Chain or Boutique?

Those of you who travel a lot are familiar with this age old dilemma when it comes to a place to stay: the devil you know, or a new discovery?

The giant hotel chains grew by exploiting this fear of the unknown.  You went to Maracaibo (where I grew up) or to Venice or Mumbai and if you reserved at the Sheraton you knew it would be OK or even pretty good.  But, if your travels took you to a place without a known brand, it became a game of Russian roulette.  Five out of six times you survived, but occasionally, well, let’s just say you came home with itching sores and way behind in your sleep.

Personally I’m a fan of Starwood Hotels which includes St. Regis, Le Meridien, The Luxury Collection (5 stars) and, of course, the better known brands of Sheraton, W, and Westin.  Further, Starwood has recently added Aloft and Element, which are their new brands focused on the Millennial generation (you know who you are).  Starwood does brands right. Each brand is consistent throughout.  All W’s are “cool” and all Westins are high end business joints, plus some pretty good resorts.  Starwood executives are very disciplined in their branding so once you find what you like, you’ll never be disappointed.  Within each chain there is some amount of variance in absolute quality but never in look and feel.

W Hotel, Santiago, Chile. What are they doing? Just being cool, we guess.

Exceptions? Sure.  When one of their properties is historical or one-of-a-kind they put it in the Luxury Collection, and in that box they all have this in common: They are truly one-of-a-kind! A good example and next in my list of must do’s: Frank Gehry’s masterpiece Hotel Marques de Riscal, Elciego in Spain.  It is surrounded by vineyards, like us.  Check it out here.

This was one of the top ten winery hotels in the world as ranked by American Express (we are also on that list!!!)

As a company, Starwood is special because of the way they treat their “regulars”.  If you belong to their SPG club, they know it, and treat you like you own big stock in the company.  Upgrades, club level, late check outs, etc., all there for the asking  if you spend a lot of nights with them.  Another great way to get this type of treatment is to get a Starwood American Express card and accumulate points by using it for your expenses instead of the much less valuable airline miles cards.  We try hard to use ours to get room nights around the world.  Where an airline mile is worth a penny (less if you want to fly American Airlines, given their blackouts and bizarre fare structure), a Starwood point (you get one per dollar spent) is worth 3 to 10 cents, depending on the hotel!

Leah at the front door of the Eden in Rome

For example, The Hotel Eden in Rome (Starwood Le Meridien), built in 1889, has antique linen (extra starch, feels like potato chips), cool-dude-top-hat doorman, costs 20,000 points a night, equal to 200 bucks.  The best available rate for a room is $600 plus tax. So your points are worth more than three times airline miles, see?  As an aside, Tom Cruise spends four times that when he stays there, for a suite.  Don’t think he uses points, though.

The lobby at the Eden Hotel

On the other hand…now that we have Trip Advisor (the bane of the careless hotelier, and the weapon of the vicious guest), we have a good chance of spending the night at a delightful small hotel, where the staff, the owners, and other guests are part of the experience.  These types of places are what make travel so enticing to most of us because they potentially offer new adventures, new friends, and uncovering the essence of a place.

Sea Five Hotel, Cape Town, South Africa

On the next blog I’ll write about a couple of these places.  In a prior blog you already read about one of my favorites (read it here) that served as inspiration for our own Ponte Vineyard Inn.

So now you know our rule here at Ponte: If unsure of the place we stay at a Starwood property, otherwise we pay up and stay at a boutique with character.  Tell us what you think. Do you agree? What’s your favorite chain? Your favorite boutique?

Best and see you at the winery, or at the hotel…