The Boutique Boom; Why Hotels That Feature Modern Design and a Hipper Image Are Sprouting All over the Country, Including the First Coast

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Byline: ROGER BULL

Above the TVs in the lobby, a ticker runs not only the latest news, but stock updates as well. Over by the elevator, a screen tells you if the flights out of Jacksonville International Airport are on time. And next to the pool table in the lobby, there's another table to set up your laptop and plug it in.

Welcome to world of the boutique hotel. At a time when hotels worldwide are struggling, the concept called boutique hotels are exploding.

More than 40 boutique brands came on the market in 2008 alone, said Fran Kiradjian, founder and chairwoman of the Boutique & Lifestyle Lodging Association, which formed in December and already has more than 200 members.

In the past year, Aloft and Hotel Indigo, both part of national chains, have opened in Jacksonville, joining local boutique hotels such as Casa Marina and Seawalk Hotel.

"Customers' taste have changed," Kiradjian said. "Generation Xers and Generation Y want a more experiential stay, rather than the big, branded cookie-cutters that dominated the scene."

So what are they, and what makes them boutique? First of all, they're on the small side. The maximum used to be considered 100 rooms, but now it's more like 150. And they look different: The colors are bright, the design is more modern, hipper.

"It has to have some kind of unique design," Kiradjian said. "They'll often bring in local flavor, local artwork. They create a place for people to congregate. Xers and Ys want to get together. They don't just want to stay there. They want to hang out and meet people."

At Aloft and Hotel Indigo, the bar and the lobby are all one big room. Drinks and laptops together.

"We completely rethought the space to become a social gathering spot," said Page Francis, senior vice president of marketing for Aloft. "There's tables for working or chattering. It drives the overall vibe for the hotel."

The first boutique hotel, Morgans, was opened in New York in 1984 by Ian Shrager and Steve Rubell, the pair behind iconic nightclub Studio 54. Rubell coined the term "boutique" and Shrager went on to build more.

In 2008, he joined Marriott International to create its luxury boutique brand, Edition, which will debut this year.

And while boutiques were originally independent hotels, all the major chains have gotten involved in the past few years.

Starwood, which has brands such as Westin and Sheraton, opened its first Aloft in 2008 and at one point last year was opening one every other week. It's about to open its 40th.

The Jacksonville Aloft opened last year, right across the street from River City Marketplace near the airport. A second is already planned for Tapestry Park, just south of Tinseltown off Southside Boulevard. …