By Paul Brady
Jun 20, 2022
FROM THE 18TH-FLOOR Panorama Room at one of the New York City’s unlikeliest boutique hotels, the Graduate Roosevelt Island, the Manhattan skyline sparkles against the sunset. Glasses clink and shakers clack as bartenders race to keep up with the thirsty crowd reclining on velvet sofas and drinking in the view. Not bad for an on-campus crash pad.
Since 2014, Graduate Hotels has expanded from a handful of refurbished properties in college towns such as Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Athens, Georgia, to become a 32-location hospitality empire that extends across the Atlantic to the U.K. “We’ve added 19 properties since 2019,” says Kevin Osterhaus, president of the boutique brand, “but even at 32 hotels and growing, people are still learning about us.”
The hotel on Roosevelt Island, which opened in 2021 on the architecturally avant-garde campus of Cornell Tech, should help. So too will more Graduate locations slated for 2023, in Auburn, Alabama; Dallas; Palo Alto, California; and Princeton, New Jersey.
With its irreverent spirit—at the Nashville hotel, there’s a Dolly Parton–inspired “9 to 5 Suite,” with a California king waterbed and disco-ball-tiled ceilings—but serious ambitions, Graduate is emblematic of a new wave of young companies that are challenging more established hospitality brands like Hilton and Marriott. Once easy to overlook because of their limited global footprints, these chains are becoming more widespread and attracting all types of travelers.
In fact, even the big guys are jumping on the small-is-mighty bandwagon. “I’m really excited about Thompson, and we’re seeing interest globally,” says Mark Hoplamazian, the CEO of Hyatt, which took over the boutique brand known for its stylish design in 2018. It has since added nine properties, with more to come. “We’ve just had a string of really, really strong openings, in Dallas and San Antonio, Texas; Savannah, Georgia; and the Buckhead area of Atlanta,” he adds. “I think the brand will start to show up in other markets around the world.”
Key to that success, Hoplamazian says, is an emphasis on food and, in many cases, lively rooftop bars that draw in locals, such as the Fleeting restaurant at the Thompson Savannah, where salt-and-pepper shrimp is served with red-rice congee, or Anchovy Social, the top-floor cocktail bar at the Thompson Washington, D.C.
Ace Hotel helped pioneer this locals-first strategy and has found continued success as it has grown to 10 locations, including Brooklyn, New York, and Kyoto, Japan, which made the T+L It List 2021. Go for the DJ booth in the lobby; stay for the record players in every room. And they have just expanded Down Under with the opening of Ace Hotel Sydney.
But embracing the neighborhood has now become de rigueur. Consider the Hoxton, which describes itself as “a series of open-house hotels inspired by the diversity and originality of the streets.” Its special sauce includes high-design lobbies and in-demand restaurants that draw hometown regulars as well as out-of-towners. The Hoxton also delivers affordable room rates—from $179 in Los Angeles and $222 in London—thanks in part to small- square-footage accommodations. Not that guests seem to mind: since its acquisition by London-based developer Ennismore in 2012, the Hoxton has expanded to seven new destinations, including Amsterdam, Chicago and Rome. Now part of Accor, Ennismore plans to open Hoxton outposts in Barcelona, Brussels, and the Shepherd’s Bush neighborhood of London, bringing the global collection to 13.
Taking the small-scale truly international is The Standard, which has gone from a handful of boutique hotels in the U.S. to a global array of warm-weather escapes, thanks to investment from the Thai real estate firm Sansiri. The Standard, Maldives opened in 2019 with 115 villas and an overwater nightclub complete with a see-through dance floor. The latest seaside resort, the Standard, Hua Hin, is about a three-hour drive from Bangkok, while a flagship hotel is slated to open in the Thai capital imminently. (If you visit now, you can check out their first dining outlet, sky-high Meixcan spot Ojo.) Locations in Las Vegas, Lisbon, Singapore, and Ibiza, Spain, are also in the works, says Amber Asher, the company’s CEO.
“We’d love to be in all the places people want to go—and open their eyes up to places that they’ve never thought of going, like Hua Hin,” Asher says. “We want to bring our kind of culture—cool, casual, fun—to the rest of the world.”
SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE
Which boutique brand best fits your personal brand? Follow Tim Latterner’s at-a-glance guide.
All prices in U.S. dollars for ease of comparison.