After luxe-trotting in France, it’s time to book a virtual night of hedonism in one of my favourite European cities – Barcelona.
As Western civilisation ditches its habit of fortnights in Fuerteventura, its latest love is now short breaks. We’re hooked on weekend escapes, even though enjoying them year-round is giving our planet a bad case of halitosis.
Our other newly acquired dependency is boutique hotels. Appearing like a rash across every city on the planet, some are good, some are bad and some are achingly dreadful.
Last year, I visited an expensively renovated and furnished boutique palazzo just south of Florence. A beautiful building in a beautiful place. However, that wasn’t enough to turn a ‘boutique’ into a petit-luxe paradise, because the service just wasn’t switched on and, as a result, the whole place lacked soul.
Instead of chilled Champagne, we found a bottle of baby milk and a tub of half-eaten carrot puree in our suite’s mini-bar, which remained there until we escaped the next day, despite requesting its removal at least five times. Oh, and the set dinner, offering no choice, was inedible. The wine, the billionaire owner’s semi-professional attempt at chianti, was the only one offer, but it did at least strip the taste of uncooked animal fat from the palate…
However, the best boutiques are really good and make some of the old grand-luxe brigade look expensively out of touch.
This boutique-break phenomenon has spawned a plethora of websites, based on the individual hotel’s and small chains’ need for distribution. There are lots of them, selling the same long list of properties: Tablet Hotels, Kiwi Collection, Luxique, i-escape, Hotique, Avant-garde Hotels, Design Hotels, Epoque Hotels and the three I’ve chosen to review from their page one results on Google. The test? A night at Hotel Omm in Barcelona. I couldn’t resist the date – April 1.
Peter Matthews is managing director of Nucleus
The doyen of boutique hotels, Mr & Mrs Smith’s Google advertisement takes me directly to a Barcelona landing page suggesting a cityscape of ‘marvellous modernism’.
You are left in no doubt that you’re on Mr & Mrs Smith’s website. It’s heavily branded with a conventional ‘along the top and down the left-hand side’ navigational schema. But the editorial-style template is busy, and quite restricting with all the relevant copy scrolling in the centre of the screen with ever-present online booking and promotional panels on the right. No ‘wow’ factors.
Hotel Omm was not on the ‘Smith favourites’ list, so I had to use two drop-down menus on the left to select ‘Spain’ and then find the hotel, which was in an alphabetical list of all its Spanish properties. It’s pretty easy to find your way around. Printable details work well and a breadcrumb device shows you where you’ve come from.
The short initial hotel description is complemented by a full review by one of Mr & Mrs Smith’s affiliates. The photo ‘gallery’ contained just two images, both of which had already appeared in the main image slideshow. Some photos are low-res and not up to the task. The Local Activities and Barcelona destination guide sections were useful. If I booked here, Mr & Mrs Smith would tempt me with a complimentary glass of Catalan Cava with breakfast.
The booking process is in three steps. Results claim to include discounts with a double room at Euro 240, superior room at Euro 340 and a suite at Euro 540, ‘saving’ Euro 210. I choose the suite using an easy enough form, but then realise that this isn’t online booking – it’s an e-mail request form that Mr Smith promises to respond to ‘within three hours in Western European business hours’. Booking engine is ‘Powered by Starfish’.
Revenue generation: 18/25
Quite white, but a big improvement on the previous incarnation. Large images, well-structured content and easy links to online booking (stating rates from Euro 195, which seemed like a bargain). However, each hotel fits into a template format with only five images. Efficient design, but lacking in personality.
The old Travel Intelligence site was slow and awkward to use. This one’s fast and reasonably easy to find what you are looking for. The search box in the top left zone (has anyone ever tried placing it elsewhere?) allows me to search for Hotel Omm and delivers a review by Rupert Eden, whoever he may be.
The hotel review is by one of Travel Intelligence’s affiliate travel writers but, unlike the last version of this site, the review has a commercial purpose. Before, I always felt this site had two halves – a journalists’ site and a tacked-on booking engine. Now it feels like one site. The photos are okay, but the ones on the hotel’s own website are better. When I click ‘Show rooms’ I don’t get any additional images and only a very brief description, which is disappointing. ‘Lowest rates guaranteed’ is one of the five reasons to book with Travel Intelligence, apparently, so we’ll see whether this turns out to be true.
Well, the ‘prices from Euro 195’ turns out to be misleading. My results show ‘discounts’ with exactly the same rates and ‘savings’ as Mr & Mrs Smith starting at Euro 340 (more than 70% more expensive than Travel Intelligence initially suggested), so I select the suite, again at Euro 540, exclusive of breakfast and taxes. I find, just like Mr & Mrs Smith, it’s an e-mail form with a promise to respond within three hours during ‘Western European business hours’. Booking engine, again, is ‘Powered by Starfish’. Something fishy here?
Revenue generation: 19/25
Quite white, too. Is this a trend? If you cover up the logos, can you tell which site you are on? Also, like Travel Intelligence, this is a templated design implemented well, although detailed typography could be improved. Large images on the hotel detail pages are refreshingly generous, although this does show up some low-res images that are not up to Splendia’s format. The information is laid out clearly, but the brand experience is a bit sterile.
It works. Splendia asked someone to sit down and work out a consistent information architecture – and it shows in the user experience. Searching for Spain>Barcelona>Alphabetical results took me to Hotel Omm. The clear usability does feel a bit formulaic if you browse this site a lot, though. There’s little modulation in mood as everything feels it is served up by an efficient content management system.
Decent summary, plus five good pictures and guide prices for rooms. Opinions expressed through user-generated content show that 87% of guests recommended this hotel and the sample was a healthy 102. This is about as passionate as this site gets, which is my problem here. I’m looking for some ‘colour’ and opinion and what I get here is cookie-cutter efficiency.
Price results were in pounds ranging from £202 for a standard room to £454 for the suite I was after, about the same as Mr & Mrs Travel Intelligence (who seem to be having every weekend away together). I try to complete the booking process and the £454 becomes Euro 578, including tax, with a Euro 144.50 deposit deducted from my card.
Revenue generation: 20/25