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19/03/01 . John Crace . Guardian . UK
Double Room with Fries
There's a huge McDonald's M above the beds. And you can't get room service. But John Crace, in Zurich, finds the first McHotel surprisingly tasteful . . . until he fancies something to eat
Drive towards Ramlüng along the perimeter fence of Zurich airport and the first thing you notice is the bright yellow neon M burning through the grey mist. Chicago, Paris, Delhi, Streatham High Road - the logo is instantly recognisable throughout the world. But as you get nearer, it becomes apparent that the iconography is not all it seems. Along with several more giant Ms and a general smearing of yellow and red, there are a number of truncated Ms that turn out to be rather more tastefully sized Hs. Also in yellow.
The Golden Arch is the world's first McDonald's hotel. Profits have been flat in the fast-food burger business, so brand diversification is hardly unexpected. What is surprising is the way it came about. Zurich was not chosen as the result of a massive global focus group or boardroom horse-trading, but on one man's whim. Urs Hammer, McDonald's 52-year-old multi-millionaire chairman and CEO in Switzerland, is a hotelier and architect manqué, and the Golden Arch is his brainchild. When he first suggested the idea three years ago to Jim Skinner, McDonald's European supremo, he was told to "stick to hamburgers".
But he didn't. In two weeks' time, Hammer opens his second hotel in Lully, and has plans for a third in Geneva. Meanwhile, the rest of the corporation holds its breath to see whether the McHotel will bankroll the business for the next few decades or turn out be an expensive midlife crisis.
The McDonald's yellows and reds dominate the lobby and bar area, and much of the furniture has been designed to reflect the company logo. But where the burger bars are all plastic, the hotel is maple and leather, with feng shui waterfalls and scattered rose petals. And that's not the only difference. When I go to check in, the woman behind the counter asks, "Can I help?" in a voice that sounds uncannily as if she means it.
Not that you need to check in, mind. Along with its determinedly modernist design, the hotel is equipped with all the latest hi-tech gadgets, which allow you to check in and out with the swipe of a credit card, and surf the net and pick up email from the TV. At least you can if you are able to operate the controls. The same goes for the light switches, which work with a smart card. Or idiot card, perhaps as it takes several minutes of scrabbling around in the dark to locate the holder. Even the beds, which cost £3,500 apiece, are interactive. They are fashionably low-slung, and can be moved around so that you can lie down with your feet or head in the air. Or both.
Once you can see, it's clear the room is not your conventional hotel box. Two items dominate: an M-shaped headboard and a mauve satin sash with the ubiquitous yellow H laid across the bed. Which is a pity, because if neither were there you could quite forget you were in McDonald's.
The sleeping area has a hardwood floor, while the washing area contains the nearest you get to traditional McDonald's values with a not-unattractive green Styrofoam floor covering. Or rather, I assumed it was Styrofoam, but was later politely informed that it was state-of-the-art anti-bacterial non-slip tiling. By the way, the words sleeping and washing areas are used advisedly as there are no separate rooms; the circular power shower - the hot water is generated by heat given off from the restaurant chip pans - is discreetly boxed into one corner of the bedroom. Or possibly it's the other way round.
To complete the image overhaul, there is no sign over the hot tap warning you that hot water might come out of it and nor are the walls coated in migraine-inducing primary colours. It's all surprisingly tasteful and unpretentious.
Inevitably, there is a downside, and at the Golden Arch it comes when you want to eat. Room service is off the menu, so your options are the Aroma coffee shop (one of McDonald's recent more upmarket acquisitions, along with its 33% stake in Pret a Manger) which will do, at a push, for breakfast, and - you've guessed it - a McDonald's.
As McDonald's go, the one at the Golden Arch is better than most. Although there's the airport on one side, there are open fields on another where the cows keep an understandably nervous eye on proceedings, and the food offers better possibilities than any British Mickey D. There are even bagels and croissants for breakfast. But, whichever way you cut it, it's still a McDonald's. So why does a man who has just spent more than £12m building this slick hotel go out of his way to remind his punters at every turn of its downmarket associations?
"We argued at length about how closely the two operations should be combined," Hammer admits. "Some felt we should have a more upmarket restaurant but I felt very strongly that we should make use of the branding that wins us 45m customers a day worldwide."
Even though he never undertook any market research before embarking on the project, Hammer is confident he will be proved right. "Before we opened last week, an American family from Fort Worth turned up out of the blue. The son had spotted the hotel and said to his father, "Look, a
McDonald's hotel. Let's stay there."
Hammer goes on to say that bookings for the 211-room hotel are on target, and that 15% of guests will be flying in specially from Asia to stay there. The hotel's main target market, though, is business - hence the nine conference rooms in the basement; but whether business men and women reckon that staying in a hotel whose primary symbol is an annoying oversized clown will send the right messages to their clients, must be open to question.
"We only charge 174SF (roughly £75) per night," Hammer continues. "Other comparable four-star hotels charge between 200SF and 300SF so we expect to win business on price."
The Swiss appear to enjoy a healthy love affair with McDonald's. The country's 7m inhabitants make a combined total of 85m visits per year, and it's hard to find anyone who has a word to say against the place. Even though the hotel had yet to open, the taxi driver knew exactly where it was and what the room rates were; Petra, a Ramlüng local, said she was looking forward to staying there. Even the new Mogadon jingle for the hotel is performed by Switzerland's answer to Celine Dion and gets played on national TV and radio. Don't be surprised to hear it at the next Eurovision Song contest.
Much as one might long for any new McDonald's venture to go belly up, it's hard to maintain too much malevolence, as the hotel so clearly tries to embody values - notably good taste - that are lacking elsewhere in its operations. If a similar range of mid-price hotels were to open - with or without the restaurants - in the UK, the share price of Travelodge et al would tumble. Unless it was a Pizza Hutel.
A recent US book, Fast Food Nation, accuses McDonald's, among others, of turning America into a graveyard of obesity and rural poverty. If the burger giant is doing the same in Switzerland, the least that can be said is that it's doing it in style.