Successfully running a boutique hotel can be challenging in a market full of big players and ever changing customer demands. Click. chats to Jemima Mann-Baha, who runs a boutique hotel in Morocco, to get her take on what’s needed to achieve success and her experience of overcoming hurdles
by Jill Starley-Grainger, Click. Travel Writer
When Jemima Mann-Baha decided to transform a sprawling house in Fes, Morocco into a boutique hotel, it was largely a passion project. Palais Amani was a beautiful but crumbling ‘riad’ – traditional Moroccan house built with a large, central patio. After extensive renovations, it’s now one of the city’s most well known hotels.
Given the increasing popularity of boutique hotels, the sector has grown by nearly 5% in the last five years in America alone. With revenue per available room for boutique hotels consistently outperforming rivals – it might seem that opening one would be a license to print money. But achieving success in such a field isn’t as easy as it looks.
In 2010, when the 15-room Palais Amani welcomed its first guests, Mann-Baha’s plan at launch was to target the European market. However, surprisingly, its earliest clients came from America – and it continues to be one of its strongest markets.
Mann-Baha says: “Not long after opening, we got press coverage from Conde Nast Traveler in the US, which led to lots of bookings for us.”
The early press coverage wasn’t by design – although Mann-Baha now has a solid PR strategy in place. Instead, simply by standing out as one of few boutique hotels in Fes, a journalist discovered them.
This uniqueness, Mann-Baha believes, is crucial to the success of any boutique hotel, but you need to target the right differentials, so market analysis is key. “Before deciding to open a hotel in Fes, we visited often, so we knew that there was a real need for a boutique riad hotel in the medina,” she says. “And we use Google Analytics to see what people are searching for so we can be sure our offer continues to match their changing demands.”
Even if your hotel is similar to many in an area, you can still set yourself apart. Palais Amani only employs local people.
People choose boutique hotels because they want a personal experience that feels culturally authentic
“People choose boutique hotels because they want a personal experience that feels culturally authentic. And while we train the staff to high service levels, we encourage them to chat with guests and share their own unique insights into the city,” Mann-Baha says. “It makes guests feel like they are visiting friends rather than checking into an anonymous chain hotel.”
The introduction of Moroccan cooking workshops is another way Palais Amani has set itself apart. “Providing niche local experiences for clients to theme their stay has been a great asset,” says Mann-Baha. The workshops have been so popular that it has built an annex to contain a new cooking school.
Bloggers and influencers
Another area Palais Amani has found success with has been working with bloggers and influencers.
“At first we didn’t see the value of it. But recently, it’s worked very well for us. We check their feeds and look at their followers to ensure they’re a good fit, and this has led to bookings,” says Mann-Baha. While they haven’t been paying influencers, they have given them free rooms, meals and hospitality for a couple of nights. “This has proven to be a very low-cost, high-return strategy for us recently.”
To help with loyalty, exposure and growth, Palais Amani now invests more heavily in its own Instagram feed and sends regular newsletter updates with MailChimp. “We also use Salesforce, a customer relations management system, to ensure client requests are followed up to the letter,” she says.
But Mann-Baha also notes how difficult it is for small hoteliers to keep pace with technology, marketing and PR. Beyond technology, Mann-Baha has learned some crucial lessons about design.
“Boutique hotels aim for the highest quality décor and interiors, but one of our more expensive lessons early on was the purchase of some expensive tableware. It was beautiful, but completely impractical in a hotel context,” she says.
“With that, and other financial choices, our motto now is, ‘Will it change the room rate?’, and if the answer is no, then it’s not worth investing in!”
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Jill is a travel, tech and lifestyle journalist, who has written for some of the world’s best-known publicationsMore by Jill Starley-Grainger
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