As today’s travellers seek meaningful, authentic travel experiences, hotels are no longer just a place to sleep but an immersive experience of culture, cuisine, heritage, design, nature, or all of the above.
When it comes to holiday hotel preferences, millennials tend to choose independent or boutique hotels over the chain or franchise hotels favoured by previous generations. One of the key reasons behind this shift has been the impact of review and comparison websites, replacing the need for trusted brands and standardised services in order to meet expectations. With people travelling more frequently now than ever, the appeal of a hotel room that looks the same no matter what country you’re in has given over to hotels with more creative freedom and original designs and concepts.
In order to remain competitive, a lot of hotel chains have started to emulate boutiques, also focusing on unique rooms and experiences for guests. Likewise, in order to compete with big brands, independents have formed their own branded memberships based on shared quality standards and values. For example, Small Luxury Hotels of the World and Relais & Châteaux are two prominent brands where only the best independent hotels quality for membership.
As tastes evolve, hotels will continue to reinvent themselves. However, a key distinction remains, and that is size. For now, anyway, fewer rooms still mean a more personalised guest experience. Here are five of the best independent memberships to look out for when planning your next vacation.
Best for small luxury boutique hotels and hidden gems
Small Luxury Hotels (SLH) is one of the largest collections of the most unique and interesting independent hotels in the world. The individuality of each hotel is maintained while guaranteeing the highest level of luxury and service through a stringent membership and inspections process. Founded in 1989, there are now over 500 SLH hotels in more than 80 countries worldwide. In December, I’ll be celebrating my birthday at SLH member Grand Forest Metsovo while visiting the region of Meteora in Greece. Sign up to their free membership program for discounts and privileges.
Best for cultural heritage, gourmands and fine dining
Relais & Châteaux began in 1954 in France when eight properties decided to merge together to promote a rural route between Paris and Nice. Although each property was unique, they all shared the same values of amenities, a local anchor and fine dining. Today, there are over 550 Relais & Châteaux hotels and restaurants around the world. In order to qualify, hotels must demonstrate their commitment to preserving the local environment, heritage and traditions of hospitality. However, what truly sets them apart from other hotel memberships is the focus on world-class fine dining. I was first introduced to Relais & Châteaux at Cobbler’s Cove in Barbados, which boasts the best restaurant on the island. In fact, food is so important that some hotels are offered exclusively on a full board basis. For example, La Bamba de Areco outside Buenos Aires or Ceylon Tea Trails in Sri Lanka.
Best for impressive natural landscapes and eco-tourism
In 2016, the National Geographic launched its Unique Lodges of the World with just 4 hotels. I was thrilled to discover that I’d already stayed at one of them, Aristi Mountain Resort in northern Greece. They have since expanded to over 61 lodges and counting, becoming one of the newest and most exciting hotel memberships. Readers of the National Geographic should have an idea of what to expect. Unique luxury lodgings committed to sustainable and eco-tourism and preserving their unique natural and cultural environments.
Best for interior design, fashion and architecture
When the concept of Design Hotels was born in 1993 it was ground-breaking. They were one of the first to reject the standardised, old-fashioned hotel aesthetic that was prevalent back then and seek new, modern interiors with cutting-edge designs and architecture. Their goal was to unite independent thinkers and original hoteliers in the industry, representing over 300 independent hotel members today. I remember when the first Design Hotel in Portugal opened in my hometown of Cascais at the Farol Design Hotel. Eight renowned Portuguese fashion designers were hired to redesign eight of the rooms, one per designer, with a fixed budget. The concept transformed the hotel into one of the most sought after 5-star hotels in the region.
Best for helping you choose from the above!
Although Mr & Mrs Smith is not a hotel membership, it is one of the top travel websites for finding and booking luxury independent hotels. They represent over 1170 handpicked hotels in over 100 countries, many of which belong to the memberships above. Each hotel is invited by experts as well as high-profile tastemakers such as Tom Dixon, Stella McCartney and Dita Von Teese. It was through Mr & Mrs Smith that I discovered La Bamba de Areco in Argentina. While a hotel on my wish list is Areias do Seixo in Portugal. They also offer a variety of membership options with perks.
In addition to these five, there is one more hotel group that deserves a mention, and that is Pousadas of Portugal. Pousadas are a type of Portuguese hotel initiated as a way of preserving old historic and culturally significant buildings by converting them into hotels. A stay at one of these is a must when visiting Portugal!
What are your favourite hotel memberships?
Featured Image Photo Credit: Riyad Yasmine, Morrocco