Don't Call Them "Boutiques"

Introducing the boutique--oops--hotel chainlet.

The dirtiest word in the boutique-hotel business today is "boutique." "So many boutique hotels expend all their effort on style but slack on service," says Brad Wilson, CEO of the James Hotel Group, one of a new breed of aspiring mini-chains. "It makes great photos and talking points, but for guests, the reality is often chaotic and crazy."

Hotels like Wilson's, by contrast, combine stylish, contemporary design with a focus on service that sometimes borders on the obsessive. They are designed to appeal to the business traveler who has the juice to stay in a $500 New York room. Each of these brands is walking a fine line, hoping to win multicity loyalty while avoiding the increasingly cookie-cutter feel of a W Hotel. New York, Los Angeles, and Miami remain the hot spots and feature the most all-out luxury--but the upstarts hope their hip alternative to the standard business hotel will translate to other cities such as Houston, Denver, and Omaha. Yes, even Omaha. Hip luxury can come to the heartland.

Gansevoort Hotels

Currently: New York

Coming Soon: Miami Beach, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, London, Chicago, a second New York location

Midweek April rates*: $515 and up

Why go: Outdoor conference rooms make work less dreary. Over-the-top service details such as twice-daily housekeeping and being able to call ahead and have the doorman hand you your key.

Watch out for: Its effort to "limit unwanted surprises" can go too far. Just because we move our alarm clock doesn't mean the hotel staff needs to note that. Creepy. Manhattan's Meatpacking District location isn't central.

James Hotels

Currently: Chicago

Coming Soon: New York, Miami Beach, L.A.

Midweek April rates*: $339 and up

Why go: Hotel restaurant breeds its own cattle (thankfully, off-site). Lofts feature a media room with an extra-deep couch. The maxi-minibar is stocked with 375 ml bottles. Two concierges per shift. Twice-daily housekeeping. Central city locations.

Watch out for: Pardon our dust! The Chicago hotel has been open less than a year, but it's already renovating the gym, spa, and business center.

Thompson Hotels

Currently: New York, Hollywood, Sonoma

Coming Soon: Two more in New York; plus Washington, DC; Beverly Hills; Toronto

Midweek April rates*: $539 and up (60 Thompson, New York)

Why go: Dean & Deluca "pantries" in room. Swanky rooftop bars are a magnet for the leggy supermodel set. Some of its properties will be condos, so you'll be mixing with the locals at the bar.

Watch out for: Too cool for school, from its pretentious "manifesto" to its proposed subjective loyalty program that keeps out more people than it lets in. Some complaints about consistency.

Magnolia Hotels

Currently: Denver, Dallas, Houston, Omaha

Coming Soon: One or more as-yet-unnamed second- and third-tier cities per year

Midweek April rates*: $189 and up (Denver)

Why go: Freshly baked cookie selection in lounge at night. Launching multipartner loyalty program in June. In cities with few funky luxury alternatives. Renovating historic buildings.

Watch out for: Less hip, less luxurious. "Local character" potentially cheesy (star-of-Texas lighting fixtures, anyone?).

* For representative prices, we looked up the going rate for Wednesday, April 25 on each hotel's Web site.

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