Overnight Sensation Is Kimpton the best hotel chain you never heard of?
By Donna Rosato

(MONEY Magazine) – Stepping into the Hotel Monaco on an unusually hot day in Washington, D.C. this spring was like walking into an oasis of cool. A few blocks from the crowds swarming the monuments and museums, the hulking neoclassical structure looks like the federal buildings that dot the city--in fact, it formerly housed D.C.'s first U.S. general post office.

Inside, the lobby feels more like a living room. Couches and chairs are set in cozy clutches. Upstairs my small (but not tiny) room features Art Deco furniture, giant windows and a spacious bathroom. In the large black armoire I find a leopard-print robe and a CD player with the latest Dixie Chicks release. There's not a cellophane-wrapped cup or polyester bedspread in sight.

In short, it's a typically atypical stay at a Kimpton hotel. The chain, with 39 properties in a dozen U.S. cities, has developed a reputation for turning the routine hotel stay into a surprisingly enjoyable experience. Kimpton's strategy--offer unusual settings, unique decor, lots of amenities and personalized service, all at a competitive price--has earned it a cult following. Call it the JetBlue of hotels.

The company's late founder, former investment banker-turned-hotelier Bill Kimpton, is credited with inventing the boutique hotel concept in 1981, long before W and Ian Schrager got in on the act. If you've never heard of Kimpton, it's partly because none of its properties carry the company name--but also because, until recently, it remained a small West Coast presence. Now it's on an expansion kick, with plans for the 30 biggest U.S. cities within five years.

Kimpton can shower guests with free amenities like high-speed Web access in every room, yoga programming on TV and nightly wine tastings because it runs a low-cost operation. It buys buildings on the cheap. (Its New York property, scheduled to open in July, was purchased out of bankruptcy.) It seeks out tax credits for renovating unused or historic buildings. Kimpton employees are nonunion, which allows the company to cross-train workers for multiple tasks, improving efficiency. And rather than spend heavily on advertising, the chain relies mainly on word of mouth.

The result is a luxurious hotel experience at mid-market prices: During my recent $225-a-night stay in D.C., the Hyatt down the street was charging $295 a night; the Holiday Inn, $329.

So, how do you find a Kimpton hotel? Its properties are on all the major travel websites, including Travelocity and Orbitz, which allow you to search by chain name. Or go to kimptongroup.com, where you get a free upgrade (when available) and late checkout for booking directly.