When one of Phnom Penh’s first boutique hotels, The Pavilion, opened in 2006 in a historic building with a few rooms surrounded by lush grounds, it offered an intimate and stylish alternative to the bland utilitarianism of many of the city’s hotels and guesthouses.
A trend was born.
Today, Phnom Penh has about 30 hotels using the “boutique,” label, but their owners have almost as many definitions for just what that description means.
For Alexis de Suremain, who helped open The Pavilion on Street 19, the term “boutique” connotes a small, intimate hotel with strong character.
But, as the small hotel sector booms in Phnom Penh, some visitors may come away disappointed if they are expecting chic and atmospheric when a hotel sports the “boutique” label.
“We choose ‘boutique’ for the hotel because we see that the boutique name is attractive in the hotel market in Cambodia,” said Kong Saran, manager of the 40-room, seven-floor Mondulkiri Boutique Hotel on Street 178.
Ms. Saran said she chose the word boutique to describe her hotel because it “sounds like an ancient place tourists will want to visit.”
However, with its faded, non-descript exterior and rather bare-looking lobby, The Mondulkiri, which opened in 2012, seems far from conveying an antiquarian atmosphere.
Resembling a piece of modern art the size of a house, Cambodian architect Unnpheng Puthvisal opened Le Blanc Boutique Hotel in 2013. The nine-room hotel is completely white and has a koi pond, indoor pool, and a “floating staircase.”
But since it opened on Street 352, it has not found the market that more established boutique hotels have. Occupancy is about 70 to 80 percent during peak season—December through February—but can drop as low as 30 percent in the off-season, said general manager Leng Chantha.
In comparison, The 240, which has a similar number of rooms but opened in 2008, operates at 90 percent capacity year-round.
“There are more and more boutique hotels coming in every month,” Mr. Chantha said. “If we are not strong, then we don’t get the business.”
Travel agent Andrea Ross, who opened Siem Reap’s Journeys Within Boutique Hotel in 2004, said she views each property her agency lists to ensure it’s a “true” boutique hotel.
“Often hotels label themselves as a boutique hotel when they really are a more mid-range traditional hotel,” Ms. Ross said.
The Queen Boutique Hotel, on Phnom Penh’s Street 214, is a case in point. With five stories and 43 rooms, the hotel is tailored toward a business crowd and the atmosphere is formal rather than intimate.
Operations manager Steven Yap Wei Jian defends the hotel’s “boutique” label on the grounds that it is not as large as chain hotels.
“Boutique hotels can be many kinds of hotels,” Mr. Jian said. “For us, it’s more formal or business friendly.”
The Queen Boutique Hotel was previously named The Queen Hotel and had an occupancy rate of around 20 percent before some renovations and a name change in 2010, Mr. Jian said.
The Queen Boutique Hotel’s occupancy rate is now about 80 to 85 percent year round.
Although some boutique hotels have not met the standard for travel agents, most travelers don’t seem to mind a less-intimate setting so long as service is good and amenities such as Wi-Fi are present.
“It ticks all the boxes at the end of the day,” said Barry Cossins, a tourist from Manchester who spoke highly of his four-day stay at the Mondulkiri Hotel.
Luu Meng, president of the Cambodia Hotel Association and owner of the Almond Hotel, said business at his 60-plus-room hotel in Phnom Penh is still good regardless of the label used to attract guests.
“The boutique hotel has created another interest for international visitors,” he said. “People look for small hotels, people look for big hotels. It’s a good balance.”
Mr. de Suremain of The Pavilion said that boutique hotels are now a part of Phnom Penh’s fabric and the competition will only make them stronger. In addition to The Pavilion, he now operates seven hotels in the city, including The 240 and Blue Lime.
“We contributed in giving an identity to the city,” he said. “There’s space for more creativity and concepts. I think Phnom Penh will remain a leader in this.”
(Additional reporting by Sek Odom)