Telling Stories Through Hotels
When the British government built Spitbank Fort in 1879 to deflect invasion by Napoleon’s army, they probably weren’t thinking what a fantastic hotel the floating fortress would make in about a century and a half. The same is undoubtedly true for the city of Boston, whose Charles Street Jail (built in 1848) now attracts business people and holiday makers looking for an unusual hospitality experience in the Olde Towne.
We have any number of curiosities right here in Australia. The Q Station in Manly is so-named because it used to be a quarantine site to prevent the spread of infectious diseases. In Coober Pedy, the opal capital of the world, guests can stay in the Desert Cave Hotel — a completely underground hotel that boasts international standards of hospitality. And the Northern Territory’s Gagudju Crocodile Holiday Inn, although suffering in terms of recent guest feedback, is still the only hotel in the world actually shaped like a giant Crocodile. And I am sure the colonial overseers who built Pentridge Prison in Melbourne did not every envisage a trendy apartment development with hotel ending up on the site.
Aside from historical restorations and re-purposed landmarks, we encounter a whole world of eccentric purpose-built properties. A treehouse in Sweden. A cliff-hanging pod in Peru. A luxury hotel in Kenya where resident Giraffes poke their heads through the dining room windows.
The question is, what’s the significance? Is it all a lot of kitsch, or do “ordinary” hotel properties have something to learn from unusual hospitality concepts?
One possible answer to this question involves the way we categorize and define hotel properties. The share-economy revolution has drastically changed these definitions, even if many hoteliers have yet to catch on. In the Highland Group’s 2016 Boutique Hotel Report, three definitions are set out (traditional flagship offerings are omitted).
Boutiques are either independently owned/managed or affiliated with a minor brand. They focus on style, design, and crafting a guest experience.
Lifestyle brands are modern franchise properties that stay on top of current trends in hospitality.
Soft brands are independent properties that retain their uniqueness, but end up being associated with a major hotel chain to take advantage of their sales and marketing and loyalty club power.
Right away, we can see a more detailed and comprehensive spectrum of possibilities here. We can see that old definitions of “chain versus independent” have lost relevance, particularly as bigger brands move beyond flagship offerings. Boutiques in particular are thriving — according to the aforementioned report, this category is outperforming the other two in occupancy, profit margins, and revenue growth.
It’s tempting to put really outlandish hotels in their own separate category — but in terms of the definitions set out by Highland Group, floating fortresses and tree house pods are boutiques all the way. The focus is squarely on design, style and the guest experience. (One could almost argue that they were the original specialist boutiques but the description has been appropriated by others.)
We hoteliers often speak of millennials and their desire for “experiences” over “things” — but like many tired insights, it has become something of an empty truism. These newish definitions from Highland Group are useful not because they’re going to stick around forever, but because they encourage us to break our industry down in new ways, and to see things from new angles. This is how we arrive at a better understanding of how to evolve within our industry.
The existence of hotels carved into blocks of ice is related to the fact that guests increasingly want a hotel that tells a story. Most properties don’t have inherently interesting stories to tell, but this isn’t to their detriment. The fact that your property can’t brag about a converted bank vault suite, or a guest room frequented by a young Bob Dylan isn’t that big an issue—the truth is, most guests aren’t interested in such things. Whilst famous guests certainly add some cache to the reputation, at the end of the day, quality service interactions, local culture, sensible and warm designs, and vibrant common spaces are the kind of storytelling that drives success.
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