Sixty Hotels' Christopher Horn talks building a better boutique business

The Sixty Hotel SoHo. Photo credit: Sixty Hotels

In advance of this year’s HOTEC North America Operations event, taking place June 10-13 at the Omni La Costa Resort & Spa in Carlsbad, Calif., Hotel Management spoke with Christopher Horn, VP of operations at Sixty Hotels, about what it takes to be a leader in the boutique hotel space.

Horn has been involved in the hospitality industry since the age of 15, when an advertisement in the local newspaper led him to the Chatham Bars Inn near Cape Cod, Mass. It was there that he took up a role as a private-branch-exchange phone system operator for the summer, returning subsequently to learn the ropes as bellman, valet, banquets services and even concierge. The opportunity led him to roles at Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide’s corporate office, the Sheraton Times Square in New York and Denihan Hospitality before finally joining Sixty Hotels.

Sixty Hotels as a company transitioned away from Thompson Hotels to form its own collective in 2015. Horn said that since then, the company has been focused on improving internal efficiencies, though he was brought on specifically to facilitate growth in the company’s asset portfolio and management opportunities. Horn’s attention, however, is focused on maintaining the boutique nature and individuality of the five locations in the collective.

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“Having come from other boutique companies as well as some other larger hospitality companies, I know that culture is key to success in this space,” Horn said. “You will often see a divide between the hotel company and the property in some locations. Giving a voice to the experts on the ground separates Sixty from other hotel companies. There is a lot of emphasis here on what works and what doesn’t work.”

According to Horn, Sixty is spending much of 2018 looking inward to focus on the individuality of the locations in its portfolio, and to create efficiencies that allow the company to operate at a higher level. Part of that, he says, involves resisting the typical pulls associated with success. As a property or project grows bigger, Horn said there is a compulsion to become wrapped up in the self-importance of the endeavor, and resisting the urge to sell out is key to the boutique hotel experience.

“Not having rigid standards, to a degree, and allowing individuality to come through is part of our mission,” Horn said. “Guests fall in love with each of those properties in their own way. Creating a story, a connectivity between each location without losing their authenticity… ensuring each guest will have an incredible experience that is intellectually based and experiential in [food and beverage], music and arts, that will create a feeling within guests that they are seeing something different.”

The Sixty Les Hotel in New York. Photo credit: Sixty Hotels

When considering the place of boutique hotels in the current hotel ecosystem, Horn said it is telling that boutiques will develop a trend only for major brands to latch onto it months or even years later. The biggest message Horn has seen boutique hotels impart on major brands is that the age of cookie-cutter travel is at an end.

“Our branded competition have learned that this mentality will not work,” he said. “A lot of other players such as HomeAway and OneFineStay are thriving offering unique, individualize experiences that are anything but cookie cutter. It’s a little played out now to stay somewhere that doesn’t have unique offerings, and a lot of branded hotels have done a great job bridging the gap. Ten years ago you would have never heard about experiential travel or bleisure!”

Horn quoted The Disruptors’ Feast, a book written by former Starwood CEO Frits van Paasschen—and formerly Horn’s boss—stating that when everyone in a given arena is committed to competition, it creates a vacuum that brings competitors closer together and helps define their identities. This, in the end, is what Horn and Sixty Hotels are after.

“In trying to fight each other for market share and success, boutiques often come together,” Horn said. “This is how many of them find their identity.”

Horn is looking forward to the HOTEC Operations & Technology event in June, partly because it will be his first time in attendance and partly because of what he has heard about it from others. He’s looking for an opportunity network and share ideas with other operators from around the world, which he said is necessary today.

“We can get tunnel vision operating in just one region,” Horn said. “I also want to open my mind and see what these other different, brilliant companies have to offer for an ever-evolving hospitality landscape.”