It has been a tough few months for Cambodia's tourism sector, but the unique characteristics of the capital's boutique hotels have helped them weather the storm.
Alexis de Suremain sits in front of The Pavilion in this photo from last year. He also owns the Kabiki and Blue Lime boutique hotels.
WHY is it sometimes so difficult to book a room in a boutique hotel in Phnom Penh? Because they are usually full, with quite exceptional occupancy rates.
One well-known Phnom Penh boutique, Villa Langka, named for nearby Wat Lanka, is usually 90 percent full according to its manager, Didier Thorel. "We have had this rate from the second month after the opening, one year and three months ago," he said.
Nelly Orgiazzi, the manager of tourism agency Bons Voyages, said the competitive advantage enjoyed by boutique hotels was their ability to keep prices reasonable yet offer a charming place to stay in the centre of the city.
For Orgiazzi, a reasonable price means a room between US$40 and $85 per night.
The seemingly never-ending demand for affordable rooms in a warm and cosy setting with a personal touch encouraged Alexis de Suremain to open a suite of boutique hotels in Phnom Penh. His first project was the Pavilion in 2006, followed by Kabiki, which is dedicated to families, in 2007, and the Blue Lime in 2008. "We rent rooms as cheap as possible for a place very close to the Royal Palace," he said.
He added that it was impossible in Cambodia to provide the level of service that would justify a price tag of $100 or more. "We bet on the quality of the setting and on our equipment. Our most expensive rooms, for example, have a private Jacuzzi and a terrace," he said.
"But we are not a four-star hotel. We assert our guesthouse status. We do not want our customers to complain about any discrepancy between their expectations and the reality."
A great atmosphere and good value for money are not the only keys to success for boutique hotels. They benefit from a niche: Their customers, who tend to be in Phnom Penh for tourism or for business, want a place that is different. Those who are used to travelling the world tend to be fed up with the big hotels where they find everything they need but do not feel at home. At the other end of the travel spectrum, many of those who are not experienced travellers may want a cosy and friendly place that they will remember.
What they have in common is they refuse standardisation and attach importance to the aesthetic. To accommodate this desire, boutique hotels tend to provide a unique style and design in each room.
Although boutique hotels are often priced lower than their big name counterparts, cost is usually not a key consideration for the majority of guests, Orgiazzi said. "If I suggest to my customers to stay at a place $10 above their budget per night in a boutique hotel they do not hesitate," he said. "They increase their budget as soon as they see the photos, particularly if they stay a short time." Indeed, the average stay is only three nights, although business customers can stay much longer, sometimes keeping a room for several weeks.
Certainty in uncertain times
These business travellers also mean Phnom Penh's boutique hotels don't experience the ups and downs of the tourist seasons like hotels in Siem Reap. Because guests tend to arrive individually rather than as part of big groups, they have escaped the cancellations that have recently hit some of the bigger hotels in Cambodia as a result of the global financial crisis and the political turmoil in Thailand. The ongoing dispute eventually led to the blockade of Bangkok's international airport late last year, closing off a key access point to Cambodia and drastically reducing tourist arrivals.
Phnom Penh draws its charm from its colonial past and its traditions. That's what the customers are looking for.
Based on the strictest definition of boutique hotel - an old renovated house with a garden and swimming pool in the middle of the city - the number of "real" boutique hotels in Phnom Penh can be counted on the fingers of one hand.
But as more-and-more hotels try to climb on the boutique-hotel bandwagon, the very definition of what constitutes a boutique hotel is becoming unclear. The travel agency Exotissimo, which specialises in travel around the Mekong region, lists the Amanjaya Pancam Hotel, Villa Langka, the Bougainvillier, the FCC Hotel Phnom Penh, the Pavilion and Raffles Hotel Le Royal as boutique hotels.
Fousing Sem, a senior travel consultant at the agency, said larger brand-name hotels with many rooms should be barred from using the name for fear of eroding the value of the label. "Phnom Penh draws its charm from its colonial past and its traditions", he said. "That's what the customers are looking for in Cambodia. For the modern and new places, they go to Bangkok or Singapore where it is cheaper than here."
De Suremain agrees. "They want the old things," he said. "This is not different from what they are looking for in Venice for instance. That's what the marketers have named ‘the authentic'."
Bad service, no problem
Luigi Savarino, the manager of the Italian restaurant Le Duo, is building seven rooms beside his restaurant to capitalise on the surfeit of demand for a warm and inviting place to stay and receive perfect service.
But even imperfect service is unlikely to put most off if comments on the Trip Advisor website, a popular online travel guide, are anything to go by. Even when many are criticising the service or the staff, they still tend to praise the overall experience.
Contrary to expectations, the relatively small size of a boutique hotel does not make them easier to manage. Economies of scale mean the break-even occupancy rate tends to be much higher than for a larger hotel, while employees tend to have to multitask more, putting them under greater pressure.
Reservation mistakes can also be much harder to rectify. In the event of a double booking - which can be common in Cambodia given human-resource limitations - there are often no free rooms to shunt the guest into.
Many of Phnom Penh's boutique hotel managers spoken to by Prime Location spoke of the difficulty in finding qualified and motivated staff. They looked longingly towards the Ecole Paul Dubrule, a well-known hospitality, tourism and cooking school in Siem Reap where the future stars of Cambodia's tourism industry are trained.
They are unlikely to find succour there - graduates of the school are greedily snapped up by the hospitality sector in Siem Reap. Few make their way south to work in a Phnom Penh hotel.
The boutique operators will be left to battle on, but their unique charm will ensure they will survive the odd slip here and there, be it from one of their staff, Thailand's new prime minister or the guys in suits mishandling Wall Street.