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Driving repeat business with themed hotels

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From international chains to home rentals, guests are increasingly spoilt for choice when choosing an accommodation. Can a theme create a point of difference without becoming a novelty? Click. explores

As global tourism has grown so too has the development pipeline, with Lodging Econometrics reporting record highs in 2018. Coupled with the boom in vacation rentals - the European market alone is expected to grow 73% in the next 12 months - it’s safe to say the accommodation landscape has never been more competitive.

With more properties coming to market there’s growing need for differentiation. One way of doing this is by adopting a theme that gives your property individual character and cut-through.

Finding the right theme

Merlin Entertainments has over 4,100 rooms across its resort estate of Legoland and theme park attractions, delivered as an extension of the consumer’s day-visit. “By building themed hotels that amplify the themed offer on the park, it allows us to give a much better experience for the customer. From a business point of view we can attract customers from a much broader catchment area and encourage pre-booking so we get greater visibility on that booking,” says Justin Platt, Chief Strategy Officer.

Themed hotel

Gardaland Magic Hotel. Photo: Merlin Entertainments

Tapping into trends such as food tourism can help a property align with a theme that already has a captive audience. For Claus Böbel, Owner of the BB&BB Bratwursthotel, a vacant building next to his butcher shop in the village of Rittersbach, Germany, lent itself perfectly to a hotel that would appeal to tourists looking to indulge in local delicacies.

“Bratwurst is the most popular sausage in the world, it was our most popular product in the shop and so I thought it was a good idea to make this the theme,” says Böbel. “I created special decorations on the walls, there is bratwurst soap in the bathroom, bratwurst pillows on the bed. Guests find it very interesting as they have this unique experience in Germany, nowhere else, [the hotel becomes] a touristic attraction not just for sleeping.”

Often the theme is built around the property - consider Sweden’s Icehotel, rebuilt every winter entirely from snow and ice, or the HI-Ottawa Jail Hostel in Canada, housed in a restored prison - but in some cases the creative concept is the starting point. For Ben Thijssen the theme was landed on years before the Vliegtuighotel came to fruition. Based at Teuge International Airport, the hotel comprises a singular suite set in a decommissioned Ilyushin 18 airplane.

“My wife and I were sleeping in a train and it occurred to me there was nowhere in the world with a plane converted into a hotel. It took more than five years before it was realised - we had to find a suitable plane, transport it from Germany to a small airport for recreational and business flights in the Netherlands, get licences from local government and so on.”

Thijssen embedded the theme across every element of the accommodation: “The plane still has its original cockpit, everything is there as it was and it’s converted with KLM virtual airlines - the lights are on, you can hear air traffic control speaking, documentation explains what you see. We wanted to have the airplane on an airfield to expand that full experience, so from the balcony you see other planes taxi-ing and it's possible to book a flight on a Cessna, take a flight lesson or do a parachute jump.”

“There are certain key deliverables. That hotel stay has to be high quality and you need to get that right before you even think about theming.” says Merlin Entertainments Platt. And while the theme is added value, it still has to be of the same standard. “If all you do is have themed wallpaper and attempt to deliver that as an immersive experience, you will fail, the guest will not enjoy it and you won't deliver on their expectations. We work very hard to ensure that our partnerships are with intellectual properties (IP) that are both popular and engaging, but that are also evergreen - they are not a novelty that will be gone in three or four months, they need to be enduring.”

Driving repeat business

Creating a property that has such singular character or potentially niche audience might seem like a risky move, but encouraging repeat business comes down to the intrinsic hospitality fundamentals with the theme being a conduit to that.

Despite only being open since September 2018, the BB&BB Bratwursthotel has already seen European guests return for more Bavarian hospitality, with visitors from further afield sending friends on recommendation. The Vliegtuighotel has seen similar repeat custom. “When you look into the guest reviews, a third of the guests are returning or giving it as a gift to others,” says Thijssen. “What's important is that they [the guest] have a personal approach - from the moment they arrive the host is waiting and takes time to explain the facilities, bringing something like an apple pie to welcome them and providing personal attention.”

“Hotel guests are the most loyal segment of our market. Accommodation revenue last year grew 28% on the prior year, so it’s a very good stream of business for us and one that we get consistent engagement on,” says Merlin Entertainments’ Platt. “You have to think through all the aspects of the guest journey - we plan out each individual stage and ensure they are true to the IP. You need to be able to execute this in the hotel arena but as long as the IP is robust and you pay attention to the millions of little details, you’ll be able to deliver on that themed experience.”

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Hero image: credit to Booking.com

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Introducing a theme can help your property stand-out and give it individual character
Themes may be a natural fit with the property or its surrounds - consider the building’s previous function or distinct features that offer a unique selling point
Hospitality fundamentals and guest experience should still be prioritised, with the theme providing added value
Enduring themes that immerse the guest are the most successful - consider every step of the guests journey and don’t forget the detail