotels can be some of the worst offenders. So let's look at the top baby-boom hoteliers, the ones with the newest places, the biggest plans and the most ambitious restaurants. Who's getting it right?