First, here’s a little more doom and gloom: the department of tourism’s latest quarterly performance report shows that total tourism arrivals into SA dropped by 3% year on year for January to March 2019, against 2018. Total accommodation income dropped by 1.2% during this quarter too.

But hotels did relatively well: they showed no percentage change, despite forming 66% of SA’s accommodation sector.

Against this backdrop, three new boutique hotel brands opened in recent months. They are all niche hotels in a major city, appealing with local design and user-friendly extras. Unlike generic mass hotel chains, they put an individual stamp on your stay. It’s in keeping with a growing experiential trend.

Starlings Café: in Labotessa. Picture: Supplied
Starlings Café: in Labotessa. Picture: Supplied

Old-world luxury

Take Labotessa, which opened in Cape Town’s inner city in August. In a heritage building built in the early 1700s, this renovated lifestyle hotel now offers six spacious luxury suites and a modern penthouse. The double-volume Governor’s Suite is inspired by the Cape’s first governor, Simon van der Stel. The 300m² penthouse has three bedrooms, two bathrooms and a kitchen/ entertaining area, extending to a balcony and plunge pool. Glorious Lion’s Head views stretch above the urban skyline.

Opening a hotel required a focused vision from business partners Jan Fourie and Johan du Plessis. The building’s age and heritage status brought multiple planning and approval hurdles — Labotessa took seven years to open.

"We were inspired by the opportunity to meld heritage and old-world elegance with visionary new-world design," says Fourie. The hotel aims at a lifestyle traveller "as young as 25 to 75 … who enjoys a sophisticated travel and stay experience".

Du Plessis worked in overseas hotels and resorts for 15 years. He had hands-on involvement in Labotessa’s interior, architectural design layout and finishes. The decision to introduce a city branch of popular Claremont Starlings Café for breakfast (included in the Labotessa room rate) or lunch is spot-on. The thinking is that if not managed properly, a hotel restaurant or bar can be a white elephant, thanks to buffet options that are often impersonal and disappointing.

Home Suite Hotels. Picture: Supplied
Home Suite Hotels. Picture: Supplied

The seven suites all have private elevator access, balconies and views. Du Plessis is aware of inner-city Cape Town’s lack of 24/7 foot traffic, but there are plans to add more lifestyle outlets in Labotessa’s immediate neighbourhood. The FYN fine dining restaurant and Kleinsky’s Delicatessen are current neighbours.

The owners hope to launch another Labotessa hotel in Europe in two to three years.

Tax-incentive investment

Approaching hotels slightly differently is Lucid Ventures. Its R350m section 12J fund is invested in boutique hotels in prime SA locations. Fund investors receive an upfront 100% tax deduction on invested capital, annual income generated by the hotel portfolio, and capital appreciation of hotel properties.

Lucid’s first establishment, Home Suite Hotels Bristol, opened in Rosebank, Johannesburg, in April. Its founder, Gidon Novick — the man behind kulula.com and the airport Slow Lounges — believes there is a gap for a four-star hotel targeting business and leisure travellers at a competitive price.

"We’ve created a disruptive brand that encapsulates the best of traditional hotels and Airbnb — a warm, homely feel combined with the sophistication, amenities and security of a top traditional hotel," says Novick. Home Suite Hotels establishments offer between 24 and 80 rooms. Former Tsogo Sun head Graham Wood and Andrew Kuming, head of urban developer Kuming & Staples, are co-directors.

Starlings Café in Labotessa
Starlings Café in Labotessa

The Home Suite Hotels concept includes "stunning use of colour and lighting" by Tonic Design (which also did the Slow Lounge interiors), prime suburban locations and guest extras such as artisanal coffee and access to a "help yourself" larder. "It started," says Novick, "with getting some of the basics right for our frequent business travellers: no check-in — a mobile key is sent to your phone; a top-of-the-range bed; Netflix Chromecast connectivity; and a home-cooked breakfast."

In July 2020, Home Suite Hotels will open in Sandton and Sea Point. Home Suite Hotels Tottenham follows in Rosebank in November 2020 and The Quarter will open in De Waterkant, Cape Town, in December 2020.

Gorgeously different

Gorgeous George has traded since April, with its historic bedroom windows opening over Cape Town’s St George’s Mall pedestrian walkway to bring the city sounds inside. Distinctive room décor and a rooftop bar are key attractions at this downtown hotel.

Gorgeous George’s German owner, Tobias Alter, heads real estate development company Formhaus in Munich. He says high real estate and labour costs would rule out creating this type of hotel in Europe.

Gigi Rooftop Bar at Gorgeous George. Picture: Supplied
Gigi Rooftop Bar at Gorgeous George. Picture: Supplied

Two inner-city heritage buildings were cleverly combined to produce the 32 hotel rooms and suites. Interior consultant Tristan du Plessis commissioned a handful of local artisans to create distinctive furniture and interiors as a "showcase of SA design".

Hotel guests aside, Alter is thrilled that the Gigi Rooftop restaurant/bar on the sixth floor is attracting locals. Up there, it’s all tropical décor set against a terrace backdrop of urban low rises. His vision for Gigi was to create a "living room for the neighbourhood", but he knew that limited parking made it risky to expect local buy-in. The risk has paid off.

Alter believes more travellers are looking for an authentic experience outside what "the cookie-cutter large-scale brands" offer. Gorgeous George is Cape Town’s first Design Hotels member, an association with 300 design-focused independent venues.

"The common denominator is inner city, and innovative locally designed," he says. "With the consolidation of larger hotel chains, there’s a gap for an independent, personalised experience that only smaller, independent boutique hotels can fill."

* The writer was a guest of Labotessa and Gorgeous George