How a luxury boutique hotel makes retail work

Custom bathrobes, scents, and beauty products can act as a “conversational currency” for customers.
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Hotel Emma

· 4 min read

The lingering but distinct scent in the hotel lobby, the soft, luxurious feel of the bathrobe, or even the gorgeous cutlery and glassware that comes with room service—over the years, these small, albeit definitive, touches have become the hallmark of a modern upscale hotel.

It sort of makes perfect sense for a hotel to turn these products and luxurious touches into a side hustle of its own.

From The Standard to The Ritz, established hotel chains have long offered their loyal customers the opportunity to purchase their bathrobes and scents.

Now, boutique luxury hotels want in. Take Hotel Emma, for instance, nestled in the historic Pearl neighborhood of San Antonio, Texas. The property that opened its doors in 2015 stocks everything from candles to fragrances, beauty products to bathrobes and apparel at its onsite shop, Curio.

CMO Beth Smith told Retail Brew the products act as a form of “conversational currency” for Emma’s customers. “When they come here, they wear these things, they smell them, they use them, and then they take them home with them to really share their experience with their friends,” she said.

Swarooprani Muralidhar, a senior analyst at Coresight, agreed, saying the products have “brand recall” value. “They can look at that brand and/or an emblem or a logo and associate it with that specific hotel or whatever the experience—the memory of it,” she said. “And luxury, at the end of the day, is all about the experience.”

Smaller and better

All items sold at Hotel Emma are created in collaboration with local brands and suppliers. And in the case of Emma Provisions, the hotel’s line of food and snacks, the products are all prepared in-house, although the ingredients are sourced from all over Texas and Mexico.

  • Scents and candles (priced from $39 to $55) account for 40% of Hotel Emma’s total retail sales, while the bathrobe (between $90 and $215) brings in 20%.

The hotel has also introduced charms, ornaments, and a special “elephant milagro” inspired by an events space in the hotel called the Elephant Cellar.

Muralidhar thinks highlighting local brands and local sourcing is a good way to approach the business, since many luxury brands “thrive on craftsmanship, know-how of local specialists, and harness all of the local knowledge in whatever they do,” she said. “Locally, knowledge is key, and sourcing products quickly will help them harness that idea of creativity.”

Upward and onward

For now, the approach seems to be working; revenue for Hotel Emma’s retail business increased 20% from 2020 to 2021. While in-store purchases account for about 60% of the store's sales, pandemic-driven closures that limited IRL visits have also boosted online retail for the hotel.

  • Another factor supporting the e-comm boost was repeat customers—people who purchased items in-store the first time, but keep coming back to the online shop for more—who account for 30% to 40% of total sales.
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Smith hopes to expand Emma’s retail business with a focus on items like pillows and rugs that have an “Emma feel to them, kind of like One Kings Lane, where you have a look that you’re trying to accomplish,” she said, adding that she’s also hoping to source antiques that resemble the items at display at hotel Emma. “People are constantly saying, ‘Do you sell the pillows in Sternewirth [Emma’s tavern and club room]? What about these rugs?’” she said. “Most of our items are one of a kind within the public spaces, so we can’t really sell those.”

Smith noted that they do try to find similar items for customers interested in taking home anything they love. In particular, they get asked about the hotel's pillows often. "I'm having extras made so that we can sell those online," she said.—JS

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