Finnish hotels
get hip

Finnish hotels
get hip

It takes more than a flat-screen TV to excite experience-hungry seen-it-alls. We visit four creative Finnish hotels that are attuned to the needs of the millennial traveller.

It takes more than a flat-screen TV to excite experience-hungry seen-it-alls. We visit four creative Finnish hotels that are attuned to the needs of the millennial traveller.

Text by Silja Kudel.
Photos by Ville Palonen and hotels.

One guest sits in lotus position on a yoga mat beside a bonsai tree. Another, snug in woolly socks, surfs the web in a cocoon chair suspended near the coffee bar, enjoying unlimited refills and free marshmallows. The décor – a calm blend of timber strips and rope carpet – is the embodiment of hygge, the Scandinavian obsession with getting cosy.

It could be Sunday afternoon in a hipster’s ¬living room, but it’s Monday morning in a busy hotel – though no ordinary one. Dream Hotel is a boutique guesthouse run by Ville and Eveliina Virkki in the university town of Tampere. It is the fancier version of Dream Hostel in the same building, which offers dorm accommodation downstairs.

Amid the deafening clamour for attention in today’s hotel industry, this diminutive newcomer is getting noticed for its quiet style: Dream Hotel was recently named one of Europe’s top ten poshtels by the British tabloid Daily Mail.

Gimme a big hygge

Dream Hotel exemplifies a rising trend in the hospitality industry: it caters to millennials who crave the road less travelled, yet without sacrificing style, comfort and connectivity.

The hotel lies in a repurposed warehouse transformed into 20 compact suites by Studio Puisto architects. Neutral tones and natural materials are used throughout for a warm atmosphere. The use of space is bold and experimental: the rooms – though spotless, cosy, and inviting – offer only the bare essentials for a good night’s sleep.

“Millennial travellers don’t need a 50-square-metre room with a huge minibar. They prefer to get out and socialise. We decided to shrink the rooms and put the chairs and tables in the corridors,” explains Ville.

“Today’s travellers want special magic. You don’t need a massive budget, just creativity,” says Eveliina, dusting flour from her hands after baking muffins with the guests. The hotel offers various fun perks such as communal gingerbread baking, free pea soup on Thursdays, and free popcorn when it rains (as it frequently does in Tampere).

The couple had no prior experience of the hospitality industry when they opened the hotel – just a clear vision based on their backpacking experience.

“We can identify with the needs of the millennial traveller. We put a lot of thought into every little detail. The best feedback is when a hard-core traveller says: ‘You think of everything’,” says Ville.

The new president

A hotel doesn’t have to be brand-new to be trendy, however. Even older establishments are breaking the traditional mould in sync with the emotional drivers of new-generation travellers.

“Seriously cool” is a phrase rarely associated with the Original Sokos Hotel Presidentti – but that’s about to change. The iconic Helsinki party hub is in the midst of a top-to-bottom makeover by Paola Suhonen, the multitalented artist behind the edgy Ivana Helsinki lifestyle brand.

Something beyond the ordinary is the least to be expected from a designer whose style is described as “Scandinavian Twin Peaks.”

“Finland can’t compete with five-star bling, so we have to be brave. Travellers who’ve seen it all want something surprising,” says Suhonen.

“The Presidentti has a cool aura. I wanted to reawaken its colourful history with something more experimental than a fresh set of drapes. The new concept is story-driven,” she explains.

Collaborating with design agency KOKO3, Suhonen is redesigning nearly 500 rooms on five floors, each with its own Finland-inspired theme.

“Each floor is unique. When you step out of the lift, you enter completely different worlds, from a winter blizzard to a midsummer party,” says Suhonen.

Snap a selfie

The rooms are cosy, yet with an idiosyncratic local identity. The colourful rugs, wallpaper, carpets, coffee tables, and shower screens are all custom-designed by Suhonen for a craftsy, nostalgic look.

“When you travel these days, all hotels look the same. You have to look out the window to know whether you’re in Bangkok or New York. I wanted to create a concept that says ‘this is Finland’ in a slightly oddball way,” explains Suhonen.

The showpiece in each room is a hand-tufted wall rug – a once-loathed Finnish heirloom item that is now fashionable again. “We added surprising story-telling visuals like icebreakers and giant mosquitoes, so guests can take selfies with Finland’s national animal on their shoulder,” she adds with a laugh.

“The Presidentti is Finland’s only hotel furnished with custom-made design items found only here, like in the golden days of Finnish design, when Alvar Aalto designed everything from lamps to doorknobs in famous buildings such as the Paimio Sanatorium. Authentic design is back, because dime-a-dozen hotels simply don’t stand out,” says Suhonen.

Swimming in the sky

“Standing out” is something the Clarion Hotel Helsinki does effortlessly – if only by virtue of its vast height.

There’s nothing quite like the vertiginous experience of diving into the heated pool on the sixteenth floor. The pool’s west-facing glass wall provides a panoramic underwater view of the rooftops below, evoking the feeling of swimming in the sky.

The rooftop pool adjoins a deck with sun chairs and a Sky Room where patrons sip cocktails 78 metres above sea level. The hotel is among Helsinki’s tallest buildings, offering spectacular views from its window-clad towers and transparent footbridge.

Together the Clarion Hotel Helsinki and the Clarion Hotel Helsinki Airport mark the “Finnish invasion” of Norwegian billionaire Petter Stordalen, the Nordic hotel emperor infamous for his flamboyant opening-night stunts.

“True, I love leather jackets and enjoy putting on a good show,” he chuckles. “People might see me rappelling down the façade of a building – though I’m actually scared of heights – but my daily life is about running hotels with solid Nordic values,” says Stordalen.

Clubbing with Sofi

A passionate art collector, Stordalen favours contemporary art over conventional bling. His Oslo hotel The Thief is in fact the world’s only hotel with its very own art curator. Among the eye-catching artworks on display at the Clarion Hotel Helsinki are paintings by Sami Lukkarinen, including a giant pixelated portrait of author Sofi Oksanen in the lobby.

Under Oksanen’s watchful eye, a live DJ creates a clubby atmosphere while guests unwind in Carousel armchairs by Yrjö Kukkapuro and zebra-patterned Tank chairs by Alvar Aalto.

“A great hotel tells a story. The Clarion Hotel Helsinki showcases references to Finnish design history – but we’re not a museum. We want our hotel to be a fun living room for all the people of Helsinki,” says Stordalen.

Cocktails with Garbo

While the Clarion believes in larger-than-life experiences, smaller boutique hotels are finding alternative ways to catch the eye. By the fireplace in the lobby of Hotel Lilla Roberts stands a life-sized plaster horse that seems to announce “Get ready for something different.” Coming straight from the horse’s mouth, it must be true: This unusual boutique hotel is like a slice of The Great Gatsby in the middle of Helsinki.

Featuring bold geometric patterns, animal-themed lamps, golden accents, and other Art Deco touches, Lilla Roberts is like a Jazz Age take on Nordic hygge. It’s easy to imagine Greta Garbo sipping cocktails in the lobby bar – not wrapped in a fur stole, but in comfy jeans like the other patrons.

“We combine a historic look with a contemporary feel, translating Nordic cosiness into Art Deco luxury. Lilla Roberts attracts guests who appreciate distinctive design – many of them work in fashion, cosmetics, and advertising,” says the general manager Kati Jousimies.

The Lilla e bar, the Krog Roba restaurant, and the summer terrace attract a lively crowd of neighbourhood locals, most of whom appear unaware they’re actually in a hotel.

The butler did it

The hotel resides in a 1909 building, which originally served as a power plant and later as a police station. The Art Deco interiors take their cue from the original harlequin floor tiling in the lobby.

The hotel’s colourful history also provides inspiration for special theme events such as Krog Roba’s “mystery dinners”, which engage guests in a game of solving a whodunit based on a series of cryptic clues.

“What do you get when you put together a former police station and Art Deco interiors? Hercule Poirot, of course!” says Jousimies, with a grin.

In addition to organising creative theme events such as fashion shows, Halloween parties, and cocktail workshops, the hotel strives to delight guests with special Nordic details such as sea-buckthorn morning shots at breakfast and generous helpings of salted liquorice diamonds placed around the hotel.

“And the liquorice even matches the floors tiles! We try to add a million thoughtful little touches to make our guests smile,” she notes.

Whether with lashings of liquorice or daring design, today’s hotels need a one-of-a-kind concept to generate more than a fleeting blip on the radar of social media-savvy millennials, who are thirsty not for the minibar, but for new experiences: “Always the explorer, never a tourist” is their new creed.

5 x unique stays

Under northern skies

The amazing glass igloos at Hotel Kakslauttanen in Saariselkä provide panoramic views of the northern lights. For the more daring, the hotel also offers ice-cool accommodation in real snow igloos.

To the lighthouse

Six lovingly preserved lighthouse keeper’s rooms have been converted into accommodation in Scandinavia’s tallest lighthouse, Bengtskär. A stormy night on this rocky islet in the Baltic Sea is a Moomin-style adventure.

Hit the tatami

Visit Japan without breaking your budget. Yado Oikawa is an authentic Japanese guesthouse in an unlikely location: a repurposed dairy on the River Porvoo in Pukkila.

Go to detention

Escape the ordinary at Hotel Katajanokka, which offers 106 hotel rooms in converted prison cells. The original spirit of the penitentiary still lives on, but solitary confinement was never so comfy.

Back to the seventies

Sip champagne in a wood-panelled Jacuzzi and enjoy the mix of modern and retro charms of the Långvik Congress Wellness Hotel, nestled in Kirkkonummi and housed in what was once a bank training centre.

This article was first published in the March 2017 issue of Finnair’s monthly in-flight magazine Blue Wings.