Okay, I admit it. I’ve been reading William Gibson again. A lot. That’s probably the reason why I started thinking about capsule hotels. Colloquially, if somewhat irreverently known as coffin hotels, or the even more morbid corpse drawers, these creatures are certainly one of the strangest accommodations ever to populate the hotel universe.
For many, these stacks of boxes labelled hotel might, despite their frequent, but modest resurgences, already feel like a quaint and foreign anachronism, but I can’t help but wonder… So, I’m going to go ahead and write about my own thoughts and ideas about a modern version of a capsule hotel. One that I may find in Hamburg or London, and would want to stay in. Which ironically would also be my first stay in a capsule hotel of any kind, since so far I never had that opportunity.
For the uninitiated: a capsule hotel is a hotel with rooms so small that you have to store even your luggage in lockers outside. The “rooms” are called capsules (sic!) and are usually stacked two high, a small ladder leading to the top one. Washrooms are communal, and the Japanese original is even void of actual doors, offering curtains instead.
And yes, this is very much a Japanese invention. The first ever capsule hotel was the Asahi Plaza Capsule Hotel in Osaka, opened in 1979. From there it started spreading, first across Japan, then to other parts of Asia, and on to the rest of the world. Not a mainstream thing by any stretch of the imagination, but a fascinating idea nonetheless.
Capsule hotels are one of those phenomena that seem to frequently oscillate between being viewed as either archaic quaintness’s or the next big thing. And like so many other things that have been declared dead too many times, they simply refuse to die.
Why a capsule hotel?
The main benefit of capsule hotels is there extremely efficient use of space. When it comes to number of hotel guests per gross volume, this concept is hard to beat while still offering each guest a private sleeping space. And given the surge in real estate prices, especially in city centres, this is a powerful argument.
At the same time, more and more people need and want to be mobile, while they can’t or won’t afford 350 Euros per night plus incidentals for the simple privilege of being in town, paying for a room they use for little more than sleeping at night and taking a shower in the morning.
I also can’t help thinking that capsule hotels are rather well suited for a world in which many people, and quite a few who can afford differently or who charge their expenses to company/client, deliberately decide against traditional accommodation, going for a different experience instead.
Today, people in management positions and with incomes to match, book Airbnb, live in student hostels, couch-surf (but only if there’s an app), rent tree houses or simply bring their tent. Just for the fun of it. You don’t believe me? In my day job, I work for one of the true monoliths of the traditional consulting business. Can you guess where I got these examples from?
I, too, spent a substantial part of my adult life in hotel rooms, and I can definitely relate. People do get bored with standards. Even standards of luxury.
In or out of time?
But a capsule hotel? Isn’t that a bit much, given the (potential) noise level, the (potentially) bad air and all the other little kinks that tend to be left out of the marketing flyers? Isn’t that a bit much? Well, it depends.
Perhaps it’s the very minimalism of capsule hotels that are the key to their success. Or it’s the other way around and this is just one more instance of a great idea in danger of being stomped by being too minimalistic, too true to the original concept. What do I mean? Well, let’s take the concept and imagine a version of a capsule hotel that might be a tad more palatable for the western body and mind. And just for the fun of it, I’m going to word this one as a message to a potential hotel designer. Feel free to feel addressed.
Let’s start dreaming
So, what could a modernized version of a CH look like? Here are some of my own thoughts on this.
One rather clever idea is already out there: L-shaped rooms, with one L lying on its side and the other also on its side upside down. This, too, needs very little space, but provides a place to stand on either side with the bed or bunk in the middle, lower bunk for one and upper for the other. This may also feel a lot more comfortable than square low boxes stacked, but I’m lacking experience here.
This type of structure also allows designers to play with the concept of space a little more. Make it slightly wider and you can fit a miniature desk, e.g. at the end. Or you could fit a small bathroom/toilet, with two of them next to each other belonging to different capsules.
You could also go one step farther and make space for storing luggage, same side-by-side design, two rooms sharing the same vertical space once again, one getting the upper shelve, the other the lower one. And yes, these shapes take up two to three times as much space, but it might be worth it, even if some people will tell you that’s not really a capsule hotel anymore.
I also can’t help wonder what other ideas are out there. Fromsubmarine3s to cargo ships to space stations, a lot of designers had to deal with providing living and sleeping quarters in extremely limited space. Probably worth checking out.
First of all, let’s replace those curtains with good, honest, albeit high-tech doors. That might let guests sleep much more easily, knowing that there’s a barrier between them and all those crazies out there. Simple enough.
Naturally, those doors won’t require room keys, but will instead be unlocked with your smart phone, smart watch, smart ID, subcutaneous implant or whatever else you’re carrying around anyway.
And now, on to one of the trickier parts: the washrooms. While communal bathing has been an integral part of Japanese culture for centuries, it’s rather less common in the western world, and in these parts would mostly be associated with youth hostels, gyms and prisons.
And here the worlds might indeed collide. I can hear people talk already, how this is not for them, how it’s not suitable for our allegedly uncertain times and how it has become way too dangerous in light of all those pesky germs out there. But while there is a kernel of truth in that, those same people seem to have little to no trouble taking a shower at the gym, the pool or – okay, I won’t say prison here.
Looks like this is simply a matter of perception, meaning it needs to be done the right way. And that is important. If you put a private bathroom in every pod, it will either resemble the bathroom in a doll house, presenting serious physical challenges to all but the most flexible guests, or it may somewhat erode the idea of the capsule itself, specifically there stackability, turning a capsule hotel into some shrunken version of a downtown (I*is.
Your imaginary CH therefor probably needs to keep the communal bathrooms, but it also needs to keep very high standards of hygiene. Guests in turn need to come properly equipped and should be encouraged to do so before arrival: keeping your toiletries in a suitable bag, bringing some lightweight bathrobe (I always do) and most importantly, bringing a pair of bathroom slippers should all be part of the best-practice guide,
A shop or vending machine with reasonably priced goodies like these might also be a good idea. Or even a rental service. Towels will have to be provided at any rate. The no-need-to-bring-towels-rule, at least for the moment, is probably too deeply engrained in our western hotel culture. Renting towels may be an option, but only if the fee is purely nominal.
And btw: if you need ideas on how to do this, just visit some of the better camping grounds. You will find some nice and easy things to make communal bathrooms efficient and semi-private at the same time. No need to re-invent the wheel here, it’s all been done, tried and tested before.
So, we now have an imaginary CH with slight adaptations for western culture, but would that be enough? My business sense is yelling a resounding “no!”. Yes, it’s relatively cheap (it has to be), but so is Airbnb and the local youth hostel. So, what else do we need?
For this to work in the long run, staying in your CH needs to be and remain interesting, and it needs to make people feel comfortable and safe, but also cool, trendy, part of the new tribe. So, let’s toss around some ideas.
Make it modern, make it stand out, make it a little crazy without sacrificing functionality, and above all make it unique. Something to remember. Something to talk about.
Design is great. Just keep it changing. What is cool today is quaint tomorrow, and thereby on its way out. Never change a running system? That was yesterday. Today, if it works, change it, modernize it, make it feel all new all the time.
Give people space to mingle, to relax, to work, and provide the necessary amenities. Because one thing is for certain: most of your guests will not enjoy working or hanging out with fellow guests in their rooms
Conversely, as long as capsule hotels are something special, something unusual, shared spaces will have their very own coolness factor. How many times did you have a meeting or a quiet drink after work underneath a massive stack of sleeping pods?
At the very least, there needs to be high-speed Wi-Fi everywhere, free of charge. And while we’re on the subject: leave out those captive portals. There only real purpose is to get on people’s nerves, so put the legal gobbledygook someplace where it doesn’t interfere with your guest’s favourite tech.
Another thing is outlets. Electrical ones. They need to be in every pod, multiple ones, and don’t make a fuss about the cost. People need to recharge their stuff, and they will want their tools handy during the night.
On the subject of tech: get creative. Or just go through whatever Sci-Fi has cooked up so far, plenty of interesting ideas in there. Make sure there are useful yet unusual things to discover. And those, too, need to change, need to improve. The 007-themed room won’t cut it these days, but a little Star Trek and a few cute little robots in the background may be a start. Just keep the little critters out of the bathrooms, okay? Holograms are also a nice eye-catcher. Perhaps you’d like to put one on the roof?
Look at what’s already around: every modern iPhone can do augmented reality. AR glasses are still somewhat niche, but rumour has it they are coming hard and fast. Use that kind of emerging technology. For practical things (how to find what), but also for entertainment. Just one idea: what about AR glass themes that redecorate your hotel to different topics or populate them with creatures known and unknown?
And to add the blind guy’s perspective: while sound is a bit of a tricky thing for hotels, there are some very interesting things you can do these days, particularly with 3D sound. Ever stayed at the Hotel Matamba in Germany? It’s an African-themed hotel attached to the Phantasialand amusement park. If you happen to be in the neighbourhood, be sure to go there and have a cup of coffee in that garden in the centre courtyard. Close your eyes. It’s amazing. Monkeys fooling around on your right, lion slowly walking in from the left, turning your way, then walking away. Even the snacks are delicious. I absolutely love it.
This one I shouldn’t even have to mention: make it green, organic and sustainable, and cater to different styles of nutrition. Pay close attention to this, because your young-and-hip target audience, ready to try anything at least once, definitely will.
Aside from any coolness factor and new life experience, there may be a few basic ideas to adhere to.
Make sure the capsules are comfortable for European body sizes. And don’t be fooled by averages, they just represent the body height almost no-one actually has. Two metres long is definitely too short, especially since people actually get longer when they lie down (or are you flexing your feet all night long?) And contrary to full-sized hotel rooms, there’s a wall at both ends of the bed, so no feet hanging over the edge in your pods
This one might be tricky, but let’s leave it to the engineers for now: make it reasonably quiet in there, so people can rest easily even if the upper capsule’s patron is arriving late or snores like a walrus.
Make them easy to clean and clean them well.
Make it easily adjustable and easy on the eyes.
Get plenty of fresh air in there without giving your guests tinnitus or pneumonia in return. And let them control the temperature. Also, let’s put some sensors in there, and on a different system. You wouldn’t want your guests to pass out during the night because something went wrong.
Calling for help
Something I found on the website of a capsule hotel in Sydney, Australia: emergency buttons in every pod. Good idea, so go ahead and steal it.
At first glance, this one may seem tricky: what about double rooms? But there actually is a simple solution. Imagine two pods divided by a retractable wall, with the beds facing that wall on both sides. It will leave a gap, but I’m sure some ingenious engineer will solve that problem nicely. It will also be a pod with luggage space, either above the bed or underneath it.
Make it easy
For some reason, many traditional hotels are designed in a way that makes staying there a serious challenge even for the most experienced business travellers. Don’t fall for that. Put up plenty of signs, make them clear and concise, and above all easy to find and even more easy to read. If more than one guest a day is frozen in front of your floor plan for thirty seconds with a deep frown on their face, you need to work on it.
And of course, in your capsule hotel most guest will rarely need that anyway. Because you provided such great, easy to find and even more easy to understand information in your smartphone app, available for all major operating systems. An app that may, optionally of course, even be aware of a guest’s location inside the hotel (ever heard of iBeacons?), so they’ll feel familiar and comfortable with your hotel before they even arrive. And let’s face it: you’ll need to have an interactive 3D tour anyway, now won’t you?
Food and entertainment
This is a tricky one: where is the hotel and what’s around it? How big is it and is there enough traffic to justify a human-manned kiosk/bar/cafe/restaurant/bowling alley/cinema/whatever- you-want? Or does it make more sense to line the hallways with vending machines offering everything from Tappas to cell phones to disposable razors? Well, get out your pocket calculator and do the math. It really depends.
Just make sure that your guests can easily obtain whatever they are lacking, and at a reasonable price. Don’t fall for the current business model of many hotel chains, charging eight Euros for a bottle of water and 15 for a cheap toothbrush. It doesn’t create happy customers, nor does it inspire positive reviews. It’s simply not worth it, no matter how clever those managers think they are.
Anything else we can do for you, Sir?
Somehow, the hairs on the back of my neck stand up when I imagine the usual, perfectly standardized business hotel staff in your new and improved CH. So, let’s not create yet another drone army.
Speaking as someone who spent a decade or two traveling, I can tell you even or especially a lot of business men and women are pretty sick of it anyhow. Make it individual, personal and direct, and do get some real characters in there. Quality and standards are all good and necessary, but individual human beings are a lot more interesting.
Combining great design, interesting high tech and genuine human individualism can provide a fascinating experience, so go for it. And in the process, you will provide some jobs that actually do fit into today’s world, and perhaps even tomorrow’s.
Get it ready first
Imho, this capsule hotel is the very embodiment of a business idea that will either create a buzz or die a quiet, early death. So, make sure it works from the start. Make sure the tech is functioning flawlessly. And make sure that every time it doesn’t, there’s a quick and easy alternative. Make sure the staff can easily handle their jobs and make their guests feel good about being there. Make sure not a single guest will ever hear the words “this feature will be available to you soon”. Ever.
And if anyone starts blabbering about learning curves, tell them to shut up and practice. Your guests are there to stay and enjoy themselves, not to train your staff. Otherwise, you should be paying them.
That said, there are actually quite a few tools to market your new CH and test-drive it at the same time, from construction-site-parties to pre-pre-pre-pre-openings to all the wonderful ideas you’ll have and no-one else ever came up with. Just be honest about it, and get some people on board who know how to do these things. You probably know this, but it’s trickier than it seems.
And let’s face it: today, doing something different can be a (short-term) draw all by itself. We’re definitely culturally bored enough for that, even or especially when most marketing is still based on prejudices come cliché. One more thing working in your favour.
Yes, I know, you’ve been waiting for it all along. This wouldn’t be a FLN post if it didn’t talk about accessibility. Me being blind and all that.
So please make your hotel accessible. And there we may hit a little snag.
Accessible for blind people? Not all that difficult, and plenty of knowledge out there how to do that. And the good news: many blind people actually like small spaces. Contrary to popular perception, blind people don’t prefer vast, open spaces, since those tend to be somewhat disorientating. You may acquire a small, but loyal following right here.
Cognitive and mental disability? Definitely More challenging, but parts of it you can take care of simply by making it easy to use (clear and easy signage and all that). Heavy entertainment all over the place is going to work against it. How to handle that? Ask someone who knows.
And what about wheelchair users? Not in a traditional pod. But do have a think about this one. Some larger ground floor rooms, accessible to wheelchairs but also compatible with the average human being are a great idea anyway, since there will always be people who like the idea but can’t or don’t wish to handle the real thing.
Dreaming on… and on…
I seem to be on a roll now. Let’s take this thing to the next level. Once you have the sleeping pod technology designed, optimized, tried and tested, there may be a lot more you can do with them. That’s if the individual capsules or at least blocks of capsules are sufficiently autonomous in terms of HVAC, insulation etc. The buzz word here is “modular” design. And it might not be too much of a challenge to also make them collapsible. More work in setting up, but easier to transport.
Going mobile, the beauty of it comes to light: all the rest of the infrastructure is already here, ready to rent and use. You can rent anything from porta loos and showers to heated tents for whatever to mobile kitchens. Wouldn’t your high-quality sleeping pods be a perfect fit here?
Mobile capsule hotels
Mounted on trucks, train cars, ships, delivered by Zeppelin, containerized or assembled piece by piece: there are plenty of occasions every single day that require affordable accommodation. From trade shows to music festivals, from conventions to hacker camps: people need to sleep somewhere, and guests often won’t care for spending hundreds of Euros each night just to sleep and bathe.
Then there are construction sites, project sites, whatever sites. These often use container housing these days – and wouldn’t that be a perfect fit?
Even for personal use, these mobile pods could be great. Same way you rent some porta loos for that big hootenanny, now you can rent hotel rooms, and they will fit in your driveway or the garden. Some people may also want to buy them, e.g. as guest rooms.
Mix and match
Pods can also easily be added to traditional hotels, youth hostels or anywhere else the rest of the infrastructure is in place anyway. Incidentally, this may be a good fit. Like I mentioned before, not everybody can or wants to handle such tight spaces, so having pods and full-sized hotel rooms side by side may be a great idea.
The same goes for quite a few corporate offices, too. Our own offices have changing rooms and showers anyway, just nowhere to sleep.
All in all
So much for my phantasy. Will this work? No clue, not my line of business. Would I like it? I think I would, provided it’s accessible to me. Above and beyond that, a lot will hinge on the details, but I think it’s worth a try. Care to take it for a spin?