Features.

Exploring the rise of pop-up hotels

Click. takes a close look at the rise of pop-up hotels and explores why fixed abodes could be yesterday’s news

by Ben Lerwill, Click. Travel Writer

Topic: Guest experience Trends

Click. Takeaway

  • The term ‘pop-up hotel’ has become a common one
  • Many of these ‘hotels’ are luxury tents, aimed at travellers looking for unique experiences
  • WhyHotel, which sells unfilled apartments as hotel space, recently received almost US$4m in seed funding
  • The trend for temporary accommodation is likely to be long-lasting

Permanence is passé. As any trend-conscious urbanite will attest, bars, restaurants and stores no longer require longevity in order to achieve success. In many cases, the shorter their shelf-life, the more popular they become.

Pop-up outlets have – with a certain irony – turned into one of the more durable trends of the past few years. Typically they give fledgling brands a showcase, maximise cheap rents and offer customers a sense of having bought into something unique. But can the world of short-lease fashion stores and week-long cocktail bars translate into the hotel sector?

Every time you stay with us you’ll get a slightly different experience as we roll from building to building – Bao Vuong, WhyHotel

Of course it can. The concept of pop-up hotels has become more prevalent in recent times. This is partly due to clever branding (temporary accommodation, after all, being far from a new phenomenon) and partly due to some highly creative advances on the part of providers. In an era when differentiation has become all-important, there’s value in being able to market an overnight stay that doesn’t fit the usual mould.

Pop-up ‘hotels’ tend to fall into one of a few categories. Many are essentially luxury tents, soft-shell spaces erected for a few days at a time in desirable locations and fitted with as many mod cons as can realistically be managed. The ever-more-popular notion of festival ‘glamping’ also fits here – tellingly, Marriott International set up four yurts to resemble W Hotel suites at this year’s Coachella Festival in California.

A fresh approach

Other pop-up accommodations are more functional but no less viable, making use of existing structures that are currently empty. These might be anything from shipping containers – as used by companies like UK-based Snoozebox, Australia-based Contained and Belgium-based Sleeping Around – to untenanted buildings.

Meeting the latter description is US firm WhyHotel, which began business in mid-2017. The premise behind the idea is simple. When high-rise residential buildings are completed, it can take them up to two years to secure long-term tenants. WhyHotel, which recently secured almost US$4m in seed funding, makes the most of this period by selling as-yet-unfilled units in these new developments as hotel beds.

“We’re on site for guests 24/7,” explains President and Co-founder Bao Vuong. “We generally start by using around 50% of a building’s units, so early on we have by far the predominant number of people in the building. That percentage gradually falls as the months go by, and by about 20% we pull out.”


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And is the temporary nature of the accommodation part of the attraction? “It is. Every time you stay with us you’ll get a slightly different experience as we roll from building to building. If you don’t come in the limited months we’re open, then the window’s closed. And because we’re only in buildings for a maximum of two years, nothing ever feels dated or old.”

He also believes the business model will be around for some time to come. “We think this is really just the beginning of true mixed-use buildings. For new developments, the lines will continue to blur between residential, hotel and office space. There are natural synergies because of the timings involved.”

Pushing the boundaries

Taking a very different approach to the pop-up model is upscale travel operator Black Tomato, which last year introduced a concept it calls Blink (as in ‘blink and you’ll miss it’). It allows clients to stay in remote spots with no existing hotels – anywhere from the Mongolian steppes to the Moroccan desert – by putting up bespoke tented accommodation.

“We were looking at the trend of pop-up restaurants and bars and wondering how to develop the idea, make it sustainable and bring it to luxury travellers,” explains spokesperson Kate Warner. “I like to say that guests get to be their own interior hotel designers. They select everything: the décor, the bedding, the food, whether to face sunset or sunrise and so on. It’s completely personalised, so when it’s taken down it can never be replicated in the same way.”

Clients are always looking for the next big thing – Kate Warner, Black Tomato

The idea has proved so popular that the company is taking the approach one step further, by erecting a private camp of six tented domes on Bolivia’s iconic salt flats. The Blink Dome Camp will be in place for one year, beginning in September, before being dismantled again.

Also notable is Collective Retreats, the brainchild of Peter Mack, a former decade-long employee of Starwood Hotels & Resorts. It currently comprises five upmarket tented retreats in different locations around the US, with temporary leases on the land in each case. It does a good job of showing that owning real estate isn’t a prerequisite to a company establishing itself in the accommodation sector – and gives its guests something out of the ordinary.

“Clients are always looking for the next big thing,” concludes Black Tomato’s Warner. “They want the next boundary-pushing travel experience. So will pop-up hotels be a permanent part of the industry? Definitely.”

Hero image: credit to Jared Rice

Ben Lerwill is an award-winning freelance travel writer based in Oxfordshire, England

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