The reception bell had been silent for months, so the hotel decided to reinvent itself. When Spanish hotels saw their occupancy rates drop by 70% during the pandemic, they looked to the past to find new business models. Years ago, hotels were part of the national housing ecosystem, providing a flexible lifestyle for long-term guests from all walks of life. Some hotel chains have begun to entice digital nomads and travelers with monthly rates of $500 for what was once a pipe dream – the ability to more or less permanently live in a hotel. But as the pandemic subsided, the mirage began to fade. Remote workers have been called back to offices and life has returned to the old normal.
There’s something appealing about hotel life. Everyone can imagine how nice it would be to come home every day and find a freshly made bed with turned down sheets. But few can afford it. With an average daily rate of $105 for a hotel room in Spain, a full month’s stay costs around $3,150. This is more than four times the average rent in Spain. Living in a hotel doesn’t make financial sense, no matter how wealthy the guest is. But during the pandemic, hotels have found other reasons to embrace new business models.
“The Palace Hotel was a meeting place for the upper classes,” says Paloma García, marketing manager of the legendary Madrid hotel. “Before, communication was more difficult – if you wanted to mingle in certain social circles, people had to know where you were.” And if you were anyone, the Palace was the place to be. European nobles were often spotted enjoying the French cuisine and Baroque aesthetic of the Neptune Grill. After lunch, the ladies socialized with their peers playing cards while the gentlemen smoked cigars and sipped cognac. Five-star hotels like the Palace and the nearby Ritz Madrid were the old-time social networking platforms for the upper class to show off their fusy pedigrees.
But things have changed. “Now it’s easier to keep in touch and people don’t have to go to places like these to socialize,” García said. When she started working at the Palace (now the Westin Palace Hotel) in the 1990s, only one woman still lived there full-time. No one else has taken up permanent residence at the hotel since he left. It’s not worth it – if you want to show off, just order a gin and tonic from the rooftop bar and immortalize the moment by posting a selfie on social media.
Hotel life once had certain advantages. Guests could bring their own servants and enjoy luxuries not widely available. Large hotels were equipped with the most modern appliances and the latest technological advances. When the Savoy in London opened in 1889, it was the first British hotel to have electric lighting, lifts, hot water and a bathroom in every room. But when these domestic luxuries became widespread, hotels lost their appeal as permanent residences.
New competitors have appeared. Stays longer than one month represent 25% of all Airbnb bookings. Apartment hotels with short-term leases, furnished rooms, and shared services offer many of the benefits once offered by apartment hotels, just like university residences and seniors’ residences.
When celebrities were hotel stars
The days of nobles meeting in the tearooms of five-star hotels are long gone, but the legends live on. Many of the most famous celebrities of the 20th century lived in hotels. Coco Chanel, who lived at the Ritz in Paris for more than 30 years, decorated her room with lacquered lampshades, gilded mirrors and a velvet banquette. Oscar Wilde also lived out his days in a Paris hotel, albeit in less opulent circumstances. Agatha Christie has lived in many of the best hotels in the world and has written about them in her detective stories. The queen of crime wrote Murder on the Orient Express in room 411 of the Pera Palace in Istanbul, a hotel overlooking the Golden Horn of the city where Europe the best of the best rested after the mythical train journey. Christie’s Death on the Nile begins with detective Hercule Poirot strolling through another of his favorites – the Egyptian hotel Old Cataract.
Renowned Spanish journalist Julio Camba wrote his last columns in Room 383 of the Palace, and Ernest Hemingway reported on the Spanish Civil War from Madrid’s famed Hotel Florida. “My bedroom door is open. You can hear gunshots out front a few blocks from the hotel. Gunfire all night. Machine gun fire. I’m lucky to be in bed instead of in Carabanchel or University City [districts of Madrid]he wrote as the city was besieged by Franco’s troops.
The Hotel Florida has become the residence of many foreign correspondents and writers such as the American author John Dos Passos, who immortalized his stay in an article entitled Room and Bath at Hotel Florida, published by Esquire magazine in January 1938. “My room is seven or eight stories high. The hotel is on a hill. From the window I can gaze out over the whole old part of Madrid over the crowded tiled roofs… The crowded city stretches sharp and motionless as far as I can see, narrow roofs, smokeless chimneys, buff towers and the pointed slate spiers of 17th century Castile. Designed by architect Antonio Palacios, Hotel Florida has survived more than 30 artillery shells crashing into its majestic marble facade, but it hasn’t survived urban development. Galerías Preciados bought and demolished the building in the 1960s to build a shopping center with a brick facade that is now covered in huge LED screens. The building is currently owned by a department store – El Corte Inglés – and hordes of tourists flock to the top-floor restaurants to enjoy views very similar to those described by Dos Passos.
These anecdotes gave rise to the romantic idea that artists did their best in hotel rooms because art has no time for mundane tasks like housework and errands. But it’s a false narrative that romanticizes a lifestyle woven from the stuff of storytellers. “To be honest, he [hotel life] is more the stuff of literature and cinema,” said Carlos Larrinaga, professor (University of Granada, Spain) and author of a history of Spanish tourism and hospitality during the first half of the 20th century.
Larrinaga explains that in Spain, “the development of the hotel industry is closely linked to the growth of tourism”. Other hotels were built as tourism developed and became an important component of the national economy. Short breaks being more profitable than long ones, it has become the predominant model for attracting affluent foreign tourists since the 1970s.
Tourism is the biggest contributor to Spain’s economy, accounting for more than US$176 billion a year (14.6% of GDP), according to a report by the World Travel & Tourism Council. Hotels are very important to the Spanish economy, as evidenced by the Madrid boom which has seen the recent openings of the Four Seasons Hotel and The Madrid EDITION, as well as major renovations of old classics like the Ritz, the Santo Mauro and the Rosewood Villamagna.
Spanish hotels have never been used as permanent residences in the same way as other countries like the United States. “It was more common for the wealthier layers of society to spend a few months in hotels,” Larrinaga said, “but living permanently in a hotel is rare.” Yet being the exception has lured hoteliers for decades and become the fodder of legends.
In his book Hotel Nirvana, writes Manuel Leguineche, “A whole life can take place in hotels – from birth to death.” So few choose to live like this, it is undeniable that hotels still fascinate many. Perhaps because vacation stays are shrouded in the idea of fleeting luxury, happiness with an expiration date. It is seductive to dream of a life in which breakfasts are always buffet style, the hair dryer is always at hand, the sheets are always clean and the temperature is always ideal – to experience an endless vacation. until you leave this world.