The recent news that Ikea, the Swedish furniture giant, plans to open 100 low-cost boutique hotels across Europe has many budget travelers excited and perhaps a few small hotel proprietors nervous.
According to the Financial Times, the new hotels will most likely open in the UK, Netherlands, Poland and Germany. Ikea will own them, but they won't use the Ikea name, and "an established hotel operator" will run them. Still, as owners of the chain, Ikea will most certainly bring in their design savvy, not to mention their ability to keep rates low.
So is this cause for celebration?
Attractive, cheap accommodation
On one hand, more affordable lodgings usually means greater access to travel, which, of course, is a good thing.
No doubt the "product" will be attractive, too. Given the company's success with bringing self-assembled style into millions of living spaces, imagine what they could do with their own two-star hotels. I'm picturing chic little chambres, decked out with platform beds, funky lamps, accent pillows and perhaps a faux-animal pelt on the floor for good measure.
And, if they follow their retail example, all of that for a nightly rate that would probably be irresistible to travelers.
A threat to mom and pop?
However, I wonder about the chain's impact on small, "mom and pop" budget hotels. How can they possibly compete with a company that's proven itself so capable of dominating a market?
Ikea will also be joining a growing list of budget hotel chains that offer rooms with style, including Chic & Basic (in Spain and the Netherlands), Motel One (mostly in Germany) and the Room Mate Hotels chain (mostly in Spain). Yet these budget-boutique chains are small compared to the retailer's ambitious plans to open 100 hotels.
Once Ikea proves itself in the first four countries, would anything stop them from taking on the rest of Europe?
"Chain hotel" syndrome
Another risk is the standardization of the hotel experience that comes with every expanding hotel chain -- "budget boutiques" included.
There is a risk of losing some of the qualities that distinguish one city's hotels from another. From Edinburgh to Valencia, chains at all price points toss out local design traits and quirks in favor of an experience that is standardized and focus-grouped.
It's hard to think of another chain in any business sector that has been more successful at standardizing décor than Ikea.
But in small budget hotels, you can still find regional quirks. Paris' small hotels, which I review extensively, often have French windows or doors opening to balconies or railings, and some still have bidets in the bathroom. Meanwhile, a room in a London B&B looks and feels different, and is usually equipped with a tea kettle (not to mention the full English breakfast served in the morning). In small Italian pensions, showers tend to drain into the middle of the bathroom floor, while in an Austrian guesthouse the housekeeper apparently karate-chops your pillow before you arrive.
These are small details, to be sure, but if you avoid chains, they're often a part of the budget travel experience. When you enter a bedroom in Paris, London, Rome or Vienna, you pick up on them. They remind you that you're traveling and give a sense of place.
Room for both
Ikea can't be blamed for disappearing bidets, of course (especially as they haven't even planned to open a hotel in France yet!). They're just joining a movement already in full swing. Hotel chains throughout Europe are upgrading to the same "contemporary" and "boutique" décor, leaving the small, inexpensive and non-chain hotels as sole protectors of these old-fashioned touches.
With Ikea entering the budget hotel market, I hope that small hotels can hold on in these four countries. In the end, guests will choose whether or not they'd prefer a tea kettle in a small B&B or a budget-boutique bedroom with no surprises. Hopefully there's room for both.
As for me, I'll stay with mom and pop, although I'm eager to try one of Ikea's new hotels at least once. Maybe they'll even serve meatballs for breakfast.
Follow Tom Meyers on Twitter: www.twitter.com/eurocheapo