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Small but Mighty: BLLA Boutique Hotel Investment Conference in New York

At the Boutique Lodging Lifestyle Association’s (BLLA) 11th annual Boutique Hotel Investment Conference, held June 7-8 at the Florence Gould Hall Theater in New York City, it was clear that boutique owners, operators, and investors are passionate about their work, they strive for excellence and succeed when their properties tell a story.

Ariela Kiradjian, Zobler and Raul Leal at BLLA conference
Ariela Kiradjian, Andrew Zobler and Raul Leal at the BLLA opening session

Showing the Love

“This is the time of the boutique hotel,” declared co-organizer Ariela Kiradjian, Co-Founder, Partner & COO, BLLA to the 150 attendees in her welcome address during the opening session, The Visionaries: A Casual Conversation.


“It’s easier than ever to stay independent,” asserted Raul Leal, CEO, SH Hotels & Resorts, who shared the stage. “Consumers want a unique product and in today’s environment if you can come up with a differentiated product consumers will gravitate to you.”


Fellow panelist Andrew Zobler, Founder & CEO, Sydell Group, added, “Those who do unique, creative things can stay independent because it’s easier to attract capital.”


Troubles in Tech


Managing properties is a tall task but it can–has to, really–be aided by technology. Industry experts advised boutique owners and operators on how to choose vendors and how to vet tools.


“You really want a partner, not someone who will just hand you the technology,” said Jason Pinto, COO, Pace Revenue. “It should be someone who knows the industry and keeps learning it.”


Roomza CEO Curtis Crimmins speaks about tech at BLLA
Roomza CEO Curtis Crimmins speaks about tech at BLLA

Roomza CEO Curtis Crimmins urged attendees to hold providers’ feet to the fire. “Determine what you’re trying to do, find technology that helps, and ask the designers to demonstrate their tool. Don’t just ask us or go to our website, put us through it. If it’s not making money for you, it’s not working.”

He continued, “Every piece of technology will break at some point so ask what will happen when a technology fails. Then if they don’t do what they said they would, don’t pay them!”


Breaking Bread…and Making a Profit

One thing that brings everyone together is food, and restaurant real estate experts came together in F&B as a Recipe for Success.


For staffing, Jody Pennette, Founder and CEO, cb5 Hospitality Group, advised operators to start small. “Hotels tend to hire an army and not everyone is necessarily productive. If eight people each make $74 a night they’ll look around but if four people leave with a fistful of dollars every night they’ll be happy.”

Todd Birnbaum, Partner, Friend of Chef, alerted the audience to think of every element of a restaurant in designing one. “Consider where the kitchen will be. How will things be stored, cleaned, etc.? Where will the floor drains be? A hot button issue right now is gas usage so how will you limit that? They’re the most unsexy things but you want to have a proper structure.”


That extends to dealing with outside forces too, he noted. “If you know the liquor authority is difficult and takes a long time, dive in right away. We try to think about not just what’s coming up but what’s coming afterward.”


Kaysilyn Lawson, President, KLHG, discussed a holistic approach. “We ask, ‘What is the hotel trying to create? Who is the audience?’ When we look at a project that way, we’re part of the property versus just an amenity.”


Further, she suggested, “Honor the landscape with dishes that pay homage to who and where you are. Guests choose us for a particular reason so give them that.”


Boutiques can take more license with decor and other elements than chain properties, noted Pennette, and they should do so. “Customers aren’t just coming to us because they’re hungry; diners want to make that emotional connection.”


“The key to opening a restaurant in a boutique is to make sure there’s a cohesive thread with the design,” revealed the prolific Chef David Burke, president, David Burke Hospitality Management. “I want the story to be told before guests even smell the food. So if it’s a steakhouse maybe there are cow sculptures, or at the Arlo in New York’s Fashion District, we named the restaurant Fabrick and we had decor of spools and sewing machines. Maybe it’s not everyone’s cup of tea but it gives guests an aha moment.”


Making that connection with guests is vital for boutiques, said Zobler. “Storytelling is a large part of creating a distinct product. People identify with a story and they want to be a part of it. That makes them loyal customers.”

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