Checking in to the Past: The Marketing of Historic Buildings as Present Day Hotels
By our Fall 23 Study Abroad Liaisons, Directed by Nicole Lai
Nov. 9, 2023
By: Vivienne Bersin
Picture yourself as a tourist in Spain able to time travel and uniquely check in to history’s most iconic landmarks. From sipping coffee in a castle that once echoed the balls and banquets of royal families to sleeping in the room where renowned artists, authors, and inventors once dreamt, you feel truly immersed in the culture and history of Spain. Interestingly enough, you can do this without any magical time travel. We’ll delve into the marketing of historic buildings as hotels in Spain - where every room has a story, every wall whispers a tale, and the guests become a part of history. So grab your vintage keycard, because we’re about to check into an era where history isn’t just remembered; it’s reimagined.
During my time studying abroad at the NYU Campus in Madrid, Spain, I have had the opportunity to explore various cities within the country. While arranging travel itineraries and securing accommodations in each city, a discernible pattern emerged: the creative repurposing of historical landmarks and architectural gems into contemporary, extravagant, yet reasonably priced hotels. Allured by the fusion of modernity and historic architecture, I have stayed at two notable hotels - the Hotel Alfonso XIII in Seville and Hotel Casa Fuster in Barcelona. Let’s dive into the profound history of these hotels, how each was marketed, and my personal experiences as a guest at these distinguished venues.
Hotel Alfonso XIII in Seville, Spain
Picture of the outside of the Hotel Alfonso XIII, courtesy of Hotel Alfonso's website
Built between 1916 and 1928, this hotel was named after the then king of Spain, King Alfonso XIII. It was constructed to house the King’s guests and international dignitaries for the Ibero-American Exhibition World Fair of 1929. To decide who would have the honor and duty of building, designing, and decorating the hotel, a competition was held in which Sevillan Jose Espiau y Muñoz was selected as the architect. The hotel was built with brick, plaster, wood, and ceramic tile, in a style heavily influenced by Arab architecture. The whole property is ornate with beautiful tile floors, hand-painted walls and ceilings, dramatic rooms with soaring ceilings and courtyards, and stained glass. Throughout its existence, the hotel has been the venue for many important weddings, as well as hosting guests such as Prince Charles and Princess Diana, Kings of Norway, Morocco, Sweden, and more. Hotel Alfonso XIII has also hosted some of history’s cultural royalty ranging from Ernest Hemingway to Madonna.
Besides the beautiful visual representation of history seen in the hotel’s architecture, the marketing of the hotel caters to a luxurious cultural experience. On the homepage of the hotel’s website, there is a display of pictures of the hotel highlighting its historical influences, followed by a statement in bold that reads “We are Seville.” Underneath this is a quick four-sentence description of the hotel’s traditional Moorish architecture and decoration, and a point is made that this is a great way to “showcase an Andalusian heritage,” allowing visitors to experience the true “warm Andalusian sun.” The hotel describes the history previously mentioned, remarking the King commissioned this to be “the best hotel in Europe,” and entices guests further by providing complimentary hotel tours. Overall, the hotel is described as “a global epicurean destination that perfectly defines the essence of Seville.”
Hotel Alfonso XIII’s website landing page, courtesy of Hotel Alfonso's website
From Blueprint to Guests: How the Hotel was Marketed
The hotel seamlessly integrates its rich historical significance and cultural context with contemporary amenities and services. The guest rooms retain their Castilian, Moorish, and Andalusian aesthetics, yet are thoughtfully redesigned with a focus on luxury and comfort. The hotel's four distinct dining venues offer a combination of traditional local tapas inspired by the hotel's heritage, while also presenting modern interpretations of these culinary offerings such as the traditional lobster and shrimp rice stew, that has added spices to deliver more flavor. Additionally, the property boasts a newly renovated fitness center. In the events section, the hotel describes its historic banquet halls and event spaces suitable for meetings, receptions, and weddings. These spaces include ornate decor and priceless architecture, transporting guests to a bygone era. However, the establishment also underscores its modernity by offering top-notch amenities including spaces tailored for business meetings and a newly renovated fitness center. In doing so, the hotel effectively positions itself as versatile, catering to a diverse range of guests. The hotel masterfully combines its historical allure with contemporary functionality, offering beauty and practicality for a wide spectrum of guests.
Picture of the hotel’s modern but Andalusian inspired business rooms, courtesy of Hotel Alfonso's website
In terms of pricing, one might suspect that only a select few would be able to pay the nightly rate, especially since a stay at most non-historic Four Seasons in Europe can easily exceed a thousand euros. Instead, the typical nightly rate of the hotel is around three hundred and fifty euros and is even closer to two hundred euros if one visits during summertime. The property is also surprisingly part of the Marriott collection (another great point in their branding), which makes it much more reasonable for Bonvoy member travelers using points and discounts.
A Timeless Escape: My Stay at Hotel Alfonso XIII
Picture of the hotel’s courtyard, taken by Vivienne Bersin
Should you stay at the Hotel Alfonso? Absolutely. The hotel's photos, while capturing its historic decor and elegance, fail to convey its true beauty and rich historical ambiance fully. Everything within the hotel is truly remarkable to explore and learn about, and the service is exceptional, treating each guest as royalty. My room was exceptionally comfortable, with a new mattress and pillows that perfectly complemented the hotel's style, making me feel like a Spanish princess. Staying here elevated my experience at Seville tenfold, and it truly immersed me in the culture and history of this beautiful city. Waking up and eating breakfast in the large outdoor garden courtyard (with massive retractable fabric awnings reminiscent of a Roman coliseum) and then touring nearby museums, palaces, and churches was a seamless experience. In fact, the hotel itself was as informational and impressive as any of the other cultural experiences within Seville!
Hotel Casa Fuster in Barcelona, Spain
Picture of the front of Hotel Casa Fuster, courtesy of Hotel Casa Fuster’s website
A classic love story, Hotel Casa Fuster was originally built as a gift from husband to wife, with an underlying appreciation for Barcelona. Mariano Fuster i Fuster, a high society gentleman originally from Mallorca, met his future wife, Consuelo Fabra i Puig (daughter of the Marquis of Alella), in Barcelona. As a love letter to her and Barcelona when they were married, he sought to gift her a spectacular house and add beauty to Barcelona. Fuster bought the pre-existing building at this location and in 1905 received the permit to demolish it and create a marvelous home. Fuster sought out the renowned Catalan architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner. Domènech i Montaner is also known for modernist art; he designed Palau de la Música Catalana, a UNESCO declared World Heritage Site. The hotel began construction in 1908. When completed, it was considered the most expensive and extravagant home in Barcelona due to the high quality materials and design. In 1962, the electric company ENHER bought the building and intended to demolish it to build a skyscraper. However, the people of Barcelona opposed this plan, writing scathing press articles and protesting, leading ENHER to preserve the building and renovate it. In 1999, the home was purchased by Hoteles Center, which transformed it into a hotel.
Marketing its Mark on Barcelona
All this historical information is available on the Hotel Casa Fuster's website. The hotel proudly describes itself as the embodiment of modernism at its zenith and an iconic luxury gem located on Paseo de Gracia in Barcelona. Interestingly, while Hotel Alfonso XIII places a strong emphasis on marketing itself as a historic and cultural relic, Hotel Casa Fuster briefly mentions its historical context and then shifts its focus toward highlighting its contemporary amenities that cater to Barcelona's broader history.
Hotel Casa Fuster’s slogan, courtesy of Hotel Casa Fuster’s website
Hotel Casa Fuster markets Barcelona as a pivotal selling point, emphasizing its prime location in the heart of the city. The hotel underscores Barcelona's status as a cosmopolitan destination, drawing visitors from around the world with its cultural heritage, impressive art and architecture, world-class gastronomy, and vibrant nightlife. Notably, the hotel links its terrace to the allure of "Barcelona's Nightlife Glamour," offering sophisticated cocktails, refreshing sea breezes, and unparalleled panoramic views of Passeio de Gràcia, the Sagrada Familia, and the amusement park Tibidabo.
Furthermore, the hotel emphasizes its jazz club, known for serving local tapas and famously featured in Woody Allen’s Oscar-winning film Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona. While Hotel Casa Fuster positions itself as a place deeply intertwined with Barcelona's culture, it refrains from overstating the historical significance of its building, which is quite understandable given that the hotel's history lacks the royal and political associations that are typically deemed more significant.
Photo of Hotel Casa Fuster and its appearance in Woody Allen’s "Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona," courtesy of a “Barcelona en Pantalla” news
In terms of pricing, Hotel Casa Fuster typically ranges from two hundred euros to three hundred euros per night, aligning with similar rates in its vicinity. However, the hotel distinguishes itself with a rich historical background, superior accommodations, culinary offerings, and architecture, which are reflected in its excellent reviews. Additionally, its prime location ensures easy access to popular Barcelona attractions within walking distance, minimizing the need for transportation.
Memories Etched in Elegance: My Experience at Hotel Casa Fuster
Photo of the interior of Casa Fuster’s Cafe and its menu, taken by Vivienne Bersin
Based on my experience at this hotel, I highly recommend it and would consider returning if I revisit Barcelona. The architectural beauty of the building stands out, making it one of the more aesthetically pleasing options among Barcelona's hotels. Its interior exudes grandeur and elegance. In Barcelona, many young travelers opt for hostels, but among the more conventional hotel choices, this one is a clear winner — offering a superior experience at a comparable nightly rate. During my stay with my family, we felt a sense of luxury combined with an authentic Barcelona ambiance, making our stay all the more enjoyable.
Unpacking Historic Hotels
In the evolving landscape of repurposing historical buildings and landmarks into contemporary hotels, we discover that the past is not just a prologue; it is a lucrative and captivating chapter in the world of hospitality marketing. Successfully marketing historic edifices as hotels demands a skillful balance between preserving history and catering to the desires of modern travelers. Travelers seek to be enveloped in the richness of culture and history while also enjoying a familiar and comfortable environment. The challenge lies in dispelling outdated perceptions associated with history, like dust and cobwebs. Hotels must modernize to a degree that supersedes these stereotypes while ensuring that the intrinsic historical value remains intact.
In a more personal reflection, these historic hotels can truly enhance the travel experience by offering unique, luxurious, and exceptional accommodations at reasonable prices. When the opportunity arises to stay at such a historic establishment, seize it. Especially for students studying abroad, it is often possible to secure more affordable rates during the off-season, making it comparable in cost to other hotels. Staying at a historic hotel is not just a night's rest, but an immersive journey through time that enriches your experience with a profound sense of heritage, elegance, and the stories of generations past.
Vivienne Bersin is an NYU Stern sophomore concentrating in marketing. With past experience in professional film acting, Vivienne is interested in the world of Entertainment Film/TV marketing. In her free time, she enjoys painting, reading, and playing tennis (in which she is a three time Colorado state champion.)