Holy city of boutiques

Examining Jerusalem’s boutique hotel trend from the inside

The lobby of the Agripas Boutique Hotel, close to the bustle of the shuk. (photo credit: AGRIPAS BOUTIQUE HOTEL))
The lobby of the Agripas Boutique Hotel, close to the bustle of the shuk.
Wikipedia defines a boutique hotel as a small hotel, typically having between 10 and 100 rooms, with upscale accommodations. First appearing in the 1980s in cities like New York and Paris, the boutique hotel trend has recently come to Jerusalem, with a plethora of places popping up all around the city.
It’s difficult to pinpoint which was the first. Technically, the Dan Boutique, opened 11 years ago, would win that honor. But since it has 129 rooms, it does not fall within the typical boutique size range. The Dan Boutique actually earned its name after a Facebook poll was shared with loyal Dan customers, asking which name they preferred for the newest in the Dan Hotel chain. Dan Boutique won.
“The boutique trend is all over the world,” Ben Yanover, general manager of the Dan Boutique, says.
“People want to come to a quiet, small hotel. In big hotels, they can lose themselves and the employees can’t give special treatment. Checking in and out is more private, as are the dining rooms. The lobbies are quieter. Also the locations are better than with the huge hotels. We’re close to the Old City, the First Station, the Cinematheque. It’s very central. We don’t have a spa, but we offer massage treatments. We also have a gym and a sun deck with a beautiful view. I think it’s about the feeling the guests have when they stay, more than the number of rooms.”
Adhering to the commonly held guidelines of what constitutes a boutique hotel, the Harmony was actually the first in Jerusalem, opened 10 years ago. Located on Yoel Moshe Salomon Street in the city center, the Harmony is a 60-room hotel that blends traditional and contemporary styles. The Harmony is one of a trio of boutique hotels under the Atlas Hotels umbrella, along with the slightly smaller Bezalel on Mesilat Yesharim Street in Nahlaot, and the Arthur on Dorot Rishonim Street in the city center.
“A boutique hotel is about the service,” states Ayala Dekel, manager of Jerusalem Atlas Hotels. “Some hotels call themselves boutique, but they are not really. My hotels have a very high occupancy because it’s all word of mouth from people who have stayed here.
“When I’m asked what is a boutique hotel, I can’t give you a list of things that define it. It’s the feeling that makes it boutique. It’s the way you run the hotel, and the way theemployees understand the concept. We give that additional wow. The way that we welcome guests; we know where they are from, how long they will be here, and the reason they are here. We are in touch with them well before they arrive. This is the big difference.
“I’ve been in the hotel business for 25 years now. I worked at many of the larger, most expensive hotels in Jerusalem. When we opened the Harmony, it was with the intention of providing everything the big hotels offer and more because we have that ability, since we are smaller.”
Dekel shared a story from earlier in the day when a guest walked into the Arthur’s dining room and the waiter identified him to the kitchen as the one who likes a particular kind of vegetable omelet. Thus, even before he ordered his breakfast, it was made for him. If a guest has a birthday, Dekel will ensure that there is a cake waiting in their room.
“It’s a very personal touch,” Dekel adds.
“My employees are the same ones that we opened the hotel with; they are very happy to be here. I’m not looking for employees who just have experience. I care about the personality. I can teach someone how to clean a room, or how to do check-in and check-out, but I can’t change someone’s personality. My guests are not a room number. It makes a difference.”
The Arthur, which opened five years ago, is characterized in style by the same ethos espoused by Dekel; comfortably stylish. There are wooden rocking chairs in the lobby and leather reading chairs in the rooms; the kind you might find in your father’s home office. The Bezalel, by contrast, has a younger and more hip vibe, reflecting the Nahlaot neighborhood that surrounds it. When Dekel speaks about all three hotels, it is with a heartfelt pride and love that is palpably sincere. When I confess to her my frustration with the general lack of customer service in Israel, she agrees and holds up the boutique hotel as a rare bastion of customer-focused care and attention.
The prevalence of boutique hotels in Jerusalem and their increasing popularity may indicate a shift in the city itself.
Along with other upcoming additions to the city, like the fast train to Tel Aviv and the changing face of Mahaneh Yehuda, which has transformed into the new epicenter of nightlife, Jerusalem is no longer only the Holy City, a destination for religious and spiritual seekers. It is a city that offers first-rate cultural experiences; one whose visitors and citizens alike want beautiful design that encompasses a melding of ancient and cutting-edge.
The idea that the boutique hotel trend and the hotels themselves reflect the city can be seen in the details of a hotel like the Eyal. The 68-room hotel on Shamai Street in the city center is owned by the Smart Hotels company, which also owns the 48-room Montefiore Hotel on Shatz Street. The Eyal is the newer of the two.
Completely renovated and reopened four years ago, it maintains a commitment to environmental protection that can be seen in the room design, the energy-efficient air conditioners and heaters, as well as the use of a card to turn on the power in the rooms, ensuring that electricity will not be wasted. As Jerusalem becomes more environmentally conscious with a focus on eco-sustainability, it is fitting that the Eyal reflects this value.
“There are rooms that are not facing the front of the hotel, so they don’t have a view,” says Eyal Tzadik, manager of the Eyal. “So they have a wall of fresh flowers and greenery. This shows our commitment to the environment and that it should be preserved.”
The Eyal, like many of Jerusalem’s boutique hotels, offers a restaurant, rooftop with a view and gym access. The decor is a slightly different, however, favoring kitschy details and pink accent colors that give it a somewhat retro feel. At the time of our interview, Tzadik was happy to inform me that the hotel was fully booked; another commonality shared among most of the boutique hotels contacted for this article.
“When it rains, it rains all over, and when there is a drought, there is a drought everywhere,” Yanover adds. “It’s the same way with boutique hotels. Right now, if you tried to get a room in any boutique hotel in Jerusalem, it would be very difficult because we’re all booked up.”
If there is a theme to be found within Jerusalem’s boutique hotel trend, it is not one of luxury, but rather one of family that emerges. Customers choose boutiques over the larger hotels because they want the feeling that they are being welcomed as guests in someone’s home. This sentiment was echoed by Gali Davidyan, the deputy manager at the Agripas Boutique Hotel in Nahlaot. Davidyan has been working at the Agripas since it opened in March 2013, and has observed the boutique hotel trend with a watchful eye.
“Most tourists and local people are interested in small hotels where there is more intimate service. When you come to us, you feel like family. It’s a homey feeling. Jerusalem is different from any other city in the world; you feel something in your stomach here, everyone is connected and everyone feels something for the space, no matter what religion you come from.
“In a boutique hotel, you feel that same feeling. It’s not like Tel Aviv, where everybody is in their own world and doesn’t care what’s going on. Guests say that this is their home in Jerusalem. It’s so important to get in touch with the customers, to learn about their personal lives. I got to know many customers who then became my friends.”
Perhaps the boutique hotel trend has emerged in Jerusalem in such a visible way because at best, they offer the same qualities; a home where paradoxes can rest comfortably together; holy and mundane, ancient and modern, cool and comfort. Leon Avigad, owner of Villa Brown on Hanevi’im Street, the newest kid on the boutique block, having opened in May, and Villa Ba’Moshava (formerly Arcadia Ba’Moshava) on Yehoshua Bin Nun Street, sees the wave of boutique hotels in Jerusalem as a sign that the city’s time as a cultural destination has arrived.
The trendy 24-room Villa Brown looks as though it came right out of SoHo in New York City. With bright lipstick-red accents peppered throughout the lobby, Villa Brown’s every design detail is eye-catching. Villa Brown,pushes the envelope further than the rest of the boutique pack in style, as well as in its culinary offerings. The restaurant, open only for breakfast and lunch, is headed by chef Ishai Souffan, and boasts a truly foodie-worthy menu.
“I don’t know if the boutique hotels are an explosion, I think it’s the hype right now,” adds Avigad. “If in the past Jerusalem was all about Yad Vashem and the Old City, I think now it’s expanding.
Mahaneh Yehuda has become hip, along with the First Station. Young people could come all the way from Tel Aviv just to drink at our cave bar; to feel the inspiration, air and light of Jerusalem. This was unthinkable a couple of years back. Jerusalem is becoming more and more a lifestyle destination, which is beautiful. Both aspects of our capital can exist side-by-side; the intense, religious, political association, along with the amazing museums, culture and creative scene.”
Avigad has many irons in the fire when it comes to the boutique hotel scene in Jerusalem. He is opening two more hotels in 2018; one as yet unnamed, an 18-room boutique near the Ethiopian Church, and the Brown Jerusalem, consisting of 48 rooms, on Ben-Sira Street near the Waldorf Astoria. The latter will feature a rooftop pool, while the former will make use of the 18th-century building’s beautiful arches and stunning interior stone.
“We love Jerusalem and believe in it,” Avigad shares.
“It’s a city that deserves good boutique hotels and inspiring design with top-notch facilities. I’m a proud Tel Avivian by birth, but I love and admire Jerusalem. I choose to live here with my family because I really love this city. You see yeshiva guys walking down the street with hipsters and people from the LGBT community.
I don’t want to idealize anything. It’s just the beginning and there are still many threats to the pluralism of the city, but heritage and tradition can live side by side with culture. It’s possible here and it’s happening.”
If boutique hotels are the future of hospitality, then the larger, more austere hotels will eventually become a relic of the past.
This sign of an increasing demand for more intimate connection shows that the future feels more like home than ever.