Small is Beautiful

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Old-style hotels or resorts are no longer the only option available to the business traveller, with boutique hotels and guest houses springing up all over Africa. So, just how popular are these new properties proving with the business traveller? Peter Frost investigates.

Boutique, intimate, designer. There are a number of names for small luxury hotels, which, spurred on by success in South Africa, have opened across the continent, fuelled by a need for a more individual experience. But the trend is not without its issues and challenges.

The term boutique itself has become problematic, and there is something of a quiet revolution in the small hotel industry. Owners are largely abandoning the phrase ‘boutique’ and opting instead for ‘designer’ or ‘intimate’ hotel. It’s not hard to see why. Everyone, including large corporate chains, has begun trading on the idea, without delivering boutique core values (intimacy, cutting-edge design, personal care).

“We don’t use the term ‘boutique’ anymore,” says Ryan Plakonouris, General Manager of The Shamwari Townhouse in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. “Most of the industry is using one of two phrases now – lifestyle hotels or design hotels”.

Nicky Coenen, General Manager of The Last Word Boutique Hotel collection, agrees. “Of the many words which have been distorted, ‘boutique’ is right up there. It has clearly lost its meaning when a 300-room hotel is labelled ‘boutique’. This is misleading. The Last Word has now chosen to call itself ‘intimate’”.

None of which takes away from the fact that small luxury hotels are on the up, and are becoming extremely popular. Kerryn Fischer, Editor of National Geographic Traveller magazine believes it has to do with capability and ease, as much as luxury. “We see a growing desire for real quality, obviously. But, really what it’s about is efficiency, a one-stop-shop, and less admin than you find with the bigger concerns, such as paperless check-ins, and most importantly, the inclusion of extras in the overall price, such as Internet access, drinks, breakfast, newspaper, laundry or free transfers”.

“These hotels are also great for the business traveller, as they very often offer in-service dining or will order in for their guests. When they are good, they can comfortably create an efficient and comfortable ‘home from home’ experience.” Vanessa Sand, CEO of AA Travel Guides agrees, and places the emphasis on exclusive features – and discretion.

“We would expect a discerning wine list, possibly cocktail and cigar menus, likely spa treatments and ideally, conferencing. Some are freshly-built in the country, such as Fusion Boutique Hotel in Polokwane (South Africa), while others are makeovers of existing city accommodation, such as the Ascot Hotel in Norwood, Johannesburg. Their focus is a memorable experience, with individuality and flair. The service is distinct, uncompromising, highly personalised and discreet. Discretion is very important.”

According to the Federated Hospitality Association of Southern Africa (FEDHASA), there are between 80 and 140 boutique hotels in South Africa, depending on the definition of ‘boutique’. AA Travel Guides puts the room count for a boutique hotel at between 20 and 50 rooms for their definition, but FEDHASA suggest no more than 10. In Africa the overall number is smaller, but with some growth in countries such as Kenya, Egypt, Mozambique, Tanzania and Nigeria. But wherever they are, all boutique hotels need to be top-drawer and uniquely and creatively designed, with high-quality, personalised services.

All this costs money, and that’s increasingly a problem if you are running a small, independent luxury hotel. Observers cite the problem of overheads far outweighing the return, even if properties charge enormous prices and run at near 100% occupancy.

Brett Dungan, Chief Executive Officer of FEDHASA outlines the issues. “We have worked out that a luxury hotel costs R1 million a room to set up and run. For a 100-room hotel that’s R100 million, which will be recouped over time. For a small luxury hotel to do that is extremely unlikely. The figures just don’t add up. I call independent boutique hotels ROE – Return on Ego. Most are converted mansions and there is a strong element of owner ego involved. But from a pure business perspective, they make little sense. That’s why you see so many close over time. The cost of keeping the services up to scratch becomes prohibitive. The better business model for a small accommodation concern is an up-market B&B, without the 24-hour reception, room service and ongoing costs.”

Dungan’s point is a valid one, particularly as global belt-tightening continues. As a way around the difficult economies of scale, entrepreneurs are now choosing to group a number of exclusive properties into one portfolio. Singita, Shamwari and The Last Word Boutique Hotel Collection are good examples.

The Shamwari Townhouse has a dual purpose – to catch the traffic to Adrian Gardiner’s flagship Shamwari Game Reserve outside Port Elizabeth, but also to serve the exclusive corporate market. It’s a canny move by Gardiner, because the small property can make use of the larger concern’s enviable international name, as well as its marketing muscle. There are, however, still issues. “Our biggest issue is that some corporate companies feel we are too small to accommodate large bookings,” says Plakonouris. “That’s a challenge because the corporate market is much stronger than the leisure market in South Africa at the moment.”

Coenen suggests that broader group support is important, but never at the expense of individuality. “We are an inordinately-different and intimately-caring family business. Guests are treated royally at each hotel, charmed by personalised hospitality, captivated by picturesque locations and enchanted by style and elegance. Our objective is to shake off the ‘same as’ label and allow each individual hotel to shine through.” 

This fierce individuality is vital for another boutique group. Pioneers in the ultra-exclusive intimate hotel and lodge market, Singita Game Reserves, operate 10 lodges in three African countries – South Africa, Tanzania and Zimbabwe.

“The best boutique properties are privately owned”, says spokesperson Janie van der Spuy. “But, they are managed by a dynamic, hands-on hotelier or General Manager with an extremely competent operations and admin team, backed-up by a small, innovative marketing team. To mitigate against the limited number of rooms, each of our properties forms part of the collection, which in turn belong to a prestigious international association, Relais & Châteaux.”

Yet despite the downturn and the amalgamation trend, there are genuinely special independent small luxury hotels across Africa. Arguably, one of the most renowned – along with the ultra-expensive Edwardian Ellerman House in Cape Town – is The Saxon Boutique Hotel in Johannesburg.  Its service, design and facilities make it second-to-none and a favourite of the well-heeled. Also celebrated and also in Johannesburg, Fairlawns Boutique Hotel and Spa won the World Luxury Award for the Best Luxury Boutique Hotel in South Africa in 2010. The property, originally bought from the Oppenheimer’s Little Brenthurst Trust, is situated in parkland close to Sandton. The villa suites, none smaller than 54sqm, echo French décor, but are all individually furnished.

Also well situated close to the business district of Sandton is Sand River Guest House, in Rivonia, offering eight rooms and conferencing facilities in a tranquil setting, just a few metres from a running river, and with all the requisite ‘mod-cons’, including complimentary Wi-Fi and, interestingly, an ‘honesty bar’. Cape Town, in turn, is home to the likes of the feted Twelve Apostles Hotel & Spa, Banksia Boutique Hotel and Higgovale’s Kensington Place, which is part of the Inspirational Places bouquet of properties. Kensington Place was one of the first to place importance on a web presence and remains a tech-savvy set-up, with laptops, Skype and Wi-Fi in every suite.

Further north in Durban, it’s often difficult to find a room at Quarters Hotel Florida Road during the week, due to high corporate demand, their primary market.  One of three Quarters properties (another in Durban and one in Hermanus), it’s comparatively small rooms are balanced by excellent rates and a favourable central position. The design is elegant colonial, with a contemporary twist.

Beyond South Africa, small luxury hotels in Africa are typically islands of calm in commercial centres. Nigeria is leading the way, with hotels in both Lagos and Abuja. In Lagos, much of the boutique activity is new and centres predictably on Victoria Island. Modern Maple Cottage, in Lekki Phase 1, has 20 rooms and is handy for the Palm Shopping Centre, while Clear Essence California Spa & Wellness Resort in old Ikoyi, is known for its leisure facilities, as well as conferencing. Westfoster Harbour, also in Ikoyi, has 16 rooms and a great location right on the water, with huge balconies. The very contemporary Bogobiri House, essentially an art hotel, is possibly the pick of the bunch from a design perspective – a brilliant coming together of contemporary African urban style and audacious flair. Look out for the dramatic handmade doors and the installation art on the roof. In Abuja, the 26-room Summerset Continental is the choice of the well-heeled looking to escape the frenzy of the capital’s administrative downtown and faceless chain hotels.

In Egypt there are two properties that stand out – Villa Belle Epoque and Hotel Longchamps. Belle Epoque, in the trendy expat area of Maadi, is run by the inimitable Ingy el Sahn. It was built in the 1920s and recently refurbished to reflect its colonial origins. Occupying a 1300m2 plot, the hotel, its swimming pool, sundecks and patios are surrounded by lemon, mango, olive and guava trees. It was the first boutique hotel in Cairo, opened in March 2009, and each of the hotel’s 13 rooms is named after and reflects an Egyptian city. Hotel Longchamps, run by Hebba Bakri, is in Zamalek, an island on the Nile. It is far more contemporary than Belle Epoque, with graphic art on the walls and a strong European feel. There are summer and winter terraces on the roof and a vintage lift too, and the whole property is surrounded by mature gardens. Their trump card is their prices – excellent comparative value for Cairo.

In Tanzania the boutique flag is flown by The Oyster Bay in Dar es Salaam. The capital is hardly a tourist hotspot, but the owners saw a gap in the market for a tranquil, up-market stopover for people on the way to Zanzibar, or for businesses in Dar. It’s owned by the team who run the top-end Beho Beho camp in the Selous Game Reserve, so the services, training and processes are first class. In feel it sits somewhere between a Barcelona hip hotel and a Zanzibar retreat – there’s a very clever fusion of Islamic art and 21st Century design. The eight enormous suites have sea views and balconies, and the restaurant downstairs is first and foremost convivial – the aim is for guests to feel right at home.

In Kenya, Nairobi’s Palacina Residence and Suites is just off State House Road with excellent views over the valley. The suites are some of the capital’s best-designed rooms, spacious and elegant, while the Residence is a serviced wing for longer stays. General Manager Tony Sawe is perhaps the hotel’s biggest asset – a perfectionist and obsessive about privacy, cleanliness and efficiency. “All return client details are recorded, so we can personalise their next stay – what’s in their mini bar, on their breakfast table, on their bookshelf. It saves a mass of time,” he says.

So, a fair smattering of unique properties across the continent. What’s clear is that the small, luxury hotel is here to stay – an alternative to both the impersonal corporate tower block and the often too informal B&B. But, as the new world order of reduced spending asserts itself, it is likely that such hotels will go the way of Singita, Shamwari and The Last Word, and join a collection of ‘like’ properties. As such, expect a rash of new choice in the market in 2012, as canny entrepreneurs provide the best of both worlds with the downsides of neither – big hotel services with small B&B individualism.