IPOH, March 3 — Any casual observer of Ipoh's hotel industry would notice that there has been a new dynamic disrupting the traditional dominance of large hotel chains.
Boutique hotels have been springing up like mushrooms over the past few years, offering an exclusive and personalised experience for visitors to Perak's capital city.
Many boast impressive occupancy rates and report consistent growth since they opened for business.
But why are they so special? And what actually constitutes a boutique hotel?
A different style
Boutique hotels can have anything between 10 to 100 rooms, typically feature luxury facilities in unique or intimate settings with full service accommodations.
They come in all shapes and sizes, mixing the architectural heritage of pre-war buildings with modern art and facilities like rooftop swimming pools.
There is an individualistic flair to their furnishings which can be thematic or minimalistic, welcoming and stylish and it is rare to find boutique hotels that lack personality.
One of Ipoh's most stylish hotels is M Boutique Hotel which opened in 2013. At first, occupancy rates stood between 10 to 20 per cent as the local market viewed boutique hotels with a sceptical eye.
"At the time, the boutique hotel movement was 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 spread. Now our occupancy rates are between 60 to 70 per cent, and it can reach 90 per cent during holidays."
Similarly, the Ban Loong Hotel, located along Jalan Bandar Timah in Ipoh's Old Town, attracts over 100 guests a month, and records occupancy rates of 85 to 90 per cent during holidays.
"Boutique hotels are a hit with foreign tourists especially in the Ipoh Heritage zone. They like our history and unique designs and it helps that we are in a strategic location," explained owner Loh Ban Ho.
Attracting younger crowds
Boutique hotels attract a different crowd; younger clients prefer outlets that offer a different experience and are more in line with their lifestyle.
Based on customer feedback, Suzana says M Boutique Hotel's guests like the concept of unique decor, ambience and "non-pretentious" delivery.
"Ipoh has been declared as a 'hipster' town... a unique youth oriented concept. Boutique hotels are a part of this and they are now part of Ipoh's charm," 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 temporary stopover for Chinese migrants arriving in Ipoh.
The building has been in the Loh family for four generations, and owner Loh Ban Ho rejuvenated it by building a new steel framework and adding modern furnishings.
"Only by maintaining the original bricks and mortar could we adequately portray the history and stories that still live in the building," Loh said.
"Tourists are interested in heritage boutique hotels because people lived here centuries ago. They want to relive that feeling themselves."
Boutique hotels usually have a unique theme that underlines the identity and personality of the place. This identity — be it heritage or hipster chic — serves to bring in customers.
"Before this, travellers used to depend on tour guides but they are independent now. They are free to do what they like and they are attracted to different things," said Happy 8 Hotel managing director Tan Kai Lek.
"It's important for hotels to have a special attraction, whether it is the decor, activities, or story behind the hotel."
Happy 8 Hotel, for instance, is full of local art, decor and furnishings as Tan is a firm believer in promoting the local lifestyle to tourists.
Tan's staff also intereact with their guests, explaining the history of the hotel and the surrounding Ipoh Old Town district.
"I believe the trend of boutique hotels will increase because guests feel at home. Our staff spend time telling them about Ipoh and each guest can be showered with attention."
As Perak's tourism industry continues to develop, M Boutique Hotel's Suzana believes boutique hotels will grow like :mushrooms after the rain."
She believes this will crowd the market, but notes that the variety of hotels will only spur local tourism further.
Malaysian Association of Hotels (MAH) Perak state secretariat chairman Maggie Ong agrees, saying that this could only bode well for tourism and the hotel industry.
"Boutique hotels contribute to the local demand for niche products and a space between the mid-range and higher-end category of hotels.
"All ranges of hotels combined will create a wider choice for consumers and stimulate a higher turnover for the local tourism market."