QUEBEC CITY—Imagine having to rebuild your hotel—from the ground up, from the porte cochère to the president’s club—each year. Would it be a burden or an opportunity? Would you wallow in the costs or take advantage of the ability to routinely remain relevant?
That’s exactly what happens at the Hôtel de Glace. Approximately 15 minutes from downtown Quebec City, Canada, the Hôtel de Glace is one of several ice hotels throughout the world and certainly one of the most unique hotels ever.
Set to open 6 January for its 12th consecutive year, the 36-room Hôtel de Glace is made completely of snow and ice and opens for about three months annually. This year, it will remain open for exactly 84 days—from 6 January to 25 March—until spring brings warmer weather and the hotel melts down to nothing, which takes close to a month.
Operating an ice hotel that opens for three months each year is different than managing a “normal” hotel. But, in many ways, the same strategies are executed, said Hôtel de Glace CEO and founder Jacques Desbois, who in 1996 first established an ecotourism company designing interactive igloo villages.
“Having to rebuild the hotel each year means we recreate a new, unique hotel each year,” he said. “It will be totally different year after—different design and different novelties. Only the building equipment and tools remain each year.”
Operating an ice hotel
It takes 50 people five or six weeks to construct the hotel each year. Snow and ice are created with snow blowers on site because snow from the sky is too dry and won’t become as dense.
Desbois said this year construction will take five weeks. On 6 January (or the first Friday after each New Year) the hotel will open—specifically the public areas, ice bar, chapel, exhibit room and about one-third of the guestrooms. A week later another third of the rooms will open, and at the end of the third week in January the staff has a big party to celebrate the completion of construction.
Once the hotel opens, about 70 seasonal staff members are brought on board, from bartenders to interpreter guides to maintenance people. About 20 guides plan visits to the hotel and oversee information sessions for overnight guests, which teach the guests how to stay warm overnight. About 15 employees work on the maintenance team, using shovels, rakes and flatirons to remove and smooth ice throughout the day. The carpet is restored each night so it stays white and non-slippery. The maintenance team also cleans the spa and prepares the rooms. Finally, about 12 bartenders use wood scissors to clean the bar and tables, as well as “scrapers to unstick their tips and the fridge to heat up drinks and warm up their mittens,” Desbois said.
Desbois expects 4,500 overnight guests in the 84 days the hotel is opening. Another 115,000-120,000 are expected to come as day visitors. Surveys conducted by the hotel show 10% to 15% of day visitors will consider an overnight stay.
Although the Hôtel de Glace has unique demand generators, Desbois practices traditional distribution strategies, he said.
“Things in the hotel industry are changing so fast. Consumer behavior is changing really fast with the Internet—the way people are booking—we can’t ignore it,” he said. “We work to maintain an average revenue per room. We stay in touch with reality, and we have to stay connected. We can’t say, ‘We are an ice hotel, we are unique, we can charge what we want.’ We have to use strategies like any hotel.”
Staying at an ice hotel
The Hôtel de Glace provides sleeping bags and pillows for overnight guests. At the time of booking, the hotel sends the guests a file of practical advice for preparation. Most importantly is clothing to bring, as well as how to “manage their stay.”
“It’s better for the guest to have specific overnight garments that haven’t been worn during the day,” Desbois said. “The key part is to have good, synthetic underwear for the night but to have them dry. Humidity is the opponent. A high level of heat will create sweats which will then transform into humidity and will make you feel cold.”
Before bed, the hotel staff recommends a dip in the hot tub to bring up body temperature.
The hotel takes many precautions to minimize the risk of injury, Desbois said. There are staff members available 24 hours a day, and the sleeping bags are guaranteed to protect well below the -5 degrees Celsius (23 degrees Fahrenheit) maintained in the guestrooms.
“Some will sleep naked, some will have underwear … it depends on your sensitivity to cold,” Desbois said.
Another option many guests choose is to book a package that includes a room at the nearby Four Points by Sheraton and the Hôtel de Glace for the same night. That way, if a guest can’t sleep the entire night in the Hôtel de Glace (which Desbois said is uncommon), a shuttle will take them to the Four Points.
“We make sure that people are well-surrounded and make sure that when people enter they feel well-surrounded,” he said. “It’s all about the experience. In the end, they’re feeling proud that they’ve done it. It’s like being in an igloo in the Great North. They can say, ‘I survived the ice hotel.’ It’s a thrill; something unique and unforgettable.”
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