Founded by Frances Kiradjian nearly 10 years ago, the Boutique & Lifestyle Lodging Association (better known as BLLA), today stands as the central hub for those involved in the boutique and luxury lifestyle communities. BLLA’s goal is to connect the world’s most dynamic executives with opportunities for global recognition and relationships to the world’s best hotels, vendors and manufacturers.
Together with her daughter and business partner Ariela Kiradjian, BLLA have launched Stay Boutique Magazine, and are officially launching Stay Boutique later this year — the world’s first and only online direct booking platform dedicated to boutique and lifestyle hotels. The duo also hosts numerous conferences throughout the year including the annual New York Boutique Hotel Investment Conference and the Travel Industry Executive Women’s Conference. I recently spoke with the mother-daughter team to talk the boom in boutique hospitality and the ways in which BLLA has impacted the industry.
Frances, what inspired your passion for luxury travel and the hospitality industry?
FK: I have always been keenly interested in fashion, art and travel which was inspired by my brother. I remember getting on a plane to Europe for the most amazing five-week trip with my aunt and mother and being hesitant and nervous. My brother had a heart-to-heart to tell me there was nothing better in life’s experience than to travel the world. He was right!
I became enamored with the hospitality industry back in 1987 when I worked for Carlson Travel, one of the biggest travel agency groups in the world next to American Express. I experienced hotels both large and small and all of the bit and pieces that go along with negotiating rates as well as ensuring each property met the goals of my corporate clients. I had the opportunity of truly understanding hotel operations and distribution as well as visiting some of the best hotels in the world.
My last venture was building a hotel marketing program and during these 15 years I kept getting calls from independent hotels who had no one to turn to for help. I set up meetings with many of the top boutique brands and asked them what they thought of an association like BLLA, to connect owners and operators with everything they needed whether it is finding capital to designing a property to operating and furnishing it. They all pointed to me and after knowing me for several years basically said, “you need to do this Fran!”. So I felt a real sense of responsibility for the entire hotel sector that was placed in my hands.
What did you see in the market then that made you feel there was an opening for BLLA?
FK: I recognized that boutique hotels were becoming a requested choice for corporate travelers and there wasn’t one place for them to go to find them. I sat next to some big agency groups and corporate travel managers who told me their travelers were requesting them, but the boutique sector was not mature yet (until BLLA launched) so confusion was the course of the day. Unless you intimately knew a boutique brand, it was difficult to determine who to trust online. Certainly not the OTA’s (Online Travel Agencies like Expedia).
It was more of what I wasn’t seeing. There was not an official resource for this developing community of free thinkers within hospitality (at the time). I saw an opportunity to help a sector I’m passionate about and to help them reach legitimacy, and I have to say I think we’re doing just that now at the association.
Ariela, your mom’s one of the biggest leaders in the luxury travel and hospitality industry—did you always want to follow in her footsteps?
AK: Definitely. Growing up with a mom who was a #girlboss, breaking all stereotypes of what a mother “should” be, was the best mentorship anyone could receive. She also had me thinking as a #girlboss very early on in life, taking me to meetings since I was six years old, asking my opinion all the time about business decisions and always believing in my crazy ideas. It was very natural evolving into being business partners as well.
As business partners and mother-daughter duo, did you always share the same thoughts and values when it came to travel, hospitality and boutique luxury?
AK: We have very different views and we have very similar views at the same time. Everything is a compromise, it’s like we would create a thesis then prove to the other that it’s right.
In what ways does BLLA differentiate itself from other hotel associations?
FK: Association members are an integral part of the boutique family, something they love about BLLA. By lending their name and their voice to the BLLA community, that one singular action helps strengthen the message to the world—that boutique and lifestyle hotels are here to stay and their importance to hospitality/lodging and the entire guest experience cannot be overlooked. They are what makes the travel world go ‘round and without them, what a boring world it would be. After all, there is a little bit of boutique in all of us!
Ariela, how do you think your mom and BLLA have impacted the boutique industry? In what ways have you seen it change?
AK: She had a huge hand in the whole movement of boutique hotels. She does not like telling people that— so I do that for her! Her story is ridiculously inspiring. I mean, starting an association based in hospitality/travel in a giant recession while people have stopped traveling…all because she strongly believed that boutique hotels were the future. Everyone around her told her she’s stupid for starting BLLA and that she should go find another “job.” Of course she didn’t let the haters get to her and she powered through. She was/is the biggest fighter in the world for boutique.
How would you describe the luxury hospitality industry now as opposed to when BLLA began in 2009?
FK: The boutique & lifestyle sector is growing at a very rapid rate right now. Brands are launching every week it seems and that includes the big chains. We would not necessarily consider them all “boutique” brands as being independent still has a big value and benefit and is part of our definition of what is real vs. what is “chained to the chain.”
How do you ensure BLLA says relevant and keeps up with travel trends?
AK: My mom and I are constantly reading news not only in hospitality but outside the industry as well. Staying up to date with news and online content is key. Since we both have an overall knowledge of many industries, we’re always able to predict what’s next. We’re also big visionaries and are meeting daily with some of the greatest minds in the world, getting their intake on boutique. It’s a huge array of things that keeps us ahead of everyone else in the game.
What do terms like “boutique” and “luxury” mean to you and what weight do they hold today?
FK: The definition of luxury is changing as much as the definition of a hotel. Being over the top simply for the sake of it is no longer desired by travelers or profitable for properties. In our 2018 sentiment survey, we asked hoteliers how they viewed luxury today. One respondent said, “it is luxury if it exceeds your expectations.” We think this encapsulates the frame of mind to today’s consumer. Opulence for opulence sake is so yesteryear. Today’s luxury is conscious and intentional.
We find people like to use boutique as a buzzword. Boutique is about an experience, not simply lodging accommodations. Boutique is and always has been an endearing word to consumers. It evokes the words personal, quality, upscale, unique and more. It’s something that touches us all. The growth of boutique businesses will continue to expand and evolve in the way we live our everyday lives, from digital interactions to life experiences, all shared on the World Wide Web!
Ariela, you helped launch both the Stay Boutique platform and Stay Boutique Magazine—what was the goal in creating those two outlets? How are each of them holding up?
AK: This is the only media platform dedicated to the boutique community (which consists of hotels, restaurants, bars, fitness studios, coffee shops, art galleries, retail shops and brands). We are currently designing our website and we are launching our summer edition magazine at the upcoming conference in NYC! We believe that magazines are an art form and we put a huge amount of effort into them.
The other half of Stay Boutique is our official list of boutique hotels in the world. This will be a research & inspiration page for consumers looking to travel the boutique way.
What can we expect from this year’s Boutique Hotel Investment Conference on June 6th?
AK: Our theme this year is Next Gen Boutique Money and we will be exploring how brands have become both profitable and influential. We have many amazing boutique thinkers joining us such as Jayma Cardoso of The Surf Lodge, Jeff Carvalho of Highsnobiety, Annika Meller of Anine Bing, Jacques & Rakel Cohen from The Watergate Hotel and John Varvatos, John Targon of Baja East and The Council of Fashion Designers of America. We’ll also be announcing something big in hospitality at this conference — shaking things up yet again!
Main image by Two Roads Hospitality, a BLLA Inner Circle Member. Pictured: The Beekman Residences.