Hansen: Laguna hotels made in our image

Every day, we handpick our lives. News, TV, music and entertainment are all self-programmed. We select, subscribe, tailor, customize and favoritize everything. We like it this way.

So why not create our own hotel experience?

The notion that people should reside in a big, anonymous box when they travel goes against everything that our current culture demands: personalization.

As a result, there are a handful of leading-edge boutique hotels in Laguna Beach that get it.

They don't try to overextend their reach; instead, they only reach out to the unique person in front of them.

"Our service is more personal — one-on-one personal," said Kathryn Mace, manager of Casa Laguna Inn & Spa and someone who has been in the hotel business for 30 years. "There is a new generation of sophisticated and market-aware people discovering the boutique world."

That world is informed. It's the one that has already looked at 360-degree images of the hotel on the Internet. It has compared the rankings. It has read the reviews. It has analyzed the menu, the thread count and all the restaurants within walking distance.

If a hotel is selected, it is not because it has four stars. It's because it is an extension of ourselves. It defines and satisfies what we want to experience at that moment.

If we want old-school, Mission-style elegance with unexpected details, we pick Casa Laguna.

If we want to put ourselves into a modern David Hockney painting, we pick 14 West.

If we want to buy the whole hotel and make our own creation, we book Seven4one.

"When a group takes over this place, it's theirs," said Sam Kapcio, managing partner of Seven4one. Kapcio was not just speaking metaphorically. "We're literally here just for you."

The hotel has only 12 rooms, so it is bought out for weddings, events or special occasions, such as corporate retreats, anniversaries or birthday parties.

It was not always this way. The hotel made the switch to a private experience hotel in the fall of 2010, after learning that it's better to focus on delighting people instead of reacting to the masses.

"We tailor it completely for the individual," said Robin Ballard, special event director at Seven4one. "For example, we have two private chefs. We don't have standard menus. Everything is customizable. The food is very eclectic."

When you lie on the nearby beach, you have a "private beach butler," which includes personal food service throughout the day.

Ballard admits she is biased but says her guests are "always kind of amazed and wowed."

At 14 West, meanwhile, no one holds your hand — unless you want them to. With an expectation of discretion, the small hotel is sleek and efficient, bypassing convention because, well, that would be boring.

Just a block from downtown and with only 14 rooms, it is desirable by definition.

Most hotels now desire some form of exclusivity. Several major brands have spun off boutique titles in an effort to cater to this new, discriminating demographic.

But the proof really shows in the delivery. The sense of intimacy shows when you walk into a place like Casa Laguna, for example.

Mace admits that the boutique experience is not for everyone.

"We offer a quality of life, but we don't have valets and all that extra personnel," she said.

What Mace has found is that most people want to have a real experience. They savor authenticity and expertise.

"They want to chat," Mace said. "They want to know where to go for dinner. They want to know where the best beach is. It's more of a lifestyle-type of travel."

And that's exactly the point. We expect life to continue when we travel.

In some ways, we want a better life.

It's better because we made it so.

DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at davidhansen@yahoo.com.

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