Zoku: ‘We don’t sell a brand, we sell an emotion’
Expanding your horizons beyond what you’re familiar with is something Hans Meyer knows only too well. Sometimes you have to look further than what is in front of you to fully realise your business aspirations. “When I started you had the boutique hotels, which were luxurious - you really had to pay a big price. While at the same time in the fashion industry, brands like H&M and Zara were making fashion affordable to a larger audience. So the question was, ‘If we can make the boutique experience affordable, how would that work?’ Meyer applied this thinking when working on citizenM in the early 2000s and again when starting concept hotel, Zoku. Based in Amsterdam, the hotel is a hive of activity that has won awards for its innovative design since launching in 2016. Now, Meyer and Co-Founder Marc Jongerius have plans to roll out 50 more hotels over the next 10 years. We caught up with Meyer to find out about some of the lessons he’s learned along the way.
Click.: How did you come up with the idea for Zoku?
Meyer: I got the idea in 2009 because as far as long stay hotels went, they were extremely traditional, so a double size room with a microwave, that was basically the model. We felt the internet was now so accessible and broadband penetration so high, it would be possible to work independently from anywhere at anytime. A growing number of young people, for example, choose to work for two months in San Francisco and then go for a month to Marrakesh and continue with their work. So the idea was to create a place where people can live and work, but also very easily socialise as well, so they didn’t feel disconnected.
Click.: You mentioned fashion retailers helped inform the business model for previous business ventures, where did you look when it came to Zoku?
Meyer: Uber was a good one. We looked at their seamless integration between on and offline. The question was, ‘How can we do that too?’
Click: How did you know it would work?
Meyer: There are always moments of doubt. If you do market research you can ask people what they want, but often they don’t know. That’s the limitation with market research. But what you can do is create a solution and validate that with your target audience. We built prototypes on a real life scale of the lofts - the rooms where people stay at Zoku - so we could test, test, test.
Click.: What makes your space unique?
Meyer: What we tried to do was take out all the traditional barriers you have in a hotel that create a border between staff and guests, like the big reception desk or the kitchen that is often hidden, along with the chef you never see. We opened up everything because we wanted guests to always be able to stand next to a member of staff creating a very informal atmosphere. What I like is when you go to a party at a friend’s home you always end up in the kitchen with people standing around the table having a beer, and it’s that kind of atmosphere we try to achieve here. So it’s not really just about design, it’s more of an emotional need that people feel connected.
Click.: What are the key ingredients to ensure the perfect guest experience?
Meyer: The design is obviously a factor, but we believe it’s mainly about people - we are a people’s business. In recruitment for example, our single most important criteria is that we want people you would immediately introduce to your parents or your best friends. We can teach somebody to check you in, we can teach somebody to make you coffee, but we can’t teach somebody to be nice. Either you’re nice or you’re not. Either you’re interested in people or you aren’t and it’s these traits that are so important to help create that great guest experience.
Click.: How do you keep learning?
Meyer: We are number one on TripAdvisor out of 241 properties here in Amsterdam. But that doesn’t mean we say, ‘We are perfect’. We still feel we can do better and every now and then something goes wrong here. There is a big ambition to create the world’s most desirable homebase for global nomads.
Click.: How have guest expectations changed over the years?
Meyer: Guest expectations have risen, they don’t accept certain things they would have accepted 10 years ago. For example, Wi-Fi that isn’t reliable and not stable, where people should pay, is totally unacceptable nowadays. People want to stay in a hotel that offers more than a functional place or a head in a bed. People also expect to stay in a place that touches them on an emotional level.
Click.: What are the challenges of working in this industry?
Meyer: The market is highly competitive. There is a lot of money involved, so real estate is not really easy to acquire. There is also a shortage of people to hire because everyone’s fighting for talent, so to really get the best you have to make sure you have the right culture in place to attract the right people. Finally, making sure we keep up with technology and innovation is crucial. When you have disruptors in the industry, you can’t ignore that. You have to work out how you can best work together to get the best out of your property.
Click.: What does the future hold for hospitality?
Meyer: The future will be that we move from a mass market into a mass of niches. There will be a niche for fully automated experiences where there is hardly any human interaction, and there will be a market for ultra personalisation with human contact - we already see it. But we do think you have to choose one or the other, you can’t end up in the middle. We don’t believe in a ‘compromise model.’
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- Zoku launched in 2016
- 150 people from its target audience were interviewed as part of its creation
- Meyer lived as a nomad to get a feel for what it was like, travelling to locations such as Bali and San Francisco
- Meyer worked on the launch of citizenM, a Netherlands-based hotel chain, known for guests checking themselves in and out
- Zoku plans to roll out 50 more hotels over the next 10 years