Australia's new breed of boutique hotels: Eclectic, Insta-friendly and keen to please

They are well-travelled, they are entrepreneurial, they are smart and they are creative. Whether conceiving a cool city pied-a-terre for urban work and play or clever country digs that exceed the aesthetic desires and practical needs of the design-driven guest, the people behind Australia's new wave of boutique hotels have observed the impact of Airbnb and responded to it.

Australia's hotel scene, fuelled in part by the surge in inbound international tourists, has hotted up with hip new digs run by non-traditional, independent operators sprouting from one side of the country to the other and everywhere in between.

Even in cities where, not so long ago, there was a dearth of attractive and interesting accommodation – hello, Perth and Brisbane – the choice now is nothing short of dazzling and a challenge to major mainstream branded properties.

"Big chain hotels try to cater to the needs and desires of everyone," says Daniel Symonds of the Collectionist hotel in Sydney, "and [they] end up with a bland product that is inoffensive to everyone but amazes no one."

This new breed of hotelier, like Symonds, is creating unique, highly-curated and independent boutique properties that are specific responses to the changing habits of global travellers. Crucially, most, if not all, do not come from traditional hospitality backgrounds and as such they come with few, if any, preconceptions or ingrained practices.

While the big chains, with their funky, millennially skewed sub-brands, have also responded to the changing nature of the hotel market, there is a nimbleness and individuality to the new breed of Australian hoteliers that they believe has better equipped them to compete for guests.

Veriu co-founder Rhys Williams says the figures don't lie about Sydney, the market in which his boutique hotels currently operate. "Look at the top 10 properties on TripAdvisor: at least 50 per cent are boutique or apartment hotels. Veriu Broadway is typically in the top 10 and that's a very powerful message. The market is saying this is what we want. A traveller has developed their sense of what real travel is.

"Twenty years ago they wanted the same club sandwich and to go on the bus tour anywhere in the world. Now, everybody wants to come back and say to friends and family, 'I stayed in this back street and went to this cafe with locals and there was great music playing and the food was amazing'. That's why we are positioning our hotels in areas where people can have real local engagement."

That desire for local engagement has informed how the new breed has approached what used to be the hotel foyer. Take Tribe Perth, for instance, where "expansive common areas and lounges are a hub-like environment for guests to enjoy a meal or socialise with other travellers," says co-founder Mark Peters. "Part collaborative workspace, part social club, our spaces are artfully curated and every inch a sophisticated sanctuary for the modern traveller. The space encourages interaction through its mix of social working areas with a dynamic daytime cafe that is a lounge bar by night."

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The Airbnb influence extends to rooms, perhaps no more obviously than at Sydney's the Collectionist hotel, where each room is different, a collaboration between the hoteliers, designers and artists. These rooms are also bookable on the Airbnb platform, as are those of the Little Albion, also in Sydney.

The six new-breed hoteliers profiled here (with another five highlighted elsewhere on these pages) have created beautiful, unique and successful properties than run the gamut from cheap and cheerful to high-end luxury.

No matter where they sit in the market, however, they share something else in common: they aim to please you, the traveller.

THE HOTELIER

Louis Li, 30, Melbourne

THE HOTEL

SatSep1Cover - Hoteliers - Julietta Jameson
Jackalope, Mornington Peninsula, VictoriaSupplied for use in TRAVELLER via Julietta Jameson

​Jackalope Mornington Peninsula, Victoria, 45 rooms, opened April 2017.

THE CLIENTELE

Millennial Louis Li knows exactly who his whimsical and dramatic hotel is for: "Influencers and the curious". And to that end, his wonderland of design is unashamedly Instagram-ready, offering an eclectic range of backdrops, perfect for selfies and wedding photos, from the bucolic beauty of vineyards and undulating Mornington Peninsula vistas to avant-garde statement furnishings and artfully sexy light installations.

THE BACKSTORY

Born in Kunming, China, to a family of luxury hotel developers, Li always had a flare for the dramatic. A child actor and TV host, he came to Melbourne in 2007 to study filmmaking. He fell in love with the city and surrounds, and soon decided to merge his passions, "… art, design, food and storytelling" with the "family hotel genes". Lunching at Willow Creek winery in 2013, and hearing it was for sale, the idea of Jackalope was born, melding the gloriously picturesque site with a narrative of "alchemy" in the built environment. Realising his vision were architects the Carr Design Group and furniture designers Zuster, with gardens by Taylor Cullity Lethlean.

FAVOURITE HOTEL ... "TUVE Hotel in Hong Kong. This is the most expressive and emotional hotel I have ever seen. It accentuates design details and is minimally furnished with finesse. TUVE is a true reflection of the owner's taste – something surreal and ethereal," says Li. See tuve.hk

WHAT'S NEXT

Jackalope Flinders Lane opens in 2021. "Because each Jackalope tells a different story, the biggest challenge is to create an individual site narrative and still keep a cohesive brand image and holistic aesthetic," says Li.

ESSENTIALS

From $675 a night, 66 Balnarring Road, Merricks North, Victoria, see jackalopehotels.com

THE HOTELIERS

Daniel Symonds, 37, and Toby Raphael, 43, Sydney

THE HOTEL

The Collectionist, 39 rooms, opened May 2018.

THE CLIENTELE

The aim here is to please the guest who considers design and choice a priority. Guests get to " … choose a room just as they would make any purchase," says Symonds. "It's a very personal thing to surround yourself with the colour, style and atmosphere that appeals to you."

THE BACKSTORY

Along with co-founder Toby Raphael, Symonds began FreeSpace, a business that kits out university accommodation with some appeal and avails it to travellers during semester breaks. Its success led to Collectic Hotels which operates Sydney properties the Urban Newtown, the Merchant and the jewel in the crown, the Collectionist.

"I was inspired by a travel experience at a car hire company in the US, where I was allowed to choose the car I wanted instead of being handed a random set of keys," says Symonds. "I was impressed by the flexibility, choice and control it gave me, and it made me question why hotels couldn't operate the same way. Hence the flexible check-in and room choice now in place at the Collectionist, where guests are greeted by a bartender, handed a drink and given a chance to wander around and select the room in which they wish to stay."

OUR BIGGEST HOTEL GRIPE IS ... "twofold. Boring rooms: it's quicker, easier and safer to go with conservative decor but it drives me nuts. No amount of five-star service will balance out a room that could be at any one of a thousand hotels. Second is time wasted on check-ins, whether it's queueing to get your key, or the time spent on paperwork. My international flight check-ins can be quicker than a lot of the domestic hotels I've stayed at," says Symonds.

WHAT'S NEXT

The refurbishment of the Astoria hotel in Kings Cross, Sydney. "And we're on the hunt for additional locations in inner Sydney for the Collectionist concept, as the feedback from guests has been amazing," says Symonds.

ESSENTIALS

From $200 per night, 9-13 Marsden Street, Camperdown, Sydney, see collectionisthotel.com.au

See also: New design hotel offers 'choose your own room' at check-in

THE HOTELIERS

Alex Thorpe, 37 and Rhys Williams, 37, Sydney

THE HOTELS

SatSep1Cover - Hoteliers - Julietta Jameson
Veriu Broadway
Supplied for use in TRAVELLER cover issue via Julietta Jameson

Veriu Broadway. Photo: Supplied

Veriu Hotels & Suites, 312 rooms, opened 2016

THE CLIENTELE

Someone "looking for a connected urban experience," says Rhys Williams. "Veriu aims to bridge the gap between an individual Airbnb-style property, which is giving authentic and local experience but which can be inconsistent, and a big chain hotel, which struggles to give authenticity but is consistent and trustworthy."

THE BACKSTORY

Pre-Airbnb, childhood friends Thorpe and Williams, living together in Sydney's Bondi, decided to rent out a furnished bedroom on a short-term, flexible basis. "Queues down the street" for it twigged something. They invested in apartments in cool neighbourhoods and offered more short-term rentals with the bonus of their local knowledge on tap. "We were interested in delivering a consistent experience and it's hard to do that in mixed locations," says Williams.

Veriu hotels was born. "Each hotel is very different in design, sympathetic to the neighbourhood and the building, because we think diversity of experience in design is fantastic. People can come and stay somewhere different each time. But they know it's safe, secure, someone is there to greet them and their core hospitality requirements are supplied."

THE PERFECT HOTEL GUEST IS ... "Someone who gets out and explores the local area, engages with the communal areas and engages with the hotel. We want them eating, drinking, working with us. It creates a great atmosphere," says Williams.

WHAT'S NEXT

Veriu Green Square opens in July next year. Thorpe and Williams have just bought Melbourne's Punt Hill Group. While more corporately-skewed, some of the properties may be rebranded Veriu.

ESSENTIALS

There are currently four Veriu Hotels & Suites properties in Sydney, one each in the CBD (Veriu Central), Broadway, Camperdown and Randwick. Prices vary between locations See  www.veriu.com.au 

See also: Veriu Broadway: Boutique hotel stay in Sydney's most transformed precinct

THE HOTELIERS

Elisha and Siobhan Bickle, 40s, Brisbane, Queensland.

THE HOTEL

***EMBARGOED FOR GOOD WEEKEND, OCTOBER 28/17 ISSUE***
52 Weekends Away 2017 - NSW, Halcyon House, Cabarita Beach
(handout photo, no credit, no syndication)
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Halcyon House, Cabarita Beach. Photo: Supplied

Halcyon House, Cabarita Beach, northern NSW, 19 rooms and two two-room suites, opened May 2015.

THE CLIENTELE

It's a little boho, and a lot beautiful, and Halcyon House seems to attract guests who are just the same. "The positioning of a boutique hotel in a quiet coastal surfing village hadn't really been tried in Australia before," says Elisha Bickle. "We think Halcyon House has hit the right note – luxurious with a low-key Australian feel, whimsical rather than formal and a relaxing retreat in a location, otherwise known to those in the know, as a 'little pocket of paradise'."

THE BACKSTORY

Siobhan and Alisha Bickle had been visiting Cabarita Beach for many years and had great memories of family holidays there. When they saw the local 1960s surf motel, the Hideaway, was for sale in 2011, they saw potential. Coming from a Brisbane hospitality dynasty, they'd cut their teeth on the award-winning Bunk backpackers hostel and the Victoria Park function centre in inner-city Brisbane.

"This was the first hotel development for us and it was a complete passion project," says Alisha. They secured the services of acclaimed designer Anna Spiro and added their own taste. "I love to stay in a place that wraps me up and is beautifully decorated. You want to go home and dream about visiting that wonderful place again. Siobhan and I wanted each room to be different so that guests can find their favourite room and then keep coming back and choosing to stay in that room each time they come. We wanted a house full of idiosyncrasies and memory-making potential."

THE TROUBLE WITH BIG CHAIN HOTELS IS … "they can lack soul, personality and individuality. It's the unique details, ambience and intuitive service that make a hotel stay memorable," says Alisha.

WHAT'S NEXT

"Nothing right now, but you never know what opportunities are around the corner," says Alisha. "In terms of challenges, staffing in regional areas is a challenge and of course visa restrictions makes it difficult to employ trained staff."

ESSENTIALS

From $600 a night, 21 Cypress Crescent, Cabarita Beach, NSW, see halcyonhouse.com.au

THE HOTELIER

Darren Rubenstein, 38, Melbourne

THE HOTEL

SatApr21coverhotels boutique hotels ; text by Ute Junker SUPPLIED via journalist credit:?Sharyn Cairns pictured: United Places Botanic Gardens, Melbourne

United Places Botanic Gardens, Melbourne. Photo: Sharyn Cairns

United Places Botanic Gardens, South Yarra, Melbourne, 12 suites, open June 2018.

THE CLIENTELE

Darren Rubenstein describes his target guest as "someone who wants a real, intimate experience, who wants to feel like a Melburnian and have five- or six-star luxury at the same time. Someone who may want complete anonymity and no interaction with us or who wants the full experience of breakfast delivered to room, full turn-down, cleaning, picking up anything they want around the city, room service, transfers, tours, restaurant bookings or tickets to shows."

THE BACKSTORY

With a family background in property development, Rubenstein entered into some projects with his freshly retired father-in-law. Landing a plum site opposite Melbourne's Royal Botanic Gardens, he knew "it had to be kept in the family, not developed and sold off". Heritage and physical restrictions of the South Yarra site were allowed to dictate how the hotel developed, with a helping creative hand from Carr Design Group. The minimalist, artful, all-suite, high-spec United Places is "highly curated. Every single element is thought-out", including having local cult-hero chef Scott Pickett running the onsite restaurant, Matilda, which delivers breakfast and a full dining experience in-room, should it be desired.

AIRBNB IS ... "Important. It resonates. People want to feel like a local. People want to have space. It's opened up opportunities for so many travellers. Where it falls down is in the security of knowing I'm going to rock up and it's going to be okay. We had one in New York City that was the same price as the Gramercy and it was disgusting. That's the risk. But there's really a place for it."

WHAT'S NEXT

"We would have loved to have another on the go, but the process needs to be organic," says Rubenstein. "It has to be in as good a location. Whether Bondi [or] Byron [Bay], it has to be right for the brand. We are looking."

ESSENTIALS

From $650 a night, 157 Domain Road, South Yarra, Melbourne, see unitedplaces.com.au

THE HOTELIERS

Mark Peters, 41, and Melissa Peters, 36, Melbourne

THE HOTEL

SatApr21coverhotels boutique hotels ; text by Ute Junker SUPPLIED via journalist pictured: Tribe Perth, Western Australia

Tribe Perth, Western Australia. Photo: Supplied

Tribe Perth, Western Australia, 126 rooms, opened June 2017.

THE CLIENTELE

With its clever design differences and positioned in the highly competitive mid-market, Tribe appeals to the "young at heart, from the travel-ready millennial and Generation X through to adventure-seeking baby boomers and business travellers," says Mark Peters.

"We respond directly to the desires of the modern traveller, creating an affordable luxury alternative without the cliched extras and located within dynamic and central locations."

THE BACKSTORY

Mark and Melissa Peters were running their procurement business out of China for about 15 years. . Then they had a lightbulb moment about modular construction. Along came Tribe, with a natty building model that saw hotel rooms manufactured in a factory in China shipped to Australia, and stacked up like Lego. That's when the fun started. Idle Architecture Studio and Travis Walton Architecture Studio as well as stylist Marsha Golemac created something funky and vibrant within. "Tribe offers smaller, high-end rooms, sacrificing space for quality and comfort by taking out the amenities and services that are no longer a key requirement of today's traveller," says Mark Peters.

THE TROUBLE WITH BIG CHAIN HOTELS IS ... "authenticity. I'm a big believer in attention to detail. A unique space and a curated experience needs to be tailored to each location; sometimes big brands can lose this authenticity. Having innovative staff [who] understand guests needs and can work efficiently within the hotel's brand standards and offering is an essential part of succeeding in that," says Melissa.

WHAT'S NEXT

Tribe Hotel Group has further properties under development in Adelaide and Hobart, and several properties in Melbourne, with more acquisitions to follow. International expansion is on the drawing board.

ESSENTIALS

From $159 per night for two, 4 Walker Avenue, West Perth, Western Australia, see tribehotels.com.au

FIVE MORE NEW-BREED AUSTRALIAN HOTELIERS

RACHEL BROMAGE, THE RIVERSLEIGH, BAIRNSDALE, VICTORIA

Built in 1884 as two grand residences overlooking the Mitchell River, the Riversleigh maintains many original features, including a cast-iron balcony and magnificent ruby glass windows. With a pedigree in local tourism that includes decades of running caravan parks and boat charters in the Gippsland region, Rachel and Adrian Bromage, and Rachel's father, Michael Banson renovated the Riversleigh in 2013. Now, under the careful direction of Rachel, the 22-room country classic does what many promise but don't deliver: a proper hotel in a regional historic property, and then some. High-quality amenities, complimentary wi-fi and a Tesla electric car charging station give this grand old lady contemporary cred. In an adjacent stable is the Loft, a restaurant specialising in local produce and wines. See riversleigh.com.au

FRANCINE AND TONY JOHN, EMPORIUM HOTEL SOUTH BANK, BRISBANE

Degrees in architecture and design make Tony John a developer with a difference, responsible for some of Brisbane's most exciting urban renewal projects, including Southbank's the Emporium District. The third and final tower of the district is home to the lavish new Emporium Hotel. The Johns sold their Emporium Fortitude Valley hotel to the Ovolo Group in January to make way for this glimmering 143-room landmark with glamorous touches framing river views, including the striking 23-metre infinity pool and rooftop bar. It may be brimming with bling but it also has serious eco cred, awarded Gold Certification by EarthCheck. See emporiumhotels.com.au

LOH LIK PENG, THE OLD CLARE, SYDNEY

Singaporean hotelier and restaurateur Loh Lik Peng was a lawyer before he felt the urge to do "something different". Today, his Unlisted Collection has a presence in Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai, London and Sydney, via about 30 properties, a mix of boutique hotels and restaurants. That he pursues "something different" with a hefty dose of the Midas touch is illustrated no better than by the raging success of Sydney's Old Clare Hotel on a heritage site in Chippendale, a suburb that writes the book on urban renewal.

The hotel, comprised of the Clare Hotel pub and the former Carlton United Breweries administration building, was five years in the making and opened in 2015. Designed by Tonkin Zulaikha Greer Architects, the 62-room property retains plenty of original features and quirk, and is also home to three popular restaurants, including Kensington Street Social. See theoldclarehotel.com.au

PAUL FISCHMANN, 8HOTELS COLLECTION, THE LITTLE ALBION SURRY HILLS, SYDNEY

The Little Albion may be the new kid on the block of Sydney's boutique hotel scene, but Paul Fischmann has been in the game since 2004.Many of the hotels he's held leases for have been ahead of their time in many ways: cool, unique offerings in interesting neighbourhoods, with bars and restaurants that were destinations in their own right. Having run backpacker and boarding houses earlier in his career, Fischmann learned a thing or two about hospitality. He has since pared down his enterprise and focused on the needs of the modern traveller. Enter the Little Albion, a "guesthouse" that's another ground-breaker, a collaboration with Airbnb, offering 35 rooms with bespoke finishings. See littlealbion.com.au

IVAN DOMAZET AND JURE DOMAZET, LITTLE NATIONAL, CANBERRA

Little National is a 120-room game changer from the Canberra-based family-run Doma Group, which also operates the Burbury Hotel and Hotel Realm establishments in the national capital. Little National is everything the modern boutique hotel aims to be, with well-considered but tiny rooms dominated by the kind of super-king sized beds you might expect in a place twice the price. Great bathrooms, large HD smart televisions, mood lighting, free high-speed wi-fi and excellent personal connectivity complete the private domain. Downstairs, the guest areas have the same attention to detail, designed to accommodate everyone, with booths, work stations and communal tables, all abundantly wired for devices. See littlenationalhotel.com.au

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