The World’s Strangest Hotels and Why We Should Emulate Them

Photo credit: CNN

Would you stay in a mirrored cube suspended from a tree in Sweden, or a Turkish hotel that rotates on its axis? How about an underwater hideaway situated in a Florida lagoon, or a ten-story hotel built in the likeness of Chinese gods? It may sound like an episode of The Twilight Zone, but these are real hotels you can actually book with a valid credit card. And it gets even weirder. Hotels have been made out of ice, salt, chocolate, sand, and even renovated sewage pipes. This list goes on and on.

Many publications have marveled in the strangeness of these properties—but has anybody asked what (if anything) the hospitality industry can learn from them? Are there cues to be taken, or is this the hotel equivalent of a traveling sideshow?

It may come as a surprise that many of the hotels listed on The Telegraph’s “50 Most Unusual” list have very high aggregate reviews, often better than 4 out of 5. For example, the Dog Bark Park Inn in Idaho, USA—a single unit accommodation inside the world’s biggest beagle, which guests enter through the rear end—has nearly perfect ratings on TripAdvisor. How could this be? Meanwhile the Old Mount Gambier Gaol, a converted prison in South Australia, is also very highly rated.

Australians also have a large hotel in the shape of a crocodile, which guests thankfully enter through the jaws. The reviews for this property—the Crocodile Hotel in Kakadu National Park—have flagged in recent years but it still carries a 3.5 on TripAdvisor with nearly a thousand reviews counted.

When you step back and look at this from afar, you’ll wonder whether it’s connected to the so-called millennial preference for “experiences” over “things”…….and the answer is almost certainly yes, there is a connection.

A memory we can talk about with friends and plug into our social media feeds is becoming more desirable than another physical object we can plug into the wall. Objects, including technology, break down and become obsolete. Experiences, in a matter of speaking, are forever. They are forever in the cloud and our minds.

This is where quirky hotels score big. They deliver an experience, a memory, a conversation piece. They represent something unique that guests can talk about for years to come. Consider some of the words that commonly appear in reviews for highly rated “bizarre” hotels: Quirky, private, special, unforgettable, amazing, experience.

(On a side note, it’s not surprising that novelty hotel reviews are often positive or negative depending on the staff experience. Even when people are staying in a giant block of ice in the middle of nowhere, they appreciate good service and attentive staff.)

The question is, how can your ordinary, average hotel compete with a giant shoe, an underground cave, a converted Boeing 727 or an Airstream trailer when it comes to delivering a memorable experience? The truth is, they probably can’t—and that’s ok, because these curiosities will never represent more than a small fraction of the industry. People might spring for a novelty stay once in a while, but the majority of their annual travel budget will continue to flow toward more, shall we say, sensible offerings. Properties that are dependable and well-situated. Properties that avoid several of the negative keywords that are commonly associated with novelty hotels: overpriced, secluded, remote, basic, bizarre, uncomfortable.

You may not be able to create a novelty experience that will drop jaws, but that’s not the business you’re in, and it’s not realistic. What you can do is bump up the “experience” factor. Give your guests more of a reason to talk, share, or blog about their stay.

How would you go about this?

More intelligent staff training, for starters. Greater focus on locality. Better attention to the amenities people want today, such as ergonomic workspace options and healthy food. You might also leave the drab, inoffensive decor behind and shoot for something a little more bold. Something people will actually remember. OK, it may need updating in five years rather than seven, but that’s another change for guests to remember.

The bottom line is that convenience and professionalism are something most novelty properties simply can’t offer—not to the extent you can. On the other hand, your level of novelty and excitement will never match theirs. But if you can find a sweet spot in the middle, and shift your philosophy from “commodity” to “experience,” you will have learned a valuable lesson in how to tip the conversation (and the bookings) in your favour.

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