The worst hotel in the world - not so bad

Trip Start Jan 30, 2007
Trip End Dec 31, 2011

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Flag of Netherlands  , Noord-Holland,
Sunday, May 17, 2009

What marketing can do for an average hotel . . .

It's the worst hotel in the world and proud of it

By Adam McDowell, National Post

Erik Kessels takes in his surroundings: linoleum floor, cracked paint, circa-early-1980s TV with cigarette burns on the chassis. This room on the ground floor of a budget hotel in Toronto -- a hotel that prefers to remain nameless for this story -- may not be pretty, but it looks relatively clean.

"This is like luxury compared to the Hans Brinker," Kessels says. "They have a chair."

At the Hans Brinker Budget Hotel in the centre of Kessels' hometown of Amsterdam, there are only pictures of chairs on the walls, a jokey attempt to earn the establishment even one star from the Dutch tourist board. That the ploy didn't work is a good thing; earning a star might have interfered with the Hans Brinker's long-standing claim to mediocrity. Its promises of no amenities, rude fellow guests, terrible food and even the possibility of dog mess in the lobby have all been documented in a new, colourful book, The Worst Hotel in the World.

The boast started about 15 years ago when a client with little money was looking for an advertising agency. Kessels, then a young Ogilvy & Mather ad man, took an interest. Hans Brinker manager Rob Penris had little to offer Kessels beyond the right to hold a party at the hotel once a year. On the flip side, Penris would be an easy client to work for.

"The only requirement he had was he didn't have complaints anymore," recalls Kessels over a coffee during a visit with friends in Toronto.

Ordinarily, an advertising account manager will look at the client's features and benefits and come up a slick image for it. The problem with the Hans Brinker is that it's a fairly ordinary, if spartan, backpacker-oriented hotel where a bed costs between about 20-45 (about $32-$71) a night. It lacks features and benefits.

"We soon found out that honesty was the only luxury they had," Kessels says.

Guests with no expectations, he reasoned, wouldn't complain.

One of the first ads appeared on the side of a tram; Kessels cleverly only bought the ad for a streetcar line that passed by Amsterdam's main tourist information office, and only on the side of the tram that faced

the building. The ad bragged about how exclusive the Hans Brinker

was --it excluded a lot of things: bellhops, saunas, bidets, a swimming pool, tennis courts, mini bars ...

Over the years, the campaign has worked through several themes, all with the same central, no-frills message. One series of ads showed before and after pictures of guests, with the after pictures looking haggard and unslept. Another campaign extolled the Hans Brinker's eco cred: For instance, the "hotel" sign with every letter except the L burnt out uses 80% less energy than one with all five letters lit. The most notorious Hans Brinker ad involved sticking tiny flags into piles of dog dirt on Amsterdam's streets. "Now even more of this," they promised, "at our main entrance."

Only twice has the Hans Brinker rejected one of Kessels' team's ideas. One campaign would have involved portraying guests committing suicide.

"It happens in every hotel, that once or twice a year someone dies there. It's something hotels don't want to touch," Kessels says.

Another rejected ad was a poster that could be interpreted as showing a woman leaving poop outside the front entrance of the hotel (so, for the record, dog doo-doo is acceptable while people doo-doo is not).

The outlandish campaign has "kind of worked," as Kessels modestly puts it. Overnights, or paid nights at the hotel, have risen from 60,000 to 145,000 per year since Kessels took a sledgehammer to the Hans Brinker's reputation.

Kessels has likewise prospered. Since 1996, he's been the creative director and co-founder of the firm KesselsKramer, which has handled accounts for Levi's, Diesel Jeans and Heineken.

Kessels gets regular invitations to speak about the Hans Brinker campaign, because the question of how to get ahead in advertising has rarely been answered with "honesty."

"The work has been recognized internationally as a very good marketing case," he says.

In case it isn't obvious by now, Kessels doesn't actually believe the Hans Brinker is the worst hotel in the world. "That's marketing. We say, 'Improve your immune system' with a picture of bed bugs. It doesn't say there are bed bugs." And the food in the canteen, he says, is actually pretty good.

The ads work because they're full of irony, Kessels believes. "It's just a language that the backpackers really like." The ads also appeal to the backpacker's sense of bravado:What 21-year-old wouldn't want to tell the folks back home that they'd stayed at the worst hotel in the world? The Hans Brinker even sells souvenir posters to commemorate the event.

(Incidentally, earlier this year the website Trip Advisor listed what it believed to be some of the dirtiest hotels around the world. New York's Hotel Carter took the North American title. A European list has not been released yet.)

Ironically, the recession has caused well-known chain hotels to drop their prices, and Kessels reports seeing the Amsterdam Hilton advertising rooms for less than the Hans Brinker. In these times, its unique positioning as a lousy hotel could be its saviour.

Should you book a stay at the Hans Brinker, don't be disappointed if your room isn't too bad, Kessels cautions. "If you call it the worst hotel in the world, it always looks better than you think."

- The Worst Hotel in the World is published by Booth-Clibborn Editions ($45.50).
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