Boutique Hotel Bracketology

When New York's Morgans Hotel (MHGC) opened in 1984, its lobby was meant for lounging, the restaurant was intended for more than dinner with grandma, and halls were filled with Robert Mapplethorpe photographs. Widely considered the world's first boutique hotel, it has given rise to today's boutique mania. Now hospitality giants such as Hyatt (H), InterContinental (IHG), and Marriott (MAR)—which hired Morgans' co-founder Ian Schrager to consult on its new Edition brand—are getting in the game.

According to Portsmouth (N.H.)-based market research firm Lodging Econometrics, there were 410 "branded lifestyle hotels" in the U.S. in the second quarter of 2010, with 62 more set to open through 2011. With all of that growth, it's becoming increasingly unclear what actually constitutes a boutique hotel. " 'Boutique' has no real definition, so technically no one's right or wrong," says Robert Mandelbaum, director of research at Altanta-based Colliers PKF Hospitality Research group. "It stands for outside-of-the-box." That means that hotels with amenities ranging from $8,000 Swedish mattresses and 500-thread-count sheets to, more recently, bathrobes for pets and "spiritual menus" offering sacred texts fit the bill.

The only way to accurately judge a boutique hotel is by evaluating, for lack of a better word, its boutiquey-ness. Herewith, the nation's top newcomers from all regions compete for boutique supremacy. Only one can be crowned champion.

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