British entrepreneur Simon Woodroffe, the man behind the hip Yo! Sushi restaurant chain, was on a flight from Kuwait to London four years ago when he had an idea. "I was lying in my British Airways flat bed thinking about the sort of hotel I wanted to open," he recalls, "and it struck me how innovative business-class travel had become, marrying small spaces with luxury. I decided to do the same thing to hotels." The result, set to open this fall inside terminals at London's Heathrow and Gatwick airports, is Yotel, a pair of sleek capsule hotels that maximize space with innovative foldaway features, and look good doing it. Designed by Paul Priestman, whose London firm, Priestman Goode, was responsible for Lufthansa's business-class and Virgin Atlantic's Upper Class cabins, the interior of the Airbus A380 prototype, and many other projects, the Yotel rooms range in size from 75 to 113 square feet, and will start at $70 a night, or $40 for a four-hour stay.
Of course, Woodroffe didn't invent the idea of the very, very small hotel room—Japanese businessmen have been sleeping in them since the late seventies. (Woodroffe had visited Japan's coffin-like capsule hotels and dismissed them: "They weren't what we wanted to be," he says. "The Japanese capsule hotels would appeal to students. We want to combine innovation and comfort, as well as low cost.") And since last year, EasyHotel has offered tiny accommodations with minimal services to budget travelers in central London and Basel. But the upscale version of the idea is new, with Yotel and a Birmingham competitor called Nitenite (which opened in April) adding glossy design and luxury amenities to the equation.
At Yotel, for example, rooms come with stainless-steel rain showerheads the size of dinner plates, complimentary Internet access, and brand-name toiletries. The rotating double beds are topped with Egyptian linen and reconfigure as sofas; pull-down desks lurk discreetly in the walls, along with iPod ports and flat-screen TV's. Woodroffe describes the room-service menu as "airline style," with compactly packaged snacks. Further flight-inspired touches are automated check-in and checkout and sophisticated cabin lighting (including a setting for "daylight").
Indeed, lighting is a particularly crucial issue, since the prefab rooms don't have windows, other than onto the corridor. Woodroffe admits it sounds less than appealing: "Ask a focus group if they would like to sleep in a 90-square-foot room with no natural light, and you won't get many takers—but walk into a Yotel room and you want it." To overcome the problem of windowlessness, the hotel has borrowed an idea from Japanese capsule hotels and plans for the corridors to function as social spaces, like a street. Lighting will simulate the time of day, creating a range of different moods. Woodroffe believes this design is one of Yotel's strengths, allowing the hotel to open in unusual city locations such as train stations, or even underground.
Until Yotel opens this fall, Woodroffe and others will be closely watching the launch of Nite-nite, an upscale hotel with very small rooms that opened in April in the heart of Birmingham. Similar in style to Yotel, offering 73 square feet of floor space per room and costing about $90 a night, Nitenite has a more muted, neutral décor and an emphasis on high-quality materials and textures, from the leather banquettes lining the rooms to polished wooden floors and veneer desks. The ergonomic rooms are meant to evoke cabins in a luxury yacht. In lieu of windows, they feature 42-inch plasma-screen TV's that show live closed-circuit video footage of the views outside, and despite their compactness, they appear to be spaces you could spend more than one night in without suffering from claustrophobia.
"We believe Nitenite fills a gap between budget travel and expensive boutique hotels," says operations director Olivier Delaunoy, "making it ideal for leisure travelers who want a convenient base for shopping and entertainment, as well as professionals who may have an early morning meeting or are working late and decide to stay in the city." Nitenite's prime location in Birmingham's fashionable Canal Quarter is one of its main draws, and the wealth of cafés, restaurants, and bars at its doorstep has allowed the hotel to dispense with offering food-and-beverage service, apart from a café.
Looking ahead, all of these tiny hotels have large expansion plans: Nitenite is working on hotels in Glasgow, London, Cardiff, and Bristol, and it hopes to open more in other cities across Europe. EasyHotel, meanwhile, is looking at New York, Paris, and Barcelona for future projects, and Yotel plans to franchise the business, as Yo! Sushi has done with its restaurants. "I think a wide spectrum of people will want to experience Yotel, especially as we open in city centers," Woodroffe says. "It's more about attitude than age or wealth."
Alison Tyler is an editor at the London Evening Standard.