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The Wild Variety Of Pop-Up Hotels

Entrepreneurs are taking the pop-up concept in hospitality and running with it in all directions. Pop-up hotels are appearing in recently completed apartment buildings — that's the model of the growing WhyHotel — and around the world in tents, yurts and other temporary or remodeled structures.

The growth of pop-up hotels is in sync with the new emphasis in the hospitality industry on the experiential side of the business. Hotel designers are now emulating the placemaking mindset that has yielded walkable, urban projects with experiential amenities. A natural extension of the trend is to invest in hotels that aren't in the form of permanent buildings — the better to offer patrons a variety of experiences.

The Bell: A Taco Bell Hotel & Resort that the fast-food restaurant is opening for a few days in August

In some cases, that experience involves a commercial brand that hotel guests are eager to embrace, with the pop-up hotel concept being used to further brand awareness by temporarily incorporating a theme into an existing hotel. A group trying this out is a little unexpected: Taco Bell.

From Aug. 8-12, Yum Brands subsidiary Taco Bell will open a pop-up hotel it calls The Bell: A Taco Bell Hotel & Resort. The property is an existing Palm Springs, California, hotel of about 70 rooms that will be temporarily made over into a Taco Bell-themed property, including themed guest room decor, eating options and poolside drinks.

Taco Bell Chief Global Brand Officer Marisa Thalberg said a Taco Bell-themed hotel is part of a continuous effort by the company to stand out.

"The Bell stands to be the biggest expression of the Taco Bell lifestyle to date," Thalberg said.

It is something novel, important for consumers driven by experiential value.

"Just like some of our food innovation, this hotel brings something entirely new for fans to experience," Thalberg said.

A fast-food purveyor opening a hotel even temporarily might seem like an odd move, but the concept isn't such a stretch in the brand-bending history of the fast-food company

Starting in 2017, for instance, patrons looking to get married could have their nuptials at the Taco Bell flagship in Las Vegas. The year before that, the taco chain partnered with Airbnb to allow four customers to stay overnight at a Canadian location.

The Bell will also feature a gift shop for guests to acquire Taco Bell-branded apparel, as well as a salon for Taco Bell-inspired nail art and hairstyles. The company says new menu offerings will be introduced at the hotel.

Dome tents on the Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia, a pop-up accommodation by Blink

Another kind of pop-up hotel — though "accommodation" might be a better word, since it only resembles a traditional hotel in offering a place to stay at night — is offered by Blink, an entity recently established by London-based upmarket travel company Black Tomato, which also has offices in New York.

In this case, the hotel is not only near the experience, it is an essential part of the experience.

"We were inspired by the rise of pop-up restaurants, bars and retail, and set out to apply that to the world of immersive travel," Black Tomato founder Tom Marchant said. "The goal is to combine the concept with Black Tomato’s hyper-personalized itineraries."

Blink's model is to establish pop-up accommodations in remote or otherwise hard-to-reach locations worldwide, customized to suit a client on a particular Black Tomato trip.

"Clients now have the opportunity to create and design their own luxury temporary accommodation in places so private that no one else will have stayed there before, or again in the same way," Marchant said.

Marchant said Blink will be available anywhere in the world that Black Tomato can transport the tents and materials, requiring a three-month lead time to a destination the company has operated in before, or at least five months for a new destination that requires scouting.

One of the first pop-up accommodations by Blink involved a luxury dome camp set up in Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia, which is the world's largest salt flat.

The key to the concept is its flexibility. Blink will set up yurts or canvas accommodation or tropical villas, depending on what the customer wants. The pop-up is also completely temporary.

"Once the set-up is dismantled, there will be little to no evidence that it was there and no impact on the natural world," Marchant said. "The idea behind it is if you blink, you may just miss it."

An example of an ice hotel.

Another pop-up accommodation founded by an upmarket tour specialist is Terra Glamping, based in New York, and it too is highly experiential. It is an offshoot of TerraVelo, which offers bike tours that include private chefs and a masseuse as participants travel through various scenic areas of the western U.S.

In 2016, TerraVelo started Terra Glamping, setting up its first location, a glamping (glamorous camping) hotel featuring 10 safari-style tents in the California wine country overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The next year, the company started a pop-up operation during the summertime at Gateway National Recreation Area, with five glamping sites in the park's Fort Tilden area in the New York City borough of Queens.

The experience is “basically like being in a hotel room,” David Levine, one of Terra Glamping’s co-founders, told the Wall Street Journal

Perhaps the oldest pop-up accommodation concept is the ice hotel, which had its origins in the late 1980s in Sweden, but which has since spread to other cold-climate or mountainous nations, such as Canada, Finland, Japan, Norway and Switzerland. 

The original Icehotel is near the Torne River, in the remote northern part of the country; until 2017, it was rebuilt every year, but since then has used a solar-power concrete shell to refrigerate the structure on a more permanent basis. Other ice hotels are still true pop-ups, however, in the sense that they melt in the warm months and are rebuilt in the winter.

A variation on ice as a temporary hotel material is the Zandhotel in the Netherlands, which consists of pop-up accommodations built out of sand

In the summer of 2015, sand sculptors first created two sandcastle hotels in that country, in the towns of Oss and Sneek, and have done so each year in subsequent summers. The structures' interiors are made from sand treated with hardener and reinforced with wood frames, all of which is covered with a layer of sand to create a sandcastle effect.

Not all pop-up accommodations have survived the vagaries of the market, however. In the U.K., for instance, Snoozebox used shipping containers for a few years as the basis of its pop-up accommodation, remodeled for guest comfort, including air-conditioning and other amenities.

Snoozebox usually provided accommodations for events and festivals in that country and in other parts of Europe. Unfortunately, the company turned out to be as temporary as the accommodations it provided, sinking under the weight of debt in 2017.