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At hotel gift shops, local artisans' wares replace kitschy keychains and T-shirts

Jennifer Barger Special to The Washington Post
No sombreros but plenty of mod hats at La Caty 555 inside the Aqua Urban Resort in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. [Contributed by Live Aqua Urban Resort San Miguel de Allende]

They have no sombreros today at La Caty 555, the gift shop tucked inside Mexico's new Live Aqua Urban Resort in San Miguel de Allende. But a dozen or so mod, wide-brimmed straw and felt hats hang on the boutique's gray stone back wall, seemingly left by some stylish, latter-day Frida Kahlo (or awaiting purchase by a Mexico City fashion blogger). Like everything else in the shop — leather bomber jackets trimmed with bright embroidery panels, lava-stone salt cellars, wooden skull-motif trays in neon hues — the hats are "hecho en Mexico" but feel far from stereotypical souvenirs.

"Contemporary Mexican design is booming, and a lot of tourists don't know that," says Michelle Galante, the shop's owner and buyer. "Newer brands are having a blast taking old painting, sewing and weaving methods and doing them in fresh shapes or forms." She assembled the collection for the new property in the central Mexican travel hot spot using up-and-coming designers, lesser-known artisans and a cadre of small-batch mescal and botanical lotion producers.

Like La Caty 555, many hotel gift shops — at least those in higher-end or boutique properties — have been moving away from selling kitschy snow globes, "I Love (insert destination)" T-shirts and paperback books. They're stocking or commissioning locally made merchandise, such as Virginia microbrews sold by the six-pack at Shenandoah National Park lodge shops and women's caftans, Westernized via slimmer angles and fewer spangles, in the ochre-walled boutique of Marrakesh, Morocco's El Fenn hotel. And while these shops are positioned to serve folks staying on property, they're often groovy enough to draw residents and other tourists, too.

"One of the overarching themes in the hotel industry today is being in touch with the local area," says Jan Freitag, senior vice president of lodging insights at hospitality data analysis firm STR. "It's the idea that people don't want a beige box, they want to feel like something can only happen in this specific hotel. Gift shops can be an extension of that."

This means that hoteliers have a financial interest in making any in-house retail memorable, different and reflective of the surroundings. Take the new Omni Louisville Hotel in Kentucky. There, just off a grand lobby with a ceiling mimicking a stylized bourbon barrel, the Miller & Co. shop deals in leather belts and bags from nearby workshop Clayton & Crume and locally poured, mint-scented candles in — what else? — metal julep cups.

"I often roll my eyes at hotel gift shops, because they're either full of overpriced candy bars or magnets, or, in higher-end places, Gucci and Louis Vuitton bags, which you can buy anywhere," says Kati Green Curtis, a New York City interior designer who travels and shops frequently for work. But, on a recent trip, she and her husband bunked at the Sofitel Moorea la Ora Beach Resort, where the on-site boutique attracted her with dresses and jewelry, and she left with a robe and a black pearl pendant. "I'd never see things like what they had there in Manhattan, and I loved that what I bought seemed to really represent Polynesia," Curtis says.

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The best of Gift Shops 2.0 combine retail curation with brand narration. By hawking tailored-to-the-spot stuff (Hawaiian table salt in Waikiki, African wax-print jackets in Cape Town), hotels can exemplify a destination and unspool a story about the property's target audience. "A hotel shop used to be like a convenience store, but now I think it's much more about sourcing local goods that speak of that destination or finding cool, local brands to partner with," says Deanna Ting, senior hospitality editor at travel media and analysis firm Skift. "Smart hoteliers realize that if they are going to have a retail component, it's got to serve some purpose, or it needs to draw the clientele they want."

That might mean a well-known, homegrown boutique gets an outpost just off the lobby of a hotel. There's a mini branch of edgy New York City clothing emporium Opening Ceremony attached to midtown Manhattan's Ace Hotel, full of bright-hued sneakers, quirky T-shirts and dresses by emerging designers. It's the sort of streetwear you'll spot on the creative-class crowd hunched over laptops amid the taxidermy and library tables in the lobby, or downing spendy cocktails in the dimly lit Breslin restaurant next door. (One imagines a visitor checking in wearing khakis and a polo, then skulking over to Opening Ceremony to snag a beanie or hoodie for Big Apple hipster camouflage.)

Detroit's new Shinola Hotel even inverted the bed-and-browse concept by opening a whole hotel inspired by the Motor City wristwatch, electronics and leather goods brand. Guests stay in rooms with Shinola wood-and-leather-trimmed turntables and retro alarm clocks that they can purchase in the shop downstairs. "In-store retail experiences give you the ability to touch, smell and hear things before buying them, so it makes sense that the hospitality industry is also getting into this," Ting says. "And if you purchase something that you've already tried at the hotel, it'll further emphasize and commemorate your stay."

Casa Mae in Lagos, Portugal, has done the same: Guests stay in rooms decorated with locally made textiles, pottery and art, which they can also snap up in its Loja shop. Flower-arranging and ceramics classes are also held on site.

Lodgings in destinations with still-thriving craft cultures have a natural advantage when it comes to creating distinctive, it's-like-we're-at-the-souk boutiques. They've simply got more homegrown merchandise and artisans to draw from. In the spirit of farm-to-table dining, they're embracing a workshop-to-gift-shop ethos.

But instead of selling the same handicrafts you'd dig up in Istanbul's Grand Bazaar or at any number of night markets across Asia, hotels often try to put a modern spin on traditional methods. The South Asian-meets-Western IDLI boutique just outside the Narain Niwas Palace Hotel in Jaipur, India, trades in tie-dyed duvets, men's skinny pants in block-print cotton and ethereal silk dresses, all whipped up by local weavers and dyers but designed by French expat Thierry Journo. The El Fenn boutique in Marrakesh draws on the city's workshops to fashion wool blankets, baskets and leather slippers in more subdued colors and styles than what you'll find in the medina outside.

Other hotels market a combo of trendy and traditional items, such as the Safari Shop at the Angama Mara lodge in Kenya's Great Rift Valley, which stocks African-made products such as peacock-feather-trimmed pashminas by Nairobi designer Anna Trzebinski and Masai wooden staffs wrapped in a rainbow of beads. The latter are created on-site by a quartet of tribal women in traditional shuka robes, who gather for work around a long table every day, singing as their hands slide over the tiny glass rounds. Visitors can join in, too. "The same guests often come back several days in a row to learn from the women, sometimes even skipping a safari drive," says resort owner Nicky Fitzgerald. "I think they love taking home their own beaded memory." Plus, when visitors witness indigenous crafting, it drives home how much buying local helps support the culture.

A memento, after all, is a memory of a place or time made tangible. And this wave of stores seems determined to sell just that. Call it stuff with a story, an encapsulation of a place in a handbag or a throw pillow. "Plus artisanal or handmade things may make you feel better about buying something," Freitag says. "There's the sense that someone who knows the place has curated something for you, that they've tried to think about what might bring you joy."