Urbanauts: The Real Boutique Hotel

Converting abandoned shops into guest rooms, three Viennese architects are reviving high streets and revolutionising city tourism

three architects

Jonathan Lutter, Theresia Kohlmayr and Christian Knapp, the owners of a tailor’s shop turned guestroom in the 4th District | Photo: J. Mullan, S. Sellinger

In the strict sense of the word, a boutique is one of a kind. It attracts customers from afar with unique designs and local expertise.

Yet, few have taken the term “boutique hotel” quite as literally as Theresia Kohlmayr, Jonathan Lutter and Christian Knapp. The three architects are turning small shops into beautifully designed guest rooms. But it is their emphasis on the local that makes their venture “Urbanauts” stand out as a new form of city tourism.

By converting abandoned store fronts into street level lofts, Urbanauts encourages visitors to rely on their local surroundings to fulfill their needs for food and entertainment – a big change from the insulation implied by conventional hotels with all-inclusive services.

Opened last July, the company’s pilot loft in the 4th District is called Die Schneiderin (The Tailoress). A former tailor’s shop, the 25-square-metre bed-sit is nothing short of stunning. Surfaces are smooth and angular – clearly the product of architectural minds fresh out of university. The wallpaper above the king-sized bed reflects the tailoring theme. A minibar, a grocery package, two bicycles and a computer are all included in the €120-per-night price.

facade of a building

The Urbanauts' loft Die Schneiderin in the 4th District, a former tailor shop converted into a boutique hotel | Photos: J. Mullan, S. Sellinger

Christian Knapp built some of the furnishings himself and Theresia Kohlmayr makes rum pralines for the guests. “Getting involved yourself goes a long way with people,” Knapp sums the entrepreneurs’ philosophy.

Although not included, breakfast is served at Café Goldegg around the corner, lunch and dinner at restaurants nearby, identified by green stickers displaying the Urbanauts logo.

“We know people in the neighbourhood, shop owners, waiters, cooks – they’re our friends,” Knapp explains. “I can tell guests ‘This is Olli, he can tailor your suit jacket’ or ‘Just go to Alex, and he will cook exactly what you want’ and they feel part of something.”

“Even our personal trainer is just up the street,” Theresia Kohlmayr says excitedly. This “City Boot Camp” is Urbanauts’ answer to the hotel gym: Guests are picked up by their trainer and jogged through the streets of Vienna in a sort of urban workout.

But the trio behind Urbanauts give you the impression that profit is only part of the picture. They receive no kickbacks for referring guests to adjacent restaurants and shops, for example. Instead, they want to help revive local businesses threatened by large retailers. Their popularity with their local partners shows that the idea has been well received. Hence, the possible criticism that Urbanauts is abetting the decline of high streets, by converting commercial shops into private spaces, is easily set aside.

“There has to be a balance between the old and new,” says Walter Straße from the city tourist board, Wien Tourismus. “These innovations are crucial for the city’s image.”

lady relaxing in a hotel

Relaxing in one of the Urbanauts' new boutique hotels | Photos: J. Mullan, S. Sellinger

Similarly, hoteliers contacted via the Vienna Chamber of Commerce (WKW) also support the initiative, although some were unaware of its existence. “It’s a great start for an innovative project, but only time can tell whether Urbanauts can survive in the market,” says Matthias Koch, CEO of the Austrian Hotel Association.

The hotel industry has cause to be generous to newcomers. Despite Europe’s economic downturn, Vienna’s tourism sector has gone from strength to strength. Last year, overnight stays in the city hit a record of 11.5 million. And, still, growth continues: The first quarter of 2012 registered a remarkable 14% increase in overnight stays compared to the same time last year.

Urbanauts shares the optimistic outlook. The company is set to inaugurate 10 more street lofts by the end of the year. Reinforcing the emphasis on the local and the personal, the lofts will be designed by artists from the respective areas of town.

A former guest at Die Schneiderin, Benno Richter from Budapest mused about why the concept appealed to him in the first place.

“We liked the idea of staying at a hotel that unusual and original,” he said.

“As for discovering the real Vienna, that’s what the bicycles are for.”


For more information, visit their website at: www.urbanauts.at

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