Travel, to the minds behind the zany and unique Hotel Zed, is about more than taking passages through geography — it’s about tripping through time. That explains the attention its innovators have paid to the in-room rotary-dial phones, the working lobby typewriters and the 1960s-era VW buses which ferry guests to and from the properties. That these decidedly retro features are abundantly offset by ample to-the-minute technology offerings conspires to produce a quirky, original, attractive accommodation combo. “Personally, I don’t want to have a boring stay in a generic chain,” says CEO and owner, Mandy Farmer, and so she offers the same exclusive invitation to the guests of her two properties (the original, in Victoria, B.C., is two years old; the second opens in Kelowna, B.C., this month). The story of Hotel Zed — which bills itself as “a ridiculously fun boutique motel” — is as unique as the chain.
IN THE BEGINNING
The first Hotel Zed began its life in Victoria as the Blue Ridge Inn. Its owners had purchased it with the intent of operating it as an Accent Inn, the company’s flagship brand. But this cheap and cheerful two-star motel simply wasn’t of the same quality as Accent — a five-property, mid-market 30-year-old brand which maintains a three-star standard. Throughout its 10-year life under the Blue Ridge banner, the place thrummed with the potential to be something else. “I had this vision of doing something super fun celebrating the fact it’s a motel, rather than trying to hide that,” says Farmer.
In early 2014, Farmer’s team began the celebration on the outside, painting the exterior with bright colours so eye-catching that riders on passing buses regularly crane their necks to catch a glimpse. They added glass railings and cedar accents and made a virtue of the kitschy, mid-century-motel architecture around the lobby building with more look-at-me paint.
Next was a hot pink waterslide — the Zedinator — a bonus to its indoor/outdoor pool, along with a hot tub, a spiffed-up pool area and a brightly coloured ping-pong lounge directly below the hotel restaurant. “The restaurant is a huge hit, not only with guests, but with locals,” Farmer enthuses. “I love this mix. When I travel, that’s what I want. I don’t want to meet other tourists — I want to meet locals.”
At the Kelowna property, which Farmer picked up from a court-ordered sale in September (“It’s perfect,” she swoons, of the “dumpy downtown motel” across the street from a park with beaches, tennis courts and water features), they’re adding a rooftop patio with a lake view.
Other exterior offerings include skateboard and bicycle programs, both offered to guests gratis (“I think we’re the only hotel in the world that has free longboard rentals,” says Farmer). The Victoria property is located just off the city’s regional cycling trail, Galloping Goose, and the Kelowna hotel is across from the walking/cycling trail which winds through the city park.
Then, drawing deeply on the same retro-modern impulse, the team moved inside. That meant wholesale room renovations which featured quirky throwback details of the hotel’s unapologetic past and the modern amenities today’s travellers insist upon.
It installed high-speed wireless throughout the property, flatscreen LED TVs and media hubs where guests could plug in their phones and watch Netflix on their TVs. “You’ve got to have modern amenities when you’re dealing with hipsters — this high tech is the other piece of the balance,” says John Espley, director of Marketing and Communications for Accent Inns Inc. The high-tech focus is also evident in the virtual reality (VR) app the hotel introduced in partnership with Vancouver-based VR video production company Wondr. Here, a 360-degree VR video of the property’s elements can be called up for viewers who need only move their phones and tablets around to see the space as though they’re in it.
A TASTE OF YESTERYEAR
The high-tech fare is deliciously offset by a profusion of retro elements, whose featured inclusion in the hotel’s decor has proven among its most powerful drawing cards. To wit, it sourced old-school rotary-dial telephones and 1960s-era government-issue gun-metal desks, both of whose original drab finishes were updated with rainbow hues. Local graffiti artists dressed up the walls (the work of a local Kelowna artist adorns the walls of the property in that city) and finishing touches include comic books, pencils and bulletin boards.
“It’s not your typical room,” says Farmer. Indeed, says Espley. “In some ways, you get to have a sleepover in the 1970s or 1960s at Hotel Zed.”
The goal for the refurbished lobby was to create a place of social interaction. In a nod to the widely endured tradition of substandard in-room hotel coffee, Farmer and her team removed the coffeemakers from the rooms (“It makes for a cleaner space”) and invited guests to get their caffeine fixes from the local brews that percolate in the lobby.
In addition to the coffee impetus, the lobby encourages congregation with its pair of typewriters, where guests will regularly situate themselves to pound out tourist-y missives. There’s also a number of board games for borrowing, including Scrabble and Jenga.
In one more nod to the charms of yesteryear, the lobby features a vinyl listening station, where guests can chill out to Cat Stevens and Al Stewart.
At the Kelowna property, staff has transformed a room the size of an elevator into a mini disco, complete with fog machine and disco lights. Any guest who spies this novelty feels compelled to drop in for a truly little video dance party that they subsequently share with their phone.
“It’s been a ton of fun,” Farmer says of the renovation work, “and it’s been great to see my dream come true. But, it’s been surprising in good and in bad ways — you would not believe what we found when we started opening up the walls in Kelowna. The amount of money we’ve put into these dilapidated buildings is a hard pill to swallow.” She declines to offer a figure.
The final piece of the retro push, says Farmer, “is probably the most important” the trio of vintage Volkswagen buses serving as the company’s shuttlebuses. “It’s like a mascot,” says Espley. Funkily painted (Victoria’s are aqua and orange and hot pink and green; Kelowna’s is turquoise and hot pink), these standout modes of transport practically insist upon delighted tourist photography.
At Hotel Zed, corporate promotion is largely a do-it-yourself proposition. Guests, charmed by the retro elements of their temporary homes, feverishly snap photos and post them to social media. But the proprietors have been mindful of this likelihood, and have taken care to ensure branding gets prominent transmission in this digital exercise. For example, there’s a Hotel Zed logo smack in the middle of the rotary dials of those snap-worthy orange, yellow, turquoise and aqua phones. The hotel’s name is in evidence at the mini disco, too. And the lobby typewriters rest alongside prominently displayed typewriter-ready Hotel Zed postcards.
“We’re really relying on our customers to market the property for us,” says Farmer. “Whether it’s a photo of them in the ping-pong lounge, in the vinyl listening room, or on the bus.” Hotel Zed is a destination property aimed at “the customer that doesn’t want to stay in a boring, ordinary hotel.” The hotel is anything but, this property enjoys a loyal following with a variety of market segments. “We’re a hit with families,” says Farmer. “But we’re also a hit with seniors and hipsters. And toddlers love us. We’re all over the map.” The thrust for Zed is the leisure market but, says Farmer, some “forward-thinking tech companies” are delighted to find such a unique shelter choice for their conference attendees. Rates for the rooms — in Victoria there are 63, in Kelowna, there are 55 — range from $170 to $200 per night in the summer and $120 in the winter.
“There are a lot of people out there who are longing for something different,” says Espley. “They’re tired of the same old experience. Hotel Zed, because of everything that goes on there, is not just a place to stay — it’s an experience.”
Volume 28, Number 4
Written By: Laura Pratt