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Boutique hotels up the game for Pittsburgh hospitality landscape

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Roy Engelbrecht
An example of the type of bedroom that will be at the Hotel Indigo Pittsburgh East Liberty.
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Stephanie Strasburg | Trib Total Media
Kimpton brand's signature eclectic art and decor displayed in one of the suites at the new Hotel Monaco Pittsburgh in Downtown on Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2014.
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Stephanie Strasburg | Trib Total Media
A pillow with a dog on it stands as a nod to the Kimpton brand hotels' pet-friendly policy, as seen in one of the rooms at the new Hotel Monaco Pittsburgh in Downtown on Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2014. A nod to the Steel City, the basic color palette of the hotel is white, gold, and black, with pops of different shads of green, says publicist Jennifer Resick.
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Ace Hotels
The lobby of the Ace Hotel New York on West 29th Street.
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Ace Hotels
One of the rooms at the Ace Hotel in Portland, Ore.
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The new Hotel Indigo Pittsburgh East Liberty project will include a conversion of one building, the renovation of another building (previously Governor's Inn) and the addition of a whole new building.

As Pittsburgh makes room for several swanky new hotels, locals and travelers alike will be able to check out boutique lodging firsthand.

But even as more properties bill themselves as such, the term “boutique” remains ambiguous.

“Everybody is calling themselves a boutique hotel, and it’s confusing the consumer even more,” says Frances Kiradjian, founder of the Boutique & Lifestyle Lodging Association based in California.

Though the concept might be confusing, it’s creating a trendy niche for consumers looking to get a little more out of their travel.

“They want a unique experience when they travel,” Kiradjian says. “They’re really interested in getting a taste of a city, and you can’t always do that in a cookie-cutter hotel.”

In a 2012 study of the industry, the association defined boutique hotels as unique, typically small hotels that offer high levels of service and often provide authentic cultural or historic experiences to guests.

That certainly seems applicable to several new spots set to open before the year’s end around Pittsburgh, all featuring an array of amenities and exceptional decor. Kimpton’s Hotel Monaco opens Jan. 20 at 620 William Penn Place, Downtown. InterContinental Hotel Group, or IHG, which recently announced plans to acquire Kimpton, is opening Hotel Indigo in East Liberty in late spring. Another East Liberty project, Ace Hotel, will start accepting guests by summer.

“We don’t see our hotels as any one thing,” says Ryan Bukstein, Ace spokesman. “Each Ace listens to the tuning fork of its neighborhood and helps us to create spaces that inspire people, including ourselves. They’re a platform to activate our curiosity and creative risk.”

Size is one defining factor of boutique hotels, though even that definition tends to be flexible. The Boutique & Lifestyle Lodging Association study asked 41 hotel industry leaders, “When is a hotel too big to be a ‘boutique?’ ” The most common answer was 300 rooms; the median was 120. Factors such as location of the market influenced responses.

But size isn’t the only thing that matters.

“It has to have an upscale design, customer service and more upscale food and beverage options,” Kiradjian says. “You can’t just serve croissants and coffee and be called a boutique hotel. You really can’t be a made-over Motel 6.”

Kimpton defines boutique hotels by the philosophy of its founder, Bill Kimpton, who was inspired by the intimate and highly designed hotels he stayed at abroad, says Nick Gregory, regional vice president.

“Our goal is to create spaces and experiences that offer a respite from the hectic day-to-day of business, sightseeing or whatever brings guests to us,” Gregory says. “I wouldn’t say there is a specific demographic for Kimpton, but we’re all a little playful and enjoy hotels that provide a home away from home. You will find all of that with us.”

Hotel Monaco’s 248 rooms and common areas boast a distinct style with decor touches that are subtle and surprising. From the library look of the entrance and ballrooms with wall-spanning windows to the bold wallpaper patterns and artwork in the guest rooms, every aspect is made to inspire interest among visitors.

Paying homage to the local community through design is a common theme of boutique properties, industry insiders say. Hotel Monaco features several nods to Pittsburgh culture. Subtle touches include artwork in the form of postcards sent to Pittsburghers in the early 1900s, black-and-gold accents and ceramic lamps in the shape of a penguin. The Rebellion Suite, one of the hotel’s 13 luxury accommodations, is named for its reference to the Whiskey Rebellion.

The Commoner, Hotel Monaco’s 120-seat modern American tavern, features steel columns, amber lighting and an exposed kitchen to create a relaxed ambiance while highlighting the region’s industrial past.

The new Hotel Indigo Pittsburgh East Liberty includes 135 spacious boutique rooms featuring plush bedding, spa-inspired showers and Aveda products, as well as a restaurant and lounge and meeting rooms/event space. Hotel Indigo’s design and service is centered on highlighting what makes that city special, says Adam Glickman, IHG director of brand experience.

“IHG boutique hotels are very focused on bringing the local experience to life for our guests,” he says. “Our guests are savvy individualists and lifetime learners who want to learn something different when they’re in the hotel and turn that into a story they can share back home with their friends.”

Hotel Indigo in Nashville, built in an old bank building, offers a prime example of this approach, Glickman says. Everything from a mosaic behind the front desk to the local art and materials used to decorate the space highlight the city’s culture.

The East Liberty hotel’s decor and design will reflect how innovations and industrial growth shaped the Pittsburgh region, Glickman says.

More traditional area hotels aren’t feeling pressure to change their formats because of the boutique trend. Bob Page, spokesman for the Omni William Penn, Downtown, says while size of the property keeps it out of the boutique category, it still offers many of the same services smaller businesses boast.

“Back in the day, the term ‘boutique’ meant it had under 150 rooms and a unique atmosphere,” Page says. “It’s clouded now. From the service aspect, initially when they were smaller, they’d know the guests’ names, but we do that here as well with 600 rooms.”

Matthew Sterne, general manager of the Fairmont Pittsburgh, says boutique hotels offer “a nice complement to more traditional hotels.

“With the growth in the Pittsburgh market, there’s room for a variety of different types of hotels — from luxury to boutique — which appeal to a broad range of visitors to the city,” he says.

Rachel Weaver is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7948 or [email protected].

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