The rise of boutique hotels shows that Nepal, too, is matching and riding on the wave of popular global trends in hospitality.
When it comes to the hospitality industry, trends can be both ephemeral and everlasting. Some are just a flash in the pan, others have a staying power that lasts for decades. Showcasing an intricate mix of heritage and culture by also providing a high level of luxury and comfort, boutique hotels in recent years have become centres of attraction in the Nepali hospitality sector. The word “boutique” in the hotel business determines the degree of comfort and uniqueness. A boutique hotel has primarily a unique interior design which may not necessarily be trendy, but is stylish.
Considering the rapidly growing role of this segment in the hotel industry, the definition of a boutique hotel is surprisingly hard to pin down. While they are usually independent or part of small collections, there are now boutiques owned by big chains such as the KGH Group of Hotels. And once always small and intimate, some newer Kathmandu boutiques boast 50-60 rooms, along with multiple restaurants
and extensive spas. The design of a boutique hotel is often strictly kept within one theme, which usually reflects the culture or heritage.
“Boutique hotels were a very new thing until 10 years ago. People might not have understood what a boutique hotel is all about back then,” says Tseten Tsatultsang, CEO of Hotel Shambala. The number of boutique hotels has grown in recent years to fill the emerging niche segment in the hospitality industry. The growth of the boutique segment may be because hotel clients are looking for alternatives to standard and more traditional accommodation, say entrepreneurs.
“The main task of a boutique hotel is to bring a sense of individuality, sometimes at the maximum level,” mentions Kiran Aryal, Food and Beverage Manager of Swornim Boutique Hotel. According to him, the style, intimacy familiar to the guests and palpable contrast to other hotels are the characteristic features of a boutique hotel.
"That is why many boutique hotels carry themes of old palaces or historical buildings that have their own history and identity. These hotels can often be located in places not originally intended for tourists," he adds. Hoteliers add, the designers of these establishments often try to preserve the atmosphere of the original building or premises in order to make the guest feel special.
The term “boutique hotel” was coined by the notable American hotelier Steve Rubell in the early 1980s while describing his Morgans Hotel on Madison Ave, New York. Nowadays it is synonymous with lifestyle, design, cool spaces, individuality, experiences and everything that the modern traveller loves.
The trend then started in New York and London in the mid 80s, but was slow to catch on in Asia. But that has now changed. Hoteliers say that the millennial travellers make up the bulk of the clientele of boutique hotels. “They are usually aged between 30 to 45 years, and have good spending capacity,” says Shiva Dhakal, Manging Director of Comfort Heritage Boutique Hotel. “They are the non-cookie-cutter type and look for hotels that are typically smaller but don’t compromise in terms of quality of services,” he adds.
It could be said that Kathmandu Guest House (KGH) at Thamel, started by one of the doyens of Nepal tourism Karna Shakya, was the first to start the trend in Nepal. KGH has also played an important role in developing the Thamel area into the country’s central tourist hub. "We established the Kathmandu Guest House in 1967 as a budget hotel” mentions Rajan Shakya, CEO of KGH Group, adding, "Afterwards, we thought of transforming KGH into a boutique hotel as the boutique hotel trend was slowly capturing the Asian market."
KGH Group recently added Maya Manor located at Naxal to its chain of hotels. Both the Kathmandu Guest House and Maya Manor are themed in the neo-classical style reflecting the colonial era building design.
Dwarika's Hotel, a Newari-themed hotel is one of the most celebrated boutique hotels of Nepal. The hotel took 30 years to construct and has won a UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Award for Culture Heritage Conservation. Dwarika’s has also been listed as the number one hotel of Nepal for 2017 by the popular travel website Trip Advisor. Similarly, hotels such as the Swotha Traditional Homes in Patan and The Heritage Hotel at Bhaktapur have also gained popularity among both Nepalis and foreigners for reflecting the traditional Newari culture and architecture.
Tibetan-styled boutique hotels, meanwhile, are also making their mark in the Nepali hospitality market. Hotel Tibet International located at Boudha, for instance, has won a Travelers’ Choice Award by Trip Advisor for two consecutive years in 2013 and 2014. Likewise, other Tibetan themed hotels like Shambling Boutique Hotel and Vajra Boutique Hotel have also received notable appreciation.
With its growing popularity, many hotels have labeled themselves as boutique hotels without providing the required ambience and services to their guests. “Hotels need to meet a certain criteria in order to state themselves as boutique hotels,” says Shambala’s Tsatultsang, adding, “Meeting the criteria is a big challenge for us. It is very important for the hotels that the guests get the proper experience of a boutique hotel.”
As boutique hotels enter the mainstream segment in the domestic hospitality sector, hoteliers face a host of new challenges. In short, how do boutique hotels change to meet the needs of today and tomorrow, while, at the same time, not changing too much? "The guest’s experience has always been a defining characteristic of boutique hotels," says Dhakal. “But it is one thing to cater to a niche audience and quite another to cater to the general population. This can be difficult, given the rising costs in a situation where there is an increase in the number of guests."
The segment looks set to continue its spectacular growth, with high occupancy and healthy profits, while new hotels and chains are steadily entering the sector. But ask hoteliers to summarise the boutique hotel of the future in a nice, neat little box, and, well, their answer seems deceptively simple- it wouldn't be a boutique hotel if it could be summarised in generalisations.
“You shouldn’t be able to summarise a boutique hotel quickly,” remarks KGH Group CEO Shakya, adding that it has many layers.