How TOURISTS Is Building A New Kind Of Hospitality Experience In The Era Of Airbnb
PSFK founder Piers Fawkes speaks with the buzzy American country hotel about starting as a repurposed '60s motor lodge and organically evolving the motel experience into a community-led lifestyle resort
- TOURISTS, a community-led hotel in North Adams, Massachusetts, was designed as a respite from today's fast-paced world. In an environment dominated by Airbnb, customers are flocking to the hotel as a way to unplug and connect with fellow travelers.
- Designed to be a single 18-room motel, the building expanded as neighbors sold off their properties for the hotel, turning it into a successful hospitality business.
- PSFK spoke with Ben Svenson, lead partner of the hotel, and Nina Zacek Konsa, general manager, on the hotel's approach to the guest experience, its unexpected evolution and reception, and its almost overnight success.
Piers Fawkes: When I experienced TOURISTS, I interpreted it as a motel experience turned on its head into a 21st-Century guest experience. How would you describe your approach to reinventing the motel?
Ben Svenson: Certainly, that was the beginning of it. We found the Redwood Motel, and, as you describe, turned it on its head—that was our objective. It started out as an 18-room motel. We were going to stick with that footprint and be done after six months of work. That was five years ago. Our desire in building TOURISTS was to create a hospitality experience that was very much of that place and would deliver to our guests some knowledge about North Adams' past, its present, and where things may be going.
To have a series of buildings like an 1813 farmhouse or a 1913 industrial building, or 1957 urban renewal wastewater treatment plant—that was all really exciting to us, because it supported our objective to deliver to guests an experience of this place without words.
You go beyond what a hospitality space typically delivers: You create a nice space, but also let guests go off to the art gallery or go for a hike. Why did you feel you had to deliver that?
Svenson: I'm not sure if we had to, but we decided to. We didn't start there. In this particular case, while we were building, our site was changing. In the same way that the site was changing, the team was changing.
I think the bottom line is the word “experience,” which you'll hear so often when people describe where hospitality is headed. We doubled down on that idea, which is that this is more than a bed: This is an experience. In this era, when Airbnb and VRBO are your competitor set, how do you distinguish a hotel? Well, you deliver hospitality on steroids. You take the four or five bells and whistles that would differentiate you from staying at somebody's house when they're not there for two days, and you add to it 50 more.
Tell us more about how you create a unique experience.
Svenson: Naming it TOURISTS was clarifying. A tourist, by definition, is a leisure traveler. So, we're not dealing with people's business suits. We're only dealing with their swimsuits. We wanted to design a space and experience specifically for that.
Coming to TOURISTS isn't about brevity and efficiency. It's about a paced and very considered descent into relaxation and contemplation. We thought, “Let's make the place we want to stay at.” There's enough of us in this little gaggle of people that if it rings our bells, maybe it'll work for other people. We've been overwhelmed and never in a million years would have predicted that we would get the response that we've gotten, which is totally exciting.
How would you describe your audience?
Svenson: Our audience has been wider than what we anticipated it to be, which is great. We get a lot of people in their 20s away for a romantic getaway, an adventure. We get people who are in their 50s and 60s whose kids are going to college. It's way wider than we ever anticipated.
How are you evolving your service experience to accommodate your guests?
Nina Zacek Konsa: What we thought our model would be before we opened our doors is different from what it is today. That's purely because of how our team evolved and also what our guests asked for. Since they're coming to a much smaller place where they don't necessarily have all of the amenities that they're seeking in the surrounding town, we're forced to provide more of that on our hotel grounds.
When we initially opened, we were going to have a very tiny food and beverage program. It was just going to be a tiny little coffee shop that had drinks and breakfast pastries. We ended up opening two food and beverage outlets. We have one at the hotel, and then one at the hotel lounge that we opened in February, because that's what we needed to accommodate our guests.
What else does today's guest want out of their experience?
Zacek Konsa: Every hotel that you go to has a different type of guest, but the biggest thread that we've seen through our guests is to have a connection, whether that is to the actual property, because they love hiking along the Appalachian Trail, or with the staff that we have on hand.
We have a guest that has now stayed with us 10 times, and they do that because they feel this connection. They like the connection with the staff and that they know, “Oh, you like this type of beer. You're traveling with your dog. We're going to make sure that you and your whole entire family, including your dog, are very comfortable.” Having that connection with a human being is what sets us apart from VRBO and Airbnb. That is the key to success in the hospitality industry.
We've seen how services like Airbnb can create experiences and tours around their properties. What differentiates your offer from theirs?
Svenson: As soon as I arrived at this name TOURISTS, then we just sort of went for it—it was clarifying. Our guest is the leisure traveler. We wanted to to make it nice for people to leave their homes, to offer what a home can't. It's the idea that you design a space specifically for your leisure, adventure and relaxation time. That's not what most homes are designed for. Then add to that a whole host of amenities.
I'd say the next of the biggest differentiators, which I really see playing out at our hotel in a way that I didn't anticipate, is community—the idea that you are in a community of people who are traveling in that moment and are in a specific mindset.
I didn't anticipate a TOURISTS being a place where guests would introduce themselves to one another. I think that has to do with the type of hotel we are and the people who are coming. I think it also has a lot to do with the spaces that we designed. I think we accidentally designed very communal common spaces. There's a community aspect in the hotel that is also different.
Zacek Konsa: I actually just had a friend in town who stayed at the hotel a few nights. She said, “It's crazy how around the pool and on the deck everybody is just chatting with each other.” Everybody wants to know, “What brought you to TOURISTS? Why are you here? What are you doing over the next few days in town and around town?” There's a very open conversation between all of our guests, which is really special and different from the homeshare experience.
Lead image: Sydney Bensimon for TOURISTS