The funkiest Southwest hotel with lessons for every hotelier worldwide

The concept of a contemporary, boutique motel, either as a new build or retrofit, that commands sizably higher-than-market rates started to become a trend in the 2010s but has grown since the pandemic. Spurred on by a core psychographic of drive-to-vacation culture amongst Gen X and millennials, in the United States we are seeing multi-property brands like Bluebird and Urban Cowboy achieve success by opening exquisitely decorated lodges in sought-after rural areas near major cities. Then there are a host of independents gracing the covers of travel magazines such as The Vagabond Hotel in Miami, The Dive Motel in Nashville, Skyview Los Alamos in California and Thunderbird in Marfa, Texas.

But perhaps one property stands above the rest by capturing the heart of this trend, and then accelerating into a territory unmatched by any other hotel in the world due to its astounding, eccentric and fun-in-every-way design. This is none other than the Hotel Zazz in Albuquerque, New Mexico which opened in Fall 2022. Right along the famed Route 66, all of the 48 guestrooms are imaginatively decorated with colorful, eclectic finishings while the public spaces are equally dazzling and funky.

To help give you a better picture about what makes this hotel’s soul so unique, they have onsite their own published children’s book called “The Zazzy Adventures of Roozy and Raffie” that’s a coloring storybook as well as a word search. Visitors who buy the book not only receive a lifetime membership to the ‘R&R Club’ for 15% off their current and all future stays at Hotel Zazz, but proceeds also support a charity dedicated to educating women and children around the world about the arts, culture and music.

Besides bringing joy to all visitors by literally brightening their day, the combination of a distinctively themed design and genuinely warm service serves as yet one more clear example of how unique hospitality experiences will always triumph no matter the market. And indeed, the market has responded with nonstop acclaim, buzz on social media and high year-round occupancies. In particular, Hotel Zazz is a darling amongst Gen Zers, with their user-generated content organically attracting all the other generations.

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Together this represents a fundamental lesson where, following an initial meeting at a BITAC conference in August 2023, we were honored to sit down afterwards with owner-operator and Chief Experience Officer, Sharmin Dharas, to hear her story about how Hotel Zazz came to be.

Can you start by listing off some of the metrics that highlight just how much guests love Hotel Zazz?

We won eight awards in the first four months of being open! Now that we finished our first year, we have been hitting all the marks when it comes to social media bookings. Yes, SOCIAL MEDIA bookings – ones straight off of Instagram. We have guests slip into our DMs asking us to book their birthday vacation or staycay. It’s been amazing to not only get bookings via a free stream of marketing but to also have that as a direct booking! It’s been a win-win. All of our social media is completely purely organic. We do not pay influencers because we feel people should showcase what is the true hotel from their angle. To repeat: not a social influence angle. But I will say it doesn’t hurt to have them stay with us and organically give us a shout out!

When was the moment that you knew you had to go all in on making the zaniest, zazziest hotel?

I love this question. When was the moment you knew you had to go all in on making the zazziest hotel? It was all my life. I grew up on the property. As an only child I wish I had a park to walk to or neighbors to play with. Instead, I would imagine I had a swing, a playground, a children’s dream in the center of the entertainment district. But I really knew it would bring in the ROI when I saw similar properties around the world when I would travel as a student doctor. Back then, boutique hotels weren’t a thing; it was renovated hostiles that were. So, I knew we had something when I would see these locations being profitable without any pizzazz.

How did you get funding? How did you get investors to believe in the concept versus more traditional hotel brands?

Funding was a journey. I love sharing this story because it almost didn’t happen. We actually put a packet together that showed the old then we added our bold concept. We also showed the market we would target and how much revenue each of the SMERF (social, military, educational, religious, fraternal) would provide within a certain radius. It was hard to get the data because I wasn’t part of any of the hospitality associations. It was a lot of research and STR data. At the end of it all, they always care about proforma.

Mind you, I pitched it to them in 2021. This was immediately after we came out of the stay at home pandemic. I looked for community banks and pitched it to one who I thought would want to support the project because I had the city councilor call the bank president to get me in. And, well, we did it! We were at the table about to sign the closing documents, then they stopped and pulled the loan from us because, as they said, there were other hotels that were coming into the market. So, here I am in early 2021 with everything lined up to execute and the local community bank shattered my dreams. But I wanted to be an entrepreneur in boutique hotels, so I found the grit to go find another bank.

Just then, my cousin Rahim told me about another community bank. I asked the VP to meet me for breakfast at a boutique Curio property along with my hotel guru Alan Barmaper. We are all at the table about to order breakfast when I give the VP the prospectus – nicely bound, color print with a cover and back that has all our info – and all he just takes it, sets it aside and looks at the menu to order. After ordering, without looking at the booklet, the VP looks me straight in the eyes and asks me about my vision. This was the first time someone wanted to hear what I had to say versus only the numbers.

When I described how the hotel would be located in the Nob Hill Entertainment District, the VP jumped into a story about how he lived right behind a dumpy old motel there, and about how all his friends in the neighborhood wished there was a boutique hotel in the area for when family would visit – instead of having them shack up in the district’s historic, 800-square-feet-tops houses. He knew the site well as it turns out and was sold on the project all before our food arrived. Let me tell you, just like getting pregnant it only takes one!

How did you ‘zazzify’ the hotel’s culture to ensure that every aspect of operations would embody the tone and spirit that you set out to create on a continual basis?

The zazzification of Hotel Zazz happened as the project unfolded. It really started from the discovery of the name. Picture this: it’s during the pandemic; I’m on a Zoom call. I had a Covid baby (who is now 18 months old) in my arms and I’m telling the branding team that this neighborhood is so eclectic and unique. It’s all about local and we just need to add some pizzazz, when my daughter, Shayrooz, attached at my hip looks at me and says “Daazz? Wat’s daath?” A lightbulb went on – the baby is right! – it’s zazz, the hotel should be called Hotel Zazz.

This girl was genius if she only knew but that was the moment that started the zazzification of everything. We had her tell us what her favorite color was and, like any toddler, it changed daily. So, we went along with it. But the best was when we asked her, “If zazz was an animal, what would it be?” She said Raffie! Naturally, we next asked, “what’s Raffie’s favorite snack?” She said it was a ‘nanana’ (baby speak for banana). This was the impetus for the speakeasy golden banana entry!

Without playing favorites, what hotel features or amenities are you fondest about?

The lobby is the first impression, and that’s exactly what we did. We made sure that the second you walked in you could use all five senses as well as the sixth sense – that of feelings and introspection. We wanted to make sure you can activate them all. From the second you walk in, you can smell sweet banana slurpee – our signature scent. You hear the tunes that give you the good vibes and you see this tree of life that Shayrooz wanted. Think Game of Thrones on steroids with silver. And you tap the golden banana three times to go into the hidden speakeasy that gives you your first taste of whimsical freedom. Let me tell you that the whole thing is an experience. All of our staff love seeing our guests’ faces when they tap the golden banana three times and see this wall pop open. It’s wild!

You’ve just opened a spa amenity. What metrics did you use to justify this capex?

I never used capex; I used what would I want to have if I could afford a room at Hotel Zazz. It’s so unique to have a full-blown spa on property that you would never expect to see in a motel style boutique hotel.

Before entering hospitality, you were a licensed medical professional. That’s a profound and very uncommon career path. Can you describe what motivated that change?

Yes, I’m a doctor, but I was born into hotel hospitality. I literally watched my parents in the middle of the night get up to check-in a guest. I was trained that sleep doesn’t matter; work ethics do. That actually prepared me for medical training (the no sleep aspect), and that medical training got me ready to be a serial entrepreneur who apparently believes in sleep later. Thank god we have massages and spa on property for some R&R!

But the reason why I left medicine was because I was depressed in every way. I was literally dealing with life and death, and I was a people person. I wanted what I saw growing up. Human interaction and storytelling. I knew that this would be the best thing for mental health and happiness. Our number one goal when you get on our property is to have you feel happy. We also took the time to make sure the colors that were selected impacted you in a fun way. Hotel Zazz is a pioneer of chromotherapy; we know colors invoke feelings, so why not make them make you feel fantastic.

What challenges have you had to overcome because of this that others may not have faced?

Being a hotel owner-operator for at least the first two years of a new concept is critical because it allows you the opportunity to make sure the brand is translated and successful. It also allows you to add that extra element of true hospitality that you as an owner can make calls for – for instance, a free bottle of wine or hearing that guests like a certain brand of local chocolates and getting it delivered to them. Also, it’s the storytelling component – really tuning in to hear likes and dislikes then amplifying the likes.

The biggest challenge is not having a full grasp on operations like you would from a franchise SOP playbook and just learning as we go. In a way, it’s also been a blessing because we are not the standard. Apparently, I am the only solely-woman-owned hotel in New Mexico. That is huge because now I can prove that it can be done. Since hitting the stage at a BITAC event in August 2023, there have been a few women who reached out to me and asked me to help them with their projects. I love that. I love that they have someone that I didn’t have. Also, being a minority-owned hotel most of our staff are from Africa like me. We hope to eventually grow the Zazz brand and give them some skin in the game so that one day they can own their own hotel.

What’s next for Hotel Zazz? Fingers crossed for a branded hotel in our hometown of Toronto.

Since we opened, we had about five additional requests to open other Zazz properties along with potential owners. It looks like Zanzibar, Dubai and Arizona will be some of the first, then Toronto and Mexico soon after. I am always so god-willing and family-supporting because, without that faith and family, I wouldn’t have been able to move through all the hurdles we had to overcome and come out with a zazzy concept!

This article may not be reproduced without the expressed permission of the authors.


Tags: Hotel Zazz, spa amenity

Managing Partners at Hotel Mogel Consulting, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

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