Dare to stay different

Boutique hotels offer travellers a hip and sometimes quirky alternative to traditional five-star chains.

Luxury is no longer enough for experienced travellers.

They want their hotel accommodation to have cutting-edge style as well as the home comforts. They want to feel part of the scene of whatever city they're visiting.

They want to be inspired by the interiors, challenged by the artwork and ultimately sated by the level of service. So strong is the demand for high-end hip that millions of dollars are being poured into refurbishing or opening "lifestyle" hotels.

"What people want is a bit of differentation and a more intimate experience," says Sandra Chipchase, chief executive of Destination NSW. "As Australians have been travelling offshore in record numbers they're wanting that same style that they've been finding in Europe."

Demand is very strong for the lifestyle hotel, according to David Seargeant, managing director of AHL's development group which recently opened the eccentric QT hotel in downtown Sydney. "They're delivering an energy to a segment that hasn't been attracting investment for a while," he says.

The sums make sense: boutique hotels can attract a premium room rate with no greater running costs. "People are willing to pay more for that attention to detail, for something more quirky and different," says Chipchase. Lifestyle hotels are getting the guests: people want to stay at them. It is an experience in itself.

"People who travel a lot don't necessarily want to be in a big hotel where everything is the same," says Cleo Seaman, manager of the five-star Como Melbourne. A major redesign has just been completed at the iconic Chapel Street hotel, giving it a glamorous, though still understated, sophistication. It's a look and feel that is very "Melbourne".

In Sydney, the $70 million QT hotel, which opened on the busiest corner of the CBD in September, was completely design-driven. The QT's five-star quirkiness borders on the bizarre [http://www.smh.com.au/photogallery/travel/cooler-than-cool-sydneys-qt-hotel-20121008-278uj.html], reflecting its theatrical heritage and drawing celebrity visitors. The staff, while smart and highly trained, are employed for their good looks and for their ability to strut a bellhop or doorman uniform straight out of a Broadway pastiche.

"Experienced travellers are looking for something different that reflects the city they're in," says Seargeant.

The lifestyle hotel concept started in New York with the opening of Morgans on Madison Avenue in 1986. Europe quickly followed suit. Now it's Australia's turn.

Lifestyle hotels are being established from both conversions of heritage buildings, as with the QT, and from purpose-built constructions. Sydney, unsurprisingly, boasts most of this new breed, sprinkled predominately throughout the Rocks. Seven five-star boutique developments opened or were upgraded in the past year. The waterfront Sebel Pier One and the Harbour Rocks underwent major refurbishments. The Adge Hotel and 1888 opened in Surry Hills. The new Bailey's Sydney has 14 rooms, each with a butler, from about $1200 a night.

Melbourne's best known lifestyle hotels remain the Olsen, an art-led boutique hotel, and its rival across the road, the Como.

Cleo Seaman says it is "well-travelled" people who choose the Como, which has long been known for its star-studded clientele.

"They travel so much they're used to being in hotels and they want to stay where it feels a little bit more like home," Seaman says.

"We have many long-stay guests - usually about five or six weeks.

"There's that level of service should you need it, otherwise we leave you alone. It's discreetly elegant. A luxe sanctuary."

The Como's three two-storey penthouse suites are straight from Hollywood (just ask LA ex-pat Napoleon Perdis who stays there when in town). One boasts a piano. "It's a great hotel with a beautiful personality and great life about it," says Seaman.

The rooms are light and spacious and the suites open-plan with large workspaces. Seaman says: "You can work from your desk but with a level of comfort so you don't feel like you're working in a shoebox. There's a level of care and attention around as well should you require it."

Last year's refurbishment transformed the lobby and bar and brought up the standard of the 107 rooms. Carpets and curtains, desks and kitchens were all replaced and redone with bold lighting, touches of colour and custom-made furniture by Jardan.

Interior designer Val Kopilas, of local firm Elsie and Betty, says the aim was to create a "highly cosmopolitan design which reflects the Chapel Street fashion and entertainment precinct". Koplias says inspiration was also taken from more natural elements such as the established Japanese garden that is within the hotel.

AHL made great use of what was there when it developed the 200-room QT hotel last year. On a premium site, Market Street in the CBD, it married two adjacent and iconic buildings - the 1929 State Theatre, which AHL has always owned, and the former Gowings department store, which it bought four years ago from the Gowings family.

Many original features were retained and improved - a juxtaposition for the throbbing light installations, dressmakers mannequins and neon-coloured furniture decorating the hallways and reception. A New York vibe prevails while, in the basement, a French barber provides traditional cut and shaves in antique barber's chairs.

There's 12 styles of room. They range from hardwood-floored funky loft in the old suit department of the Gowings bit, to the stately lux presidential suite on the theatre side of the hotel - David Seargeant's old office. They're all generously sized and beautifully appointed. And they're designed for fun: a martini kit is ready and waiting, the lighting is theatrical rather than practical and the beds are big and inviting. The QT is the type of place you visit for a good time, led by the lively and fine Gowings Bar and Grill.

"We're very pleased with the way the building has worked," says Seargeant. "Already it seems to be attracting a celebrity crowd and visitor numbers are high and building."

Seems it does indeed pay to be different.

Natasha Hughes was a guest of the Como and the QT, with assistance from Destination NSW.