Hüttenpalast ‒ The Slightly Different Hotel



In a renovated factory hall located in the Berlin district of Neukölln, Silke Lorenzen and Sarah Vollmer run a small hotel with its own particular charm: out of the wind, the cold and earshot of snoring roommates, the Hüttenpalast offers each guest as much privacy as needed. Beds are located in refurbished caravans and small wooden cabins, and a plastic tree stands in the center of the large space. Every morning, guests pick fresh croissants from its branches and prepare a small breakfast with the other visitors. For those who prefer a more conventional hotel experience, the Hüttenpalast offers perfectly normal hotel rooms. Breakfast is also available in the Hüttencafé, which is frequented by the neighborhood locals.

When visiting Berlin, two words seem to crop up continuously. Number one: airport. Number two: gentrification. In Sarah and Silke's district, Berlin Neukölln, the latter dominates the conversation. "Naturally, everyone is screaming gentrification again," Sarah says and closes her eyes wearily, as if the word itself was enough to make her feel tired. "This district here had been neglected for a long time," she explains, probably not for the first time. "Many stores were vacant, and it was a troubled neighborhood with social issues." In recent years, however, it has been successfully revitalized: a neighborhood association took charge of the vacancies, and tenants were found for the apartments above the stores. Initially, it attracted an artistic crowd, students, start-ups and young entrepreneurs. The Hüttenpalast is no exception: on the floors above the former vacuum cleaner factory where the hotel is located, there are a number of artists' studios. "Of course, it's essential that long-term tenants are not pushed out now and that rents don't skyrocket. But, overall, we think the development in Neukölln has been handled very respectfully and gently." The mere fact, however, that it was comparatively cheap to buy the entire factory hall before the upswing began to take shape doesn't explain why Sarah and Silke chose this location ‒ and nolens volens became an active part in a process that is viewed with some distrust. "We chose this location because we live here." Which is also why Sarah is not interested in turning their concept into a franchise, although they have received offers from several other cities. "I'm not interested in expanding. I have everything I need right here. This is my home."

As good hosts, we want to make our guests feel like they have come home. And where better to do this than in a place where we feel at home ourselves?

"To be a good host, you need to have a certain awareness of the people you are dealing with." The best way to do that is through personal contact, a factor that is guaranteed by the manageable size of the enterprise. Emphasizing the personal touch is also why their website doesn't feature an anonymous booking system, "one where you blindly type in your details," Sarah explains. Bookings are done via e-mail or by telephone, and each guest is greeted personally. "Maybe everything doesn’t always run smoothly. But our strength lies in that we do things the way we would want them done for us. What we do comes from the heart. We are a young business and neither of us are hoteliers by profession, but we always give it our best shot." Their philosophy is that treating guests as individuals – "as people and not clients" – takes precedence over a service that runs like clockwork, but that lacks warmth.

If I treat my guests like they were just another cog in the wheel of hotel machinery, they wouldn't feel especially welcome – or even comfortable.

Silke and Sarah best like to travel when they can stay with friends, without having to resort to using a hotel. Silke grew up in Asia and has traveled widely for her previous profession as an event manager. In doing so, she built up a large international network that has supported the two of them in their endeavor – and on a number of other occasions as well. "We have always had good people in the background who encouraged us, believed in us, and who both recommended and connected us to other people. We have been very fortunate," Sarah says. Before starting in the hotel branch, she dabbled in medicine and worked in fashion design. She confirms that the network's input has been invaluable from the very start. "It's not as if we knew right away that we were going to start a hotel together. We approached the matter very pragmatically, first listing our skills, our strengths and the things we like doing. The bottom line was that a hotel establishment matched our qualities best." Both enjoy entertaining at home and have catered to a legion of friends and friends of friends. "We asked what our guests at home enjoy most, why do they feel comfortable at our place? We combined the answers with experiences we ourselves have made in hotels, and then filtered out the values we wanted to communicate in our project." What the Hüttenpalast has become happened "piece by piece during the transformation," as Sarah puts it. And, as both founders hasten to add, it is very likely to change again.

A hotel business ties you down to a location like nothing else. So it is very important to us that the space we are using is both mobile and flexible.

With a nod to her professional background, Silke makes sure that the space where the caravans are located remains available for other projects. The obvious advantage of caravans? They have wheels and are easy to move. "To me, and from my perspective as a designer, it is important that the things we do are not cast in concrete," says Sarah. And so there are always new elements being added (at present, a vintage car sits in the workshop awaiting it's grand entrance) and old ones discarded. "Nothing here looks like it did one and a half years ago," she recalls. Versatility is essential to the both of them. Running a hotel requires a measure of continuity and a fixed locale, yet all the same, they find: "We have lots of opportunities here, whether it's holding a textile event, refurbishing furniture on a grand scale, creating new cake recipes in the kitchen or redesigning the garden during the summer months. There are an incredible number of ways to engage creatively, and this is only possible because we're doing our own thing here." And Sarah repeats what she said earlier: "We have been very fortunate."

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