Everything wrong with ’boutique hotels’

Jolyon’s at No.10” in Cardiff is everything that’s wrong with ’boutique hotels’.

There, I’ve said it. Apologies if this sounds like a splenetic, unwarranted rant… and, honestly, it’s not aimed directly at Jolyon’s… the stay itself was fine (other than a few issues as noted later) and the staff were good and attentive. This is aimed more generally at the concept of a boutique hotel, but it just so happens that it was my stay at Jolyon’s that prompted this. Perhaps if they didn’t advertise as being boutique, I wouldn’t be referencing them. But they do, so here we are.

And no, that image above is not Jolyon’s. If it was, we wouldn’t be here.

Who cares?

Fair point. If the hotel is nice and you have a good stay, then what does it matter? Not a jot, I daresay, except that by liberally slapping ’boutique’ in your hotel description seems to mean you can then inflate your prices to match.

So if you’re paying over the odds for a ’boutique’ hotel compared with a ‘normal’ or even ‘budget’ hotel, shouldn’t you expect something a bit extra in return?

So…

What even is a boutique hotel? Even wikipedia doesn’t really know. About the best it has is this:

“Many boutique hotels are furnished in a themed, stylish and/or aspirational manner.”

Not much. One should assume therefore that it derives mostly from the conceptual French definition of boutique – i.e. not literally a small shop but the fact that it endeavours to be unique, different or highly niche in some way.

I can understand this as a concept and why some hotels will aspire to provide a unique or different experience. Clearly a Premier Inn isn’t boutique. But what makes a hotel boutique? Merely being a bit modern and a bit funky does not. Can you actually ‘create’ boutique – or is it somehow inherent? A boutique hotel is not simply a hotel that has spent too much money at Farrow & Ball and a local flea market and in trying to craft something boutique, you end up missing the marque and end up with this.

Editor’s intermission

Given the lack of a quality, well-established definition of what a boutique hotel is, then I’m well prepared to accept that it’s different for everyone; and my interpretation of what it is may be totally out of kilter with what others think. If that’s the case, then may I offer my thanks for stopping by, but you’d probably best move on now. Nothing to see here.

But it’s my blog, so if you’re still here, please continue at your leisure. Thanks.

By comparison

A few years ago I stayed at The Rubens at the Palace in Central London. They also call themselves a boutique hotel. And for them, I totally get it. The building has heritage; the furnishings are authentic. It was chock full of period features that clearly came from the period rather than being shoehorned in as part of trying to achieve the effect. It felt they were trying hard to be something a bit different; but the difference being was it felt like natural, unforced effort.

Unlike Jolyon’s, which felt like someone had tried to develop a boutique hotel out of thin air.

Signs it’s not all the boutique

So here follows my top indicators that your boutique hotel isn’t really all that boutique.

  1. It’s got a pretentious name

    “Jolyon’s at No.10” as a name is pretentious twaddle. Admittedly, my example of “The Rubens at The Palace” breaks this same rule. But that’s literally a stone’s throw from Buckingham Palace. Buckingham Palace. Home of the Queen, for crying out loud. You would be daft to not reference it.

    But ‘at No.10’ – No.10 what? Cathedral Road in Cardiff. Yes, Cardiff has a beautiful cathedral (which isn’t actually on Cathedral Road) and worth a visit, but it’s hardly up there on the all-time list of British cathedrals to visit. It’s not St. Paul’s. And it’s certainly no Buck Palace. Sorry Cardiff Cathedral. I digress. Jolyon’s – why not just call it that? I don’t know where the word comes from or what it means (there’s annoyingly no ‘About’ page on their website) – maybe the person who owns it is called Julian? But “Jolson’s at No.10”, much like the vast swathe of poncy restaurants that do the same, it’s just pretentious try-hard.

  2. It’s got no substantive legacy

    The Rubens has legacy in spades. As soon as you enter their website, they smash you around the face with the fact it’s been family owned and run since 1912 and has pages and pages about the heritage of the building and the history of the hotel dating back to the 1700s. Nothing invented or fabricated – it is what it is. And when you actually enter the hotel, that heritage smashes you around the face again. It has all the pomp you would expect.

    Jolyon’s on the other hand has nothing. All the website says – and this is inferred because it doesn’t actually say this or very much at all in fact – is ‘we turned this building into a hotel and we do weddings’. And the only thing that smashes you around the face when you enter the hotel is the obnoxiously loud pop music and smell of stale beer from the night before.

  3. It kind of feels like a Premier Inn

    I’m not trying to a disservice to the budget hotels – Premier Inn and Holiday Inn have done amazing things in recent years to really up their game and it shows. (The Holiday Inn Express in Poole is exceptional. Travelodges remain however total shitholes.) But they still service a key market – the one-nighters – people stopping over somewhere before travelling on – or the weary brigade of workers travelling about the country for work just looking for somewhere to sleep and sink a few beers on the company expense account; so more often than not, post 6pm you get a rowdy bar in a budget hotel; and sadly Jolyon’s was no different.

  4. It’s just kinda modern

    Much like the point about budget hotels, which themselves are now mostly ultra-modern, just going a bit mental with funky decorating and soft furnishings does not a boutique hotel make. That’s not a criticism of investing in the decor and creating a nice experience, far from it; it’s simply that anyone with enough cash and a decent designer can do it. Jolyon’s had liberally splashed old looking furniture about the place but it mostly just looked like the type of stuff you’d get at The Mega Furniture Warehouse – modern furniture designed to look antique. Same with the choice of wall coverings… this new age twirly flowery stuff that’s supposed to look like it came out of the 19th century. Don’t get me wrong, the decor in the Victoria Room in The Rubens that I had was outright ghastly compared with what I’d choose to decorate my own house with; but for a couple of nights away and the experience, it was totally… um, en vogue. (Whatever that means.)

    This goes further; the bathtub in our room had a ‘mood light’. Push a button and a multi-coloured LED in the bottom of the tub that lazily drifts through various colours comes on. Fantastic, from an Awesome Switches perspective – but something all other hotels could also just buy from B&Q is not something I’d associate with going boutique. And for what it’s worth, ‘shower in a bathtub’ is never going to be luxury, let alone boutique. It’s just annoying.

  5. Attention to detail

    At the same time, though, you would (well, I would) expect a very high level of attention to detail. You’d usually forgive a budget hotel from being a bit rough around the edges – their model is low cost, high turnover. In a boutique hotel, you’re paying, for the most part, the experience – so what you don’t really want to see are all the rough bits where they’ve just done a half-arsed job and then not bothered to fix it. Or if they’re creating ‘niche-y boutique-y’ features, they do it properly.

I’m not just making this up:

Exhibit A: Badly cut shower tile

Someone’s cut the tile wrongly, most likely realised they’ve done it wrong, but then just thought ‘ah sod it’ and carried on, instead of doing it again, properly. I could have done a better job than that, and my tiling is shocking. And let’s not even begin to wonder what happens when moisture now inevitably gets in behind there.

Exhibit B: Toilet controls

The controls are not even vaguely flush nor affixed to the toilet cabinet. Had I wanted, I could have wedged my finger in to that gap and pulled it right out.

Exhibit C: Bathroom doors

These fold-y doors were sort of on the way to achieving a nice niche feature (try saying that quickly). I’ve not seen them before, so yep, that might tick a boutique box, if done properly. But the handle is in the wrong place (based on the geometry of the folding mechanism) so as to make them thoroughly awkward to use, but, moreover, the doors don’t actually close flush with the door jambs. So if I need to attend to something in the bathroom, I can’t actually shut the doors properly, which means anyone else in the room gets a nice experience themselves. #facepalm

Enough now

I could go on… but by now I hope I’ve made my point so I shall end it there.

But for the avoidance of doubt: if you claim to be a boutique hotel, just make bloody sure you’re actually a boutique hotel – whatever that really means.

If you’re actually just a nice, modern hotel, that’s OK! But just be that. Don’t be boutique. Just be nice.

Because at just shy of £300 for a two night stay, I expected a lot more than we got from Jolyon’s and I left feeling hard done by and annoyed enough to write this, which, I’m guessing isn’t really the sort of experience Jolyon’s at No.10 (gah) really wanted.

Endnote… on the actual stay at Jolyon’s

We did have a perfectly ‘fine’ stay there. Still smarting from the cost of it, I’ll admit, but hey, it kept the rain off. But there were a few issues:

  • As with most hotels, it was crazy hot; all the time, but especially at night. You couldn’t crank the window open enough, and the A/C that was installed didn’t work. So it was pretty uncomfortable. Probably should have been given away by the existence of an £8.99 Ikea fan in there.
  • It had the same environmental hat-tip that every other hotel nowadays has – ‘do you know how much energy is wasted in washing towels that don’t need washing’ etc. – fine, no probs (other than the spelling error in the sign), except for the fact the extractor fan in our bathroom was on, constantly, wasting a considerable amount of energy. Presumably designed to be on a timer, the only way to actually kill it was at the breaker, which meant the ambient/night light in there went off, so if you needed the bathroom in the night (due to all the water you’re drinking as it’s so hot) then you either got blinded by using the full lights or peed all over your own feet in the dark. Your choice.
  • The linen etc. I imagine are all laundered off site but the towels seemed to have been washed in vinegar. Mmmm.
  • The tea service was unnecessarily stingy. It was a double room, and you got two lots of everything – two tea bags, two sachets of Nescafe so-called coffee and so on. Same stuff you get in a Holiday Inn (see above). But you only got two of those tiny plastic sachets of UHT milk. UHT is bad enough, but heaven forbid if you actually wanted more than one hot drink each. Poor.
  • The shower had two settings – ‘off’ or ‘3rd degree burns’. Seemed like the control mechanism was installed badly (presumably installed by the same person who did the toilet controls.)
  • In fact, they need to sack whoever designed and installed the bathroom. Take for example the position of the toilet vs the position of the toilet paper. The toilet itself is set forward, creating an additional gap to the back wall where the paper holder is, so you need 6ft arms just to reach it. And getting a double hernia every time you reach for some paper is not my idea of fun.

We did raise some of those issues with the hotel so hopefully they’ll get sorted, but, probably needless to say, if I do find myself in Cardiff again, I will most likely be looking for somewhere else to stay.

PS. If I’ve referenced Jolson’s instead of Jolyon’s then please accept my apologies. Autocorrect is driving me nuts. I think I’ve got them all but a few of the blighters could have slipped through.
PPS. Sorry again to Cardiff Cathedral. You really are a beautiful cathedral, I didn’t mean any offence.

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