Travel differently: hotels that bring vacant buildings back to life

There is no limit to the imagination of some hoteliers, who are transforming empty commercial premises, sleepy villages and historic dwellings into hostels. Here are three original projects.

Already before COVID-19, entrepreneur Steve Shpilsky was walking the streets of Los Angeles, California, wondering why vacant commercial buildings weren’t being turned into shared accommodations and workplaces. “Then the pandemic hit and accelerated the obsolescence of certain office buildings while crystallizing the emergence of a new category of workers: digital nomads,” he says. Eureka! A hotel brand, Stay Open , was just waiting to be born!

Inaugurated in October 2021, its first address at low prices – 99 US dollars per night on average – is located in Venice Beach, very close to the legendary beach of Los Angeles. The shared living space occupies former offices that Snapchat used to rent. It has 10 sleeping compartments, reminiscent of the capsules of Japanese microhotels. ” Pods keep rehabilitation costs reasonable, take less time to install than rooms, and allow us to focus on common areas where people work and meet,” says the developer.

It seems that his idea inspired the neighboring city of Santa Monica: its elected officials adopted a regulation which authorizes this kind of retraining without imposing complicated procedures. “The City wants to revitalize its Third Street Promenade, which has a lot of vacant stores and offices for rent,” says Steve Shpilsky. Unsurprisingly, a Stay Open will see the light of day there in the summer of 2023. Then a third hotel should settle in a former premises of the car rental company Budget, in San Diego.

In Switzerland: the Italian model of the inn in spare parts

Italy has been launching initiatives for several years now to stop the depopulation of its villages. The 1 euro houses are an example of this; the alberghi diffusi , or “scattered inns”, another.

This very particular type of hostel was born in 1976, thanks to a project which aimed to use the relief funds obtained in the wake of an earthquake in Friuli to recover abandoned dwellings for tourist purposes. It consists of a heart, the reception, and around, various renovated houses or rooms in restored residences. The reason for this scattering? To restore a vocation to buildings that have lacked love, but above all to preserve an authentic way of life in a spirit of sustainable development.

Since then, this good idea from Giancarlo Dall’Ara , professor of tourism marketing, has spread all over Italy and elsewhere in Europe. Last April, an albergo diffuso was also inaugurated in the smallest village in Switzerland, Corippo. In fact, it’s more of a hamlet since it has 12 souls, including 3 new ones, the hoteliers and their son!

Photo: Village of Corippo in Switzerland /  National Association of Alberghi Diffusi

According to the Italian model, five rustici , centuries-old rural rustic constructions, make up the hotel-restaurant , which will eventually offer 12 rooms. “The narrow streets of Corippo form, so to speak, the corridors of the hotel, while the osteria serves as a reception and meeting point”, emphasizes the Ticino tourist office.

For hoteliers Désirée Voitle and Jeremy Gehring (who is also a chef), this is an opportunity to get off the beaten track and offer holidaymakers a unique experience in the heart of the magnificent nature of the Verzasca Valley. “We both like places that have character, a charm that the “brand new” cannot convey. So, as potential, this really represents a good starting point! says Désirée Voitle.

In South Africa, “I remember”

In Quebec, one of the finest examples of promoting cultural heritage is certainly the conversion of the Augustinian monastery in Quebec City into a hotel and museum in 2015. In doing so, the Religious Hospitallers have perpetuated nearly four centuries of their history, as well as that of the practice of medicine in the province. 

In South Africa too we remember. Especially the first settlers and the architecture of yesterday. Between Stellenbosch and Franschhoek, in the Western Cape wine province and in the shadow of the Groot Drakenstein massif, Boschendal is one of the oldest vineyards in the country. It is also a large-scale farm: 1,800 hectares! Founded in 1685 by a Huguenot, it is on the register of the National Monuments Board due to the authenticity of its Cape Dutch-style period buildings.

Photo: Boschendal

Their restoration, which began in 1975 and has continued since, is indeed very meticulous, and no changes can be made without the agreement of the local branch of the Heritage Council. “For example, we still use the same vintage green paint to touch up the shutters, and for the thatched roofs, we call on professionals who are knowledgeable about it,” explains Anja du Plessis, spokesperson for the estate.

The former master’s house is now an art gallery open to all. The former butcher’s shop houses a delicatessen. Other buildings house an olive oil mill, cellars and restaurants. As for the former cottages of farm employees, many have been converted into luxury lodgings for tourists.

In the wine department, Boschendal pays tribute to its founders, the Huguenots Nicolas de Lanoy and his wife Suzanne, the first matriarch of the clan, by dedicating a cuvée to them each. These are wines that we take pleasure in sipping in an environment that provides no less.


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