Boutique hotels exemplify a shift in the consumer market, which you might call the shift from the lima bean economy to the edamame economy:
In the age of rail, luxury hotels mimicked European palaces. When rich people arrived at their destination, they wanted to be treated like nobility.
Then in the age of the jet, a new sort of hotel emerged, sleek Hiltons and Sheratons. These hotels offered the comfort of familiarity. You could go around the world and the hotels were largely the same. They were efficient and bland, offering quality service and ease of movement. A business traveler could stay in one of these hotels for days and barely notice anything about the place.
The computer age has brought yet another new kind of hotel: the mass boutique.
Boutiques cater to the sort of affluent consumer who is produced by the information economy, which rewards education with money. This is a consumer who is prouder of his cultural discernment than his corporate success; who feels interested in, rather than intimidated by, a hotel room stuffed with cultural signifiers — cerulean sofas or Steichen photos. Boutique hotels hold up a flattering mirror. When guests arrive, they are supposed to feel like they are entering an edgy community of unconventional, discerning people like themselves.