Seeking out the unique: the charm of boutique hotels

In an increasingly gentrified world, boutique hotels offer something intimate, quirky and personal to the jaded traveller, as MARTINA BORG discovered when she spoke to local hoteliers working within this tourism niche

Views from the roof at Chapel 5 Suites
Views from the roof at Chapel 5 Suites
Trabuxu Living (Photo by Mark Cassar Photography)
Trabuxu Living (Photo by Mark Cassar Photography)

Being a bit of an oddball has never quite been a sought-after experience. Indeed, many often attempt to fit into a certain type, but in our world of overly commercialised and sometimes even manufactured experiences, the trend of going against the grain is becoming increasingly popular. This is true both for people and for the places they travel to.

Although the term ‘boutique hotels’ may be not too familiar, their concept is essentially that of offering a unique and different experience, and they present a growing trend around the world, with travellers looking for more of a cultural, unique and personalised service as opposed to the more generalised experiences that chain hotels tend to offer.

Given that tourism is one of the most important cogs in this country’s economy, we asked the Malta Tourism Authority how this trend translates in Malta.  The MTA said that although the term ‘boutique hotels’ was not legally recognised as an accommodation typology, proposals for tourism accommodation projects received by the authority over the past two years had indicated a strong shift towards a smaller but more lavish accommodation and the rehabilitation of existing old buildings.

“The restoration and revalorisation of cultural heritage buildings into luxury tourism accommodation allows for the development of a new niche in reflection of the growing demand throughout Europe,” MTA said, adding that the emphasis was on smaller premises, and showcasing the traditions, culture and architecture of the immediate environs and beyond.

Figures provided by the MTA also show that the number of licence applications from small accommodations is increasing considerably, with the authority receiving 22 applications during the first seven months of 2015, and 34 applications received between 2010 and 2014. Furthermore, according to the MTA’s Market Profile Survey, visits to guesthouses and smaller accommodation establishments have risen from about 1% in 2009 to 2.1% in 2014.

But in measuring the success of such ventures, numbers could be somewhat deceiving, especially given that boutique hotels are by their very nature, small. The experience of existing hotels paints a very pretty picture of the boutique hotel industry in Malta.

Owners and managers of the Trabuxu Living in Valletta, Krista and Kris Fenech Soler said that the experience has overall been a very positive one, with guest numbers increasing significantly since it first opened in August 2014. The pensione (as the accommodation is known), is located in a restored and modernised 350-year-old palazzo with three floors encircling an internal courtyard, and it is located in the cultural heart of the historic capital.

Hosting a maximum of 32 guests per night, the pensione, nine rooms in all comprising two superior and two deluxe rooms, four suites (two with kitchenette) and one apartment (with full kitchen and separate street entrance).

The owners list the opportunity to have direct contact with guests and seeing them enjoy their stay both at TBL and when they return from their daily visits around Malta, as some of the highlights that the establishment has offered them.

“Finding the right staff has been crucial (as with any other service-oriented business in Malta), especially in a small boutique pensione,” they added.

“It’s very important that TBL’s staff is knowledgeable of not only the pensione but also of Malta in general, in terms of what to see and do and where to go, especially in and around Valletta.” 

The Fenech Solers added that aside from its “incredibly professional and service oriented staff,” the management was also concerned with providing guests with genuine and reliable third-party services such as tour guides, taxi services and other activities.

Similarly, the manager of the 13-year-old Hotel Juliani, Georgios Rouvelas, said that as a small, family-run boutique hotel, the focus was on ensuring each guest stay was particularly memorable.

“Many of our guests are looking for something a little different to make their visit to Malta memorable from check-in to check-out,” he said adding that the hotel held a personalised approach as that special something on offer.

“Our team takes pride in getting to know each guest and their preferences, giving them one-on-one attention and an insider’s perspective on how to get most out of their time in Malta, experiencing all that our hotel and island have to offer,” Rouvelas added.

He also said that the experience has so far been “challenging yet exciting”.

“We understand that one cannot stand still in our industry as the game and even the rules are constantly changing. With that in mind, we are vigorously attentive to our guest’s comments and aim to lead the way in boutique hotel trends.”

Located in the heart of Spinola Bay, Hotel Juliani naturally caters for an altogether different audience than Trabuxu Living. The hotel, which boasts a Mediterranean design and feel, hosts a total capacity of 47 rooms and 94 guests, particularly with the recent launch of its three new elegant Designer Suites in the historic heart of the hotel.

“Just as each independent boutique hotel is unique so are our guests, though typically we attract an independent-minded business or leisure traveller seeking to escape the hustle and bustle,” he said, adding that while not always located at the seaside, boutique hotels are typically relaxing and welcoming oases to return to at the end of a day spent exploring Malta’s historic, cultural, natural and culinary sites.

Talking about the inevitable expenses of running such a business, the Fenech Solers also added that their establishment would never compromise on its level of service.

“From an operational perspective it is critical to the success of TBL that we operate cost effectively while ensuring that we provide an optimum service to our guests at all times,” they said, adding that the small number of rooms helped them to offer as tailored an experience as possible.

“However being small means that we must measure that level of service with our overheads and keep expenses manageable at all times,” they added.

They further explained that their pensione caters predominantly for travellers aged between 30 and 60 years of age who on average stay for between three to four days at a time.

“Travellers opting for Valletta are, of course, in the majority. They could be visiting on business, as well as travellers seeking a cultural experience,” they said, stressing that their location was a great asset in this respect.

They added that so far, the pensione’s busiest seasons are spring and autumn, and that the establishment is normally marketed directly via the company website ( aside from other highly popular online booking agencies as well as a select number of specialised international boutique websites. 

Rouvelas, on the other hand, said that as with Malta’s tourist product in general, summer was their high season, but that an increase in both leisure and business stays during shoulder and low seasons had been noticed in recent years.

“We have also noted the length of peak season continues to expand each year to include March through to October,” he noted, adding that visitors often shared their experiences with others via social media networks such as Facebook and TripAdvisor.

“We also work to continuously improve our facilities, adding a new gym and boardroom that will open next week, to attract repeat visitors,” he said, stressing the hotel’s efforts for marketing through feedback.

Surprisingly, owner of Chapel 5 Suites in Naxxar, Malcolm Jones, listed the shoulder months as particularly strong aside from the peak summer months.

Chapel 5 Suites is situated in a quaint, palazzo-style house of character, and has a maximum occupancy of 10 people. Given the fact that Naxxar isn’t traditionally a touristic area, one questions how such a business would thrive, but Jones says that it is its niche appeal that has made it so successful.

Targeting people over 25 years of age, the establishment is marketed as a unique concept and boasts an altogether different experience from other boutique hotels, particularly given its location, which offers an “immersion in history, village traditions and beautiful churches and chapels”.

The palatial property was first built approximately 300 years ago and has recently been restored to become the establishment it is today. Jones says that the location was ideal both for its attention to the customer experience and because it was located in a very central town and only a short bus ride away from touristic hot spots.

“The fact that the hotel is off the beaten track, has served our niche market better,” Jones says.

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