BLLA makes strategic moves for the future

WEST HILLS, CA—Next month, the Boutique & Lifestyle Lodging Association (BLLA) will host its annual Boutique Hotel Investment Conference, bringing together thought leaders from across the industry. But that’s not the only iron it’s got in the fire—the association has several projects in play to aid boutique hoteliers.

“The board of advisors at BLLA agreed book-direct initiatives were really something major that we had to tackle,” said Frances Kiradjian, founder/CEO of BLLA. For the past year, the association has been working toward that goal and later this month will soft launch Stay Boutique. “It’s a new platform that give our hotel members an opportunity to get incremental bookings directly to their own proprietary booking engine.” Additionally, it will include the ability to explore boutique hotels—to tell their stories.

The association is planning a slow rollout, starting with 15 cities and about 233 properties. “Then, slowly but surely, we will get the rest of the BLLA members up. We expect by the end of the year to have it fully functioning and start to create some stories for the consumer to find it. It’s taken a lot of planning and now it will just take that diligent effort to get that up and running,” she said.

“It will unfold to be the official list of real boutique and lifestyle hotels,” Kiradjian added, noting that consumers were a driving force behind Stay Boutique. “Consumers, even business travelers, have actually called me and said, ‘I don’t trust everything online, but I would trust an official association who not only defined the sector but is working on it day in and day out.’ That was behind the push to make it happen as well, but more so, it’s the book direct—reducing dependence on other channels that may be way more expensive.”

Kiradjian noted that a lot of consumer confusion is because of the overuse of the word boutique. “There is blatant overuse all over the place,” she said, noting that she understands why—it’s an endearing term. “If you think of when it was first used, which it was really used to describe small fashion houses where you could go and buy an article of clothing and not be worried that your friends would be wearing it. That’s similar to boutique lodging in that you’re getting all of these unusual experiences all over the world because you’ve got some real creative minds behind it.” Stay Boutique will be a way to help guests find these experiences. 

In the same time frame, the association will also launch BLLA Grand Bazaar, which will “really allow the right hospitality service providers or manufacturers/vendors to sell their products directly to our hotels,” Kiradjian said. “You can shop for lamps and you can actually buy them. That will soft launch this month and after the conference, it’ll get worked on more, so that’ll be by the end of the year as well.”

Another aspect to BLLA’s future will be incorporating other verticals. “A lot of people consider BLLA to be a master brander and connector to the boutique and lifestyle world, which doesn’t end at hotels. It takes into consideration so many other things that fit that genre of upscale boutique lifestyle, which could be restaurants, bars and lounges, and retail even,” Kiradjian said. “We’re excited that we’re instigating that and including those kinds of things in our conferences as well as in our plans for the future. All of it goes together with the boutique lodging sector. 

“You have so many new small brands coming about, and many come from fashion, art, entertainment, music, from that world, and some are speaking at our Stay Boutique Leadership Conference in October,” she continued. “The morphing of the next gen in boutique lodging, which is taking a very well-known retail brand, whether it’s Karl Lagerfeld and his amazing design aesthetic that people drool over, to people who create amazing retail stores or restaurants like Nobu. Now you have the West Elm hotel brand. Look at Equinox—you’ve got a following of all of these people who come to your facility every day, and they embrace that name. Why not take that to the next level?”

Additionally, the association will be focused on education, having partnered with UCLA Extension, the continuing education division of the University of California at Los Angeles. “We also have aligned ourselves with UCLA Extension to have the industry’s first boutique lifestyle educational program for owners, executives and even staff. Training a boutique hotel is a very precarious situation and you have to have the right trainers.  The training of your staff is one of the most important things you can do,” Kiradjian said. “If you think of the big chains, there is a headquarters that has a lot of answers for you, and independent hotels don’t necessarily have that. Small brands may have it at a smaller level, of course, but maybe not all the information you need. As an association, we’re able to reach out to a lot of different communities and get the right answers. We do that on behalf of our members and we give them the resources they need—people who are maybe more familiar with finding capital for them or helping them with renovations or staffing or designers and architects who are more familiar with working with the world’s best boutique hotels.”

“We had our first board meeting in February for this new alliance,” Kiradjian reported. “At our October conference, as we did last year, we’ll have an extra day of UCLA Extension education, but in 2018 we’ll have longer, more established programs. Education is so important.”

And, on a personal note, Kiradjian was excited about the additions to BLLA’s board—including Fred Kleisner, whose resume includes roles at Morgans Hotel Group, Hard Rock Holdings LLC, Wyndham International Inc., Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc., Interstate Hotels & Resorts and Hilton Hotels Corp., among others. “I’m really excited to get someone who’s been in the industry a very long time who many people love. He just fits so perfectly with us. He’s going to be my co-chair and…I’m so impressed with who he is, how advanced he is on everything, including technology. He’s really got great insights,” Kiradjian said.