Why Microhospitality Is The New Way To Travel The World
Floating houses, Lake Tonlé Sap, Cambodia. Photograph by Mr Khanh Renaud, courtesy of 700,000 Heures
If you were flying over Tonlé Sap Lake in Cambodia in 2019, and happened to look out of the window, your interest would have been repaid with an interesting sight: three traditional fisherman’s huts, one red and two blue, floating like clouds on the lake’s surface. On the front deck of one sits a well-dressed Frenchman with a well-kempt shock of grey hair, having an evening drink with another couple. You might not know it, but you would be seeing a revolution in the hotel industry.
The man in question is Mr Thierry Teyssier and this is the second stop of his project called 700,000 Heures: the world’s first “nomadic” hotel. The name refers to the lifespan of an average person living in a developed country, and the concept works like this: Teyssier travels the world looking for small, remote villages or towns in which he can create tiny hotels that only exist for a few months in a year. The hotels – always setting up shop in existing buildings as opposed to constructing new ones – generally have four to five bedrooms. The charismatic hotelier is in situ all the time to act as a host, leading the experience like a conductor leads an orchestra.
Lounge room, Iné, Japan. Photograph by Mr Gerald le Van Chau, courtesy of 700,000 Heures
Teyssier calls this concept microhospitality, and sees a smaller, bespoke approach to travel as the antidote to the problems caused by large-scale tourism, which, he says, destroys things: “If you ask a travel agent for a trip to Japan, you will have a programme that is [almost] the same as the next person: 95 per cent of tourism in the world is in five per cent of its places,” he explains. “Look what that does to places like Venice with the cruise ships.” (Italy recently banned cruises from docking in Venice amid concerns they contributed to the pollution and damage of the Venetian lagoon).
Recognising the tendency for tourism to extract from a place rather than bring something to it, Teyssier set out to do two things: “Help tourists to understand that there are beautiful places all over the world with beautiful cultures and traditions. And, when we open in an area, make sure that it benefits the community as much as the guests.”
What that means in practice is that 700,000 Heures has worked with local fishermen in Cambodia and Japan, and helped local restaurateurs in Salento, Italy, and Lençois, Brazil, by using local tradesmen and employing local people in hotels or on farms, and of always guiding guests to interact with and buy from people in those places, rather than sitting in a cocoon of five-star luxury. “I want it to be like when you are young and a backpacker and you connect with local people – only this time you get a real bed,” he laughs.
Dar Ahlam, Morocco. Photograph courtesy of 700,000 Heures
Teyssier’s approach is considered as the vanguard of change across the industry. “I am seeing a real shift in travellers moving away from larger hotels in favour of smaller, locally owned properties,” says Ms Katie Terrington of Katie Terrington Private Travel. “My clients are seeking immersive travel experiences that enable connection to both ‘people and planet’, [so] I really believe this concept is the future of the travel industry.”
700,000 Heures’ first opening was Salento in Italy in 2018, where guests would visit grottos on a fisherman’s boat, having fresh urchins picked from the sea and eating them right there. If this sounds a little cinematic, well, that’s because the cinema is a large part of Teyssier’s background.
Initially an actor, he went on to set up his own theatre company, followed by an events management agency called Lever de Rideau (translation: “the curtain raiser”). From there, in 1991, he started organising trips for wealthy clients, but was disillusioned by luxury hotels, so set up his own.
Dar Ahlam (house of dreams), his hotel in Morocco, famously has 100 staff for 30 guests and no restaurants as visitors never eat two meals in the same place. Tables might be set for dinner on rocky outcrops bathed by sunset, of a set of trunks made by L’Atelier de Manue in Agadir containing chairs and cocktail sets, which are theatrically unfurled at the golden hour. Teyssier commissioned local artists to quietly sketch guests, presenting them with the finished product as they depart.
“Sometimes when guests leave, they cry,” says Teyssier. “I want all my guests to feel completely changed. I want them, above everything, to have an amazing moment with us,” he says. In his own words, he has a talent for mise-en-scène.
Dinner platform, Lake Tonlé Sap, Cambodia. Photograph by Mr Khanh Renaud, courtesy of 700,000 Heures
Perhaps the most important work Teyssier does currently is with the Global Heritage Fund in the Anti-Atlas Mountains, where the GHF pays locals to refurbish their own monuments, in this case ancient Igoudar granaries. 700,000 Heures’ permanent hotel accommodation is fitted out by locals too, with everything from textiles to wood coming from within the community. After this work is finished in Morocco and the communities have a self-sustaining economy, they intend to work together again in Transylvania and in Turkey.
Overall, 700,000 Heures expands the idea of what a hotel is: something not based in a location, but on a concept. And sure, it is a profitable one – rooms can be €2,000 a night. But it is a profit that is always shared, which, in the cut-throat world of hospitality, is a new beginning indeed.