Variations on a Theme

30th November 2005 (Last Updated November 30th, 2005 18:30)

Themed rooms and love hotels have been popular in Japan for many years. They are now beginning to make their mark on European boutique hotel design. Rebecca Burgess tracks down some of the more unique properties.

Variations on a Theme

From the classical Ryokan inns to boutique rooms and the infamous love hotels, Japan has a passion for themed accommodation. The Ryokan celebrate long-held traditions and provide Japanese-style bathing, authentic clothing, futon bedding and classical cuisine.

In contrast, the love hotels offer a sensuous environment for courting partners and married couples escaping the thin walls of the marital home. Newer hotels are extending the theme.

The Claska in Tokyo, for example, has individually designed guestrooms, a dog salon, a bookstore and an art gallery.

This concept of a hotel being more than a hotel and offering guests a more personalised experience is spreading throughout Europe, giving rise to boutique themed hotels where guests book specific rooms to suit their preferences.

A report by marketing firm Mintel in 2004 suggests this niche market is growing. Themed hotels and holidays are proving a valuable tool for boosting off-peak days and seasons and attracting younger consumers. Hotels can also attract an older clientele through the use of historical, cultural or nature-oriented themes.

According to the research, effective marketing is crucial. A hotel must be much more than a place to stay; it must present itself as a lifestyle choice and a place to spend time with like-minded people.

NAUGHTY BUT NICE

“Each time we create a new room we generate a new round of press coverage.”

A major success story is the Hotel Pelirocco, located in the fashionable UK south coast resort of Brighton.

Describing itself as the city’s sauciest stopover, the Hotel Pelirocco owes a sizeable debt to the Japanese love hotels. Its 19 rooms are individually themed, taking icons of pop subculture, visionary artists and maverick musicians as their inspiration.

With rooms entitled Pussy, the Pin-Up Parlour, Nookii, Betty’s Boudoir and Absolut Love, there is definitely an air of the ‘dirty weekend’ about the place.

The Bettie Page Room boasts a leopard print bedspread and a spa bath for two. The Bubble Suite in the basement, with its circular, curtained bed and ceiling mirror, is continually booked and next year will be refurbished as a Garden of Eden in a sponsorship deal with Durex.

Each room has a Playstation, and room service includes sex toys and massages. The rooms vary in shape, decor and theme, with prices ranging from £50 for a single room mid-week to £200 for a weekend suite.

For owners Mick Robinson and Jane Slater, what started as a labour of love has grown into a profitable brand. Not only can regular guests enjoy priority bookings through its Red Carpet Club but Pelirocco also has its own T-shirts and a CD which has sold in the thousands.

“We used to come to Brighton all the time and stayed in either grotty B&Bs or bland hotels, and didn’t feel there was anything right for us,” explains Slater. “We are quite brazen in the way we promote the dirty weekend, but it’s all tongue in cheek.”

Robinson, a musician and DJ, worked on the ideas for the rooms, while Slater used her PR and marketing skills to create a storm of publicity which has generated a loyal following.

She offers a few examples: “We now have one couple who have stayed in every single room, and every time we have a new room they come back. A mod couple come back every year and the Pussy Room has proved a big attraction for gay women.”

The rooms are updated on a regular basis. About half are sponsored, with refurbishments paid for by the sponsors, which include Pussy, an independent shop in Brighton, local nightclub The Ocean Rooms, Skint Records, the band Asian Dub Foundation and Absolut Vodka.

Playstation sponsored the bar for four years when the hotel opened, and has just renewed its deal and funded a redesign by Shaun Clarkson.

When Hotel Pelirocco opened it was this sponsorship that made it viable. Now, the hotel has a good occupancy rate and avoids the traditional mid-week seaside slump.

“The key is getting bookings during the week, and we do,” explains Slater. “There is a lot of work [involved in] creating new rooms each year and it would be difficult to do it in a 100-room hotel, but it keeps us popular and each time we create a new room we generate a new round of press coverage.”

DRESSING ROOMS

The Farol Design Hotel, on the Portuguese coast near Lisbon, has earned itself a place in Expedia’s top ten coolest hotels in the world for its individually designed rooms. Perched on an outcrop of rock a few feet from the Atlantic Ocean, the hotel mixes a minimalist white exterior with a luxurious and sensuous interior.

Leading Portuguese fashion designers such as Ana Salazar and Jose Antonio Tenente have designed 11 of the hotel’s 34 rooms, including one described as a ‘cross between Boogie Nights and an African safari’. Options also include red, green and yellow rooms and romantic rooms with long white curtains and breathtaking views. Prices range from €100 to €400.

The intention of the hotel’s owner, Diniz Madaleno Rodrigues, is to offer something more than just bed and breakfast.

Marketing director Jorge Cosme explains: “It’s a daring design project, a mix of the old wing, a 19th century mansion which belonged to the Count of Cabral, and the modern, in which we invited Portuguese fashion designers to contribute to our idea of "dressing a room". This way, we create a variety of atmospheres in the hotel and guests can try different rooms to find their favourite one.”

“The Farol Design Hotel has earned itself a place in Expedia’s top ten coolest hotels in the world for its individually designed rooms.”

The hotel’s diversity attracts a wide range of guests. “We want all 34 rooms to be different; that way, we will always have something new and fresh to offer,” says Cosme. “Our guests feel they are getting so much more than a room.”

The strategy is clearly working – the designer rooms are always the first to be booked. The rooms have also attracted photo, film and advertising shoots, which have helped promote them further afield.

The ethos at the hotel is that all the rooms should be themed. “We want all 34 rooms to be different,” says Cosme. “That way, we will always have something new to show our guests.”

CLASSICAL IDYLL

The stunning Homeric Poems hotel on the Greek island of Santorini plays on its exposed sea location and its owner’s passion for the nautical to create a lovers’ paradise.

The resort has 11 apartments, three suites and two honeymoon suites with private swimming pools overlooking the Caldera, each of which has its own unique character.

Manager Margarita Matsou says the hotel, which is built on the rim of a crater, with spectacular views of the Aegean, reflects a profound love of the sea.

Many of the suites have a nautical name, such as the Poseidon Room, as well as round ship’s windows and original brass. Each room is on a different level with an individual ‘look-out’.

“Running the hotel in this way definitely increases bookings,” explains Matsou. “If you come to a place where the room and accommodation does not remind you of a hotel, you fall in love with it, and that has to be good for business.”

A WORLD OF ROMANCE

At the 3.14 Hotel in Cannes guests are given a ‘love box’ with colourful condoms, massage oil, scented candles and incense. The hotel has 95 rooms, with prices varying from €120 to €1500, and owes its success to its unique character.

The hotel’s name reflects the universal formula of π, and each of the five floors is devoted to a different continent: Asia creates an air of calm and relaxation: Europe offers fun and a touch of madness, Oceania features soothing natural shades, Africa showcases Moorish elements, and America offers a vibrant collision of New-World and Latin American styles.

The emerging market in individual hotels is also creating a new market in travel guides. The Mr & Mrs Smith Guide caters for travellers who want a stay that is a bit out of the ordinary. Its popularity shows there is a growing demand for hotels that can offer something different.

Clearly, the world of hospitality is changing, and themed hotels are coming into their own. The winning formula seems to be to create something so unique and individual that guests forget they are in a hotel – food for thought for hoteliers.