On the site of the historic Portland Press Herald building in Maine, Portland's first boutique hotel opens its doors in May 2015. The design promises to be out-of-the-ordinary, with references to the old newspaper business--a letterpress wall sculpture at the lobby, and guestrooms inspired by a 1920s journalist's office--as well as local art displayed throughout. The Press Hotel is the newest pearl in the growing string of Marriott International's boutique hotel brand, Autograph Collection. It is also another sign of how large chains are evolving to survive in a market increasingly dominated by the millennials.

Wooing Gen Y

Consumer savvy and socially wired, the millennials demand more than just beige rooms and bellhops from a hotel. Consistent high quality service and a friendly staff are no longer enough; they want unique brag-worthy experiences that are shareable on social media, where it's also easy to check when a lodging fails to meet their basic expectations. With consumer uncertainty eliminated, the desire for higher value and distinctly individualized travel narrative rises.

This is where boutique hotels come in. These intimate upscale establishments focus on local culture and cuisine, technology, and unique architecture, art and design. They may be located in a major city or a secondary, even residential, hub, but their primary selling point is that they are not the typical cookie-cutter hotel image.

Wowing the globetrotting millennials has become more than just a viable business strategy--it's a necessity. Marriott has forecasted that, by 2020, this demographic will occupy one-third of the business rooms in the U.S. Putting its money where its mouth is, the hotel giant has added more chains of branded boutiques to its portfolio, such as the Milan runway-inspired AC Hotels and Edition, which is a partnership with Ian Schrager, the pioneer of the boutique concept. The boutique hotel sector, which represents 5% of the industry, has posted a 6.1% annual growth since 2009, according to IBISWorld research company, and the revenue engine is just warming up.

When Standardized is a Dirty Word

With "flexibility" and "customized service" as their buzzwords, these lifestyle hotels are the antithesis of the "standardized" industry that had previously been so successful up the 1950s until the past decade, when large chains began aggressively expanding into the boutique hotel segment.

InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) recently completed the acquisition of Kimpton Hotels & Resorts, one of the largest boutique hotel chains in the US. IHG also owns Hotel Indigo (dubbed as "the first branded boutique" in the industry), known for its farm-to-fork gourmet restaurant and special pet services, including the Canine Cocktail Hour. EVEN Hotels, its other foray, emphasizes health and wellness amenities for the physically active business and leisure travelers.

What makes individual boutique hotels stand out is how they embrace the neighborhood and celebrate its customs and heritage. Each hotel in the Autograph Collection, for instance, is an organic extension of the local architecture; thus, no two are alike. Hyatt's Andaz (Hindi word for "personal style") raises the bar on experiential travel through Andaz Salon, a virtual venue (with posts from "Cultural Insiders") and series of locally relevant events. Tryp by Wyndham is staffed by people with "real local know-how," so guest can "own" Manhattan.

Under the management of Davidson Hotels & Resorts, Radisson Fisherman's Wharf will soon transform into Hotel Zephyr, a luxury boutique hotel with nautical design elements, from old cargo containers to corrugated metal sheets. It caters to the millennials' global village spirit with hip but relaxing communal spaces that encourage interaction.

Feels Like Home…but Better

Boutique hotels are striving to bring the comforts of home to travelers, with a lot of extra perks thrown in--none of the stuffy, traditional setup that limits their movements and productivity. As the slogan for Moxy (Marriott's) goes, it's "Just like home, but with a bartender"--if home includes a fully stocked bar, free WiFi access all throughout, and a 42-inch flat screen TV in the bedroom.

In the pursuit of "boutiquefication," InterContinental Milwaukee offers guests the option for either a private home-like or a social setting. A "runners program" is in place, so the staff can pick up anything the guests fails to anticipate, while IT support is on call 24 hours. A special printer prints out 150 newspapers from around the world. Just like home, regular guests can arrive with all their belongings already in place, and, with the hotel's flexible menu, they can also have meals customized to their palates.

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