Show me the Stars!
As a kid in Iran, it was quite the norm to spend the night outside when the weather was just too hot to bear. I used to love our slumber parties with my cousins – talk and play all night then fall asleep counting the stars. Today, with the advent of air conditioning and the comfort of most modern homes, there is no need for that. And when on vacation, unless we camp, we choose to stay at hotels, carefully selected based on budget but also their star rating and reviews. We have been trained (me included) to judge the quality of most things according to their accolades – the more, the better.
Daniel Charbonnet, co-founder of Null Stern and Hospitality Guru is here to challenge us and show that beyond the stars, what we really strive for is an unforgettable experience. And what began as an art experiment in 2008 with brothers and artists Frank and Patrik Riklin developed into a major disruption in the way we think of hotels.
Their tagline definitely supports their philosophy – “Null Stern – the only star is you”.
In 2008, the project began in a nuclear bunker in the town of Sevelen, St. Gallen (Switzerland) under the tagline “the first zero star hotel in the world”, and today the concept has evolved into a hotel room with the only walls or roof being the landscape and the sky.
Thank you Daniel for taking the time to meet and describe this really interesting project!
Tell me about your collaboration with Frank and Patrik Riklin
We first met and created this concept in 2008. Frank and Patrick are both artists and I’m the Hospitality guy. Both worlds merged and Null Stern happened! Our first Null Stern was in a nuclear bunker. It was an art installation – the idea was to take Art outside of the museum and bring it to the people in their everyday life. And that’s where my hospitality and business skills came in handy! I always think of my job as one that brings people in to take care of other people.
So when we met and discussed this concept, it was really interesting to me because hospitality today is all about the intangible. The idea of creating a hotel in the most hostile environment possible which at the time was a nuclear bunker was beyond exciting. Thanks to the brothers I was able to do something which I would have never been able to do otherwise because the hospitality world is a very strict world – Stars, Diamonds and Criteria!
We didn’t try to hide the fact that it was a bunker without windows or fresh air. But our beds were very special – design and linen all specifically made for this experience. We didn’t compromise on the details of the experience. The other great part was what we call “The modern Butler”, the guy with the bow-tie and white gloves catering to all your needs. Since I used to work for Four Seasons and I understand service, I trained him the same way I would someone at the Four Seasons. Our guests were in a bunker but getting tailored and customised service – organising trips, carrying the luggage, making the bed, etc..
Our guests were very responsive with great feedback. We had people come from over 100 countries, from families, business people, to old and young, you name it.
Explain the Tagline
We came up with the tagline “Null Stern, the only star is you” as a play on words because in the hospitality world we always give Stars to hotels – the hotel is the Star. To me it was really interesting to go back to the core and understand that the Star should be the guests.
Hotels today are probably the last place on earth where you can hope to have some human interaction. I’m hoping that our place is where you can expect to feel well and treated with attention.
How do you finance and advertise this project?
We started getting copied all over the world which brought up the question of protecting the brand, a thought we had never anticipated. We never spent a dollar on advertising, nothing. Even today with our new launch, which sold out in no time with a waiting list for next summer. It’s crazy.
At the time we had to think on how to move forward, and since I’m the business guy I thought we should be able to transform the idea and somehow capitalise on it. But regardless of our efforts, it didn’t happen. Venture capitalists, banks, investors and partners were all interested in the media coverage but no-one had any idea of what to do! We got offers to sell the brand but we couldn’t let go of it. To us it was much more than just a brand, it was a spirit. And that’s when we realised that we already had an idea so now let’s get rid of the shell.
Null Stern is not a just a bed but a way of thinking. But it didn’t mean anything to the money people! Too abstract! “What do you actually sell other than the spirit and way of thinking?”
The project continues on its own – Null Stern has its own mind and we actually follow the project more than leading it at this point.
From bunker to star gazing – how did the new idea come about?
With always the Art in mind, we brought the idea to the mountain areas in the Grison where the first art academy in the Alps just opened. We thought to get rid of the wall and focus on the backdrop – the Butler is there, the bed is there but instead of being below ground (2 stories below) with only walls and no windows, now we are at 1,800 meters in altitude with no walls at all!
The local authority and tourism office were completely on board and helped us dig the hole and make things right. The tourism office is managing all the bookings and reservations. We created a modern ‘Butler Club’ with the locals – one day it could be the local farmer, another day the local pharmacy clerk… We train them the professional way while never compromising their true essence and personality. Nevertheless we want them to follow best practices.
Do the Modern Butlers speak different languages?
French, English, Swiss German and German for most of them. But again we realised with the Null Stern underground that when you focus on an environment with only two people, naturally you bond, regardless of the language. We reduce everything to the minimum except the people. So once you strip everything away, language becomes an interesting topic itself.
What is the booking process (from reserving to checking-in, ordering food, checking-out and concierge service)?
The tourism office takes care of the reservations and 48 hours prior to the arrival time, the office confirms with guests because of the weather – reason why we only operate the bed until August 31st.
When the guests arrive, the Modern Butler greets them with a welcome drink and cheese, then takes them to their bed and explains how it all works. Five to seven minutes away from the bed, there is a restaurant where our guests can use the bathroom (we always think of solutions!) but can also eat. We also bring breakfast to bed to fully enjoy the scenery.
We pick our locations very strategically because we try to think of all the different scenarios – restroom is walking distance, but also near by there is a traditional Swiss chalet where we set up the same exact bed, our ‘emergency Null Stern bed’ in case of bad weather or any other unplanned scenarios. Guests can call the Butlers anytime of the day and night and they will be right there. Check out is also managed by the local tourism office.
How about internet and electrical plugs for our 24hour/day connected junkies?
There is full coverage. We have solar charging batteries and power banks.
How do you make sure your guests are safe?
We have very powerful flash lights! The phones are always charged and the restaurant and chalet are right there. This will always be on our mind and we will always search for places like this one. And the Butler always remains on site.
Why is this new version of Null Stern so much more expensive than the previous version (250 vs 9)?
When we had the bunker, the first thing we realised was that people will always pay more than what we ask for. Of course money is important and we still hope that we can take our idea to a lucrative place, but when we first opened, as a hospitality guy I was just really interested in the experience. Money was important and we had a business plan (all of this costs money) but how much could we charge people to stay in a bunker? Our rate was established between CHF9-25, but people would leave 100, 200 and sometimes 300. I spent my entire career convincing people to give me money and now they just leave it without a question! They would say that what they were giving us was what they thought the experience to be at least worth. This was a big learning.
We had Mercedes reps come back once a month instead of going to their usual 4 star hotel in St Gallen. We had three to four Benz lined up in front of our bunkers every month! They said “we pay a lot of money for hotels but no-one ever says hello, how are you or goodbye. No-one even remembers us! Here we forget that we’re in a bunker, you remember us, help us and are always happy. The Modern Butler is the most amazing thing we’ve seen.”
We are firm believers that guests have evolved in the last 20-30 years and we have moved away from the size of the TV to be important to the real value which is the people, the experience, feeling seen and heard. And for this you don’t need to be in a luxury environment. Our guests tell us that 250 is not expensive for what they are getting. The concept of being expensive is always compared to something, so how can Null Stern be compared with anything?
What’s the future of Null Stern?
How about Switzerland becoming The Hotel since we got rid of the walls, the rooms and windows? We hope that if other regions see value in our idea they would jump on board. We represent the greatness of Switzerland. Maybe we can imagine to have 30-40 beds all across Switzerland. Instead of having one hotel, you would have one country with 30 beds!
To have such success with a name that says 0 stars creates quite a bit of disruption in the hospitality world! We got letters saying that we confuse the market. We take it as a compliment!
I respect the traditional world but I do believe in evolution and mutation. Look at airbnb! I take it like as a lesson to me and wish I had come up with the idea! To me they are more of an inspiration than a threat.
For investors, our idea is too out there and it questions the entire system that has been working for hundreds of years. But for us now that we work with local organisations and tourist offices, the dynamic has completely changed and hope that other organisations that strive to promote their region will get on board with us.
The Star system is a business and we at Null Stern have moved away from it. I know it’s generating a lot of unhappy people but we’re ok with that. Our Stars are our Guests.
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