Can IHG buy cachet?

The news that InterContinental Hotels Group has agreed to buy Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants for $430 million in cash, making IHG the self-styled “clear market leader” in the boutique segment, may be good for Kimpton. But it’s not clear whether it will be good for guests loyal to Kimpton, the trailblazer in boutique hotels, the industry’s fastest-growing segment. It is also not clear whether Kimpton under IHG will remain truly original or if it will feel ever more featureless, like Ascend by Choice or Autograph by Marriott.

To stay at a Kimpton hotel – there are 62, with 16 under development = is to enter a unique world, often linked to a fine restaurant that Kimpton manages. The Kimpton world can seem eccentric; one of the suites in the Hotel Triton, at least 10 years ago, was named after the Red Hot Chili Peppers (the décor was, shall we say, appropriate). It’s also a world of personalized service, and an ecologically sensitive one. Kimpton hotels were “green,” using non-toxic chemicals and winning multiple awards for their ecological mindset and practices long before the term became commonplace.

According to an IHG news release distributed on Dec. 16, adding Kimpton to its portfolio also including lifestyle-oriented Hotel Indigo and wellness-themed EVEN, IHG’s branded boutiques, makes it a leader in the segment. The release also suggested IHG plans to expand Kimpton domestically and spread it globally.

What does this all mean? It certainly raises questions.

Can Kimpton’s well-established, unique character be folded into the same group as Hotel Indigo and EVEN? Will expansion dilute Kimpton’s special character? It is hard to imagine a Kimpton guest seeking out a Hotel Indigo or one of the two relatively new EVEN Hotels as a place where they would stay. It’s also hard to imagine a growing Kimpton providing the same unusual experience its customers have come to expect.

All these moves make you wonder whether IHG views Kimpton for the something special it is or as a chic bauble in its increasingly expansive portfolio. Sure, being part of a franchise leverages sales, marketing and res strength, but Kimpton seemed to be growing just fine on its own. And it always had not only its own personality but also the personality of its locale. Boutiques have always gone up against the chains, so integrating the Kimpton culture and team into IHG will be a challenge. So will retaining its long-time guests.

The acquisition also makes one wonder what “boutique” means these days.

Yes, there are many independent hotels, often called boutiques. Many would argue that boutique means chic, and historically, a true boutique hotel was defined as expensive, urbane, stylish and intimate (they typically boast 40 to 100 rooms). They also have been regularly associated with historic neighborhoods they’re designed to complement, even enhance.

Today, these distinctions are becoming fuzzier. Does a boutique really require all those elements? Many traditional boutique hotels in urban areas charge $400 and up per night, pricing out most of the traveling public. Is there room for different kinds of boutiques, leading to what one could call “boutiques for all”? Does it even matter what label people give a hotel when most travelers search by location, amenities, positive reviews and pictures, and then make a reservation? When I go to a boutique clothing store to buy a dress, am I looking for an expensive one or for one no other woman will wear to the party I’m going to that night? To me, the cost of a dress doesn’t matter. What matters is that it stands out.

Boutique hotels, as they should remain, have always been about being different. They’re the nonconformists of lodging, hotels that at their best are stand alone brands. Let’s hope IHG stays sensitive to what has made Kimpton special since Bill Kimpton founded it in 1981. Let’s hope IHG doesn’t make Kimpton a “bland.”

IBC Hotels founder and president Pamela J.W. Barnhill also serves as president and COO of InnSuites Hospitality Trust and is a board member of the Independent Lodging Industry Association. Ms. Barnhill advocates for, owns and operates independent hotels. For more information, visit ibchotels.comor contact Ms. Barnhill at pbarnhill@ibchotels.com.

– by Pamela Barnhill