- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 2, 2006

At the Hotel Helix, everyone is a star. You could be a convention-goer from Atlanta or a tourist from Seattle; you still get to hold your meeting on Soundstage A or end the workday with complimentary champagne in the neon-rimmed lounge.

The Hotel Helix, near Logan Circle, is among the growing number of boutique hotels in the District. In the nation’s capital, where once there were just Hyatts and Marriotts, more than a half-dozen boutique hotels have opened recently, featuring such qualities as staffers trained by the Washington Ballet, leopard-print bathrobes, designer linens and themed rooms.

Just what defines a boutique hotel is open to interpretation. The hotel industry does not have a formal definition. Some say it is the small size of the property. Others, such as the hotel industry consultancy and data firm Smith Travel Research, say a boutique hotel earns its designation with luxurious accouterments and attention to detail.

“A boutique hotel is a lifestyle thing,” says Ed Virtue, manager of the Palomar, a recently opened, 305-room hotel near Dupont Circle. “We’re not cookie-cutter; we’re very personalized.”

For Caeli Smith, 14, of Philadelphia, an acclaimed violinist who was in the District performing on National Public Radio, the boutique feeling is a bit more basic.

“It’s the coolest,” she says of her recent stay at the Hotel Helix, complete with Pop Rocks in the retro-style minibar. “I wouldn’t expect a hotel to look like this, ever. It seems like a movie set.”

Much of Washington’s recent status as a trendy hotel destination can be credited to Kimpton Hotels, a San Francisco-based hotel company that has opened (as owner or management) seven boutique properties here since 2001.

“Times are changing, and tastes are changing,” says Mike Depatie, Kimpton’s chief executive and president. “Washington is a great urban market. You have businesspeople as well as leisure travelers. Our hotels really appeal strongly to both groups.”

Kimpton also has plans to open properties in Arlington, Old Town Alexandria and Bethesda, Mr. Depatie says.

Victoria Isley, senior vice president of the Washington, DC Convention & Tourism Corp., says the influx of boutique properties in Washington over the past few years happened alongside other aspects of urban renewal. Areas of the city such as 14th Street Northwest and the Penn Quarter have experienced a revitalization, and foodies have flocked to chef-driven restaurants, she points out.

“There was sort of this introduction to hip experiences here,” Ms. Isley says. “The hotels are part of an overall experience. No question, D.C. attracts a very affluent group. Meeting planners are really appreciating the breadth of hotel products here.”

While the expansion has been rapid — and has resulted in bigger chains upgrading some of their amenities — boutique properties make up only about 1 percent of the U.S. hotel market’s estimated 4.5 million hotel rooms, Mr. Depatie says.

“Boutiques are a sophisticated city thing,” he says, “but it is starting to morph into the rest of America. All I know is that customers like them. Every time we build a hotel, we fill up the rooms.”

Guests at Kimpton’s Washington hotels get very different experiences depending on where their room is located.

The Palomar is the latest entry to the D.C. market; Kimpton spent millions to remake the former Radisson at 2121 P St. NW into an urban oasis. The Palomar’s theme is “Art in Motion,” so doormen have been trained in dance movement, and other staffers have taken acting improv lessons to learn to deal better with customers, says Brett Orlando, general manager.

Guests can stay in the new Washington Ballet Suite, where a ballet barre and photos of dancers line the wall. There are rooms with additional space for yoga, as well as spa suites with big soaking tubs and aromatherapy infusion systems.

The Palomar sets itself apart with its pet program. Pets not only are welcome here, they are treated like important guests. They can belly up to the Bark Bar, a three-tiered watering station outside the front door. While human guests enjoy the nightly wine hour, pets can gather at the Dish, the pet lounging area. Gourmet pet treats and comfy dog beds are available.

The Hotel Monaco, across the street from the Verizon Center in Penn Quarter, is going for a grand, old-Washington feeling. The 184-room hotel opened in 2002 in the all-marble building that once was the General Post Office.

A three-year renovation restored the building to its original grandeur.

“When we got the building, it had an awful linoleum floor and a dropped ceiling,” says Hotel Monaco manager Mike Sutter.

The hotel has 15-foot ceilings, a bust of Thomas Jefferson in each room and staffers in purple corduroy suits designed by Cynthia Rowley. There are “Tall Rooms,” with customized longer beds and higher shower heads for tall guests. Guests can borrow a goldfish in a bowl from the hotel to keep them company.

Other boutique hotels around town offer small details that set them apart from one another. Dupont’s sleekly decorated Hotel Madera is home to the acclaimed restaurant Firefly. Hotel Rouge, on 16th Street Northwest, features red — from velvet drapes to Red Bull in the minibar. Topaz Hotel in Northwest has an oasis theme. Capitol Hill’s Hotel George places the emphasis on contemporary.

Back at the Helix, sparkly curtains replace sliding doors at the hotel’s entrance. All the better to give guests the big-star treatment. Roy Lichtenstein art lines one wall, and Pucci-style rugs grace the floors of the guest rooms. “Zone rooms” feature lava lamps and high-end stereos.

Guests can request the eco-floor, where special air- and water-filtration systems are used and biodegradable bath products are offered.

So order an Electric Lemonade from the Helix Lounge and settle into a white patent-leather alcove. This place is a long way from the Howard Johnson it used to be.

Clearly, for cities like Washington, different is in; ordinary is out. Look for more hotels with imported linens, creative themes and aromatherapy.

“Can it be hokey? Sure,” says hotel consultant Harry Nobles, who formerly was in charge of AAA’s hotel ratings, “but it also appeals to a certain public. A theme is something different. I recently stayed in a hotel that was ‘the library,’ and every room was a different Dewey-decimal system category. If it works, why not?”

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