A KEEN observer of Ipoh’s hotel industry would notice there has been a new dynamic disrupting the traditional dominance of large hotel chains.
Boutique hotels have been springing up over the past few years, offering a personalised experience for visitors to Perak’s capital city.
Despite their smaller size, many boast impressive occupancy rates and report consistent growth since they opened for business.
A different style
Boutique hotels typically have between 10 and 100 rooms, with luxury facilities in unique or intimate settings with full service accommodations.
They come in all shapes and sizes, mixing ancestral heritage of pre-war buildings with modern art and facilities such as rooftop swimming pools.
There is individualistic flair to their furnishings, which can be thematic, welcoming and stylish, rarely can one find two boutique hotels that look the same.
One of Ipoh’s pioneering outlets was the M Boutique Hotel that opened in 2013.
At first, occupancy rates stood between 10 and 20 per cent as the local market were sceptical of boutique establishments.
“At the time, boutique hotels were in its infancy and predictions of doom were rife. But our owners wanted to give Ipoh a shot in the arm and challenge the norm,” said director of operations Suzana Azmi.
“But over time, potential hotel owners began asking us questions about our methods, and the trend picked up.
“Now our occupancy rates are between 60 and 70 per cent, and up to 90 per cent during holidays.”
Similarly, the Ban Loong Hotel in Jalan Bandar Timah in the Old Town district attracts more than 100 guests a month, and records occupancy rates of 85 to 90 per cent during holiday season.
“Boutique hotels are a hit with foreign tourists, especially in the heritage zone.
“They like our history and unique designs and it helps that we are in a strategic location,” said owner Loh Ban Ho.
Attracting young crowds
Boutique hotels attract different crowds compared to larger hotels — younger clients prefer outlets that offer a different experience and in line with their lifestyles.
Based on customer feedback, Suzana said M Boutique guests like the concept of unique decor and ambience, and unpretentious service.
“Ipoh has been declared a hipster town, a unique youth-oriented concept. Boutique hotels are a part of this and now integral to Ipoh,” she said.
The location of boutique hotels can be crucial to their success. Ban Loong, for example, is housed in a 102-year-old building which used to be a stopover for Chinese migrants taking their first steps in Ipoh.
The building has been in the family for four generations, and Loh made it better by adding steel framework and modern furnishings.
“Only by maintaining the original bricks and mortar can we adequately portray the history and stories that come with the building,” Loh said.
“Tourists are interested in heritage boutique hotels because people lived here centuries ago.
“They want to relive history themselves.”
Boutique hotels usually have themes to help establish a unique identity. This identity, be it heritage buildings or hipster decor, serves to bring in customers.
“Before this, travellers used to depend on tour guides but no more. They like to plan their own trips and to do what they like,” said Happy 8 Hotel managing director Tan Kai Lek.
“It is important for hotels to have a special attraction, whether it is decoration, activities, or history.”
The Happy 8, for instance, is filled with local art and furnishings as Tan is a firm believer in promoting the local lifestyle to tourists.
His staff also engages with their guests, explaining the history of the hotel and the surrounding Old Town district.
“I believe the popularity of boutique hotels will continue, because guests feel at home. Our staff members spend time telling them about Ipoh and each guest is showered with attention.”
As Perak’s tourism industry continues to develop, M Boutique’s Suzana believes boutique hotels will grow like “mushrooms after the rain”.
She believes this will crowd the market, but notes the variety of hotels will further spur local tourism.
Malaysian Association of Hotels Perak state secretariat chairman Maggie Ong agreed, saying this only bode well for tourism and the hotel industry.
“Boutique hotels contribute to local demand for niche products and fulfil the gap between the mid range and luxury hotels.
“All hotel options combined will provide choice for consumers and stimulate a bigger market for local tourism.”