Are transient hotels the new sustainable travel trend?

Horse-riding in the sand dunes of Brazil’s Lençóis Maranhenses National Park

For those of us looking for a once-in-a-lifetime (literally) travel experience with a conscience, KATIE BERRINGTON discovers the wonderfully unique hospitality brands championing sustainability


It was in 2018 that Thierry Teyssier’s new concept of travel – a “tourism of the future” – was initially put into practice, when he launched 700’000 Heures as the “world’s first ephemeral hotel”. This nomadic approach to hospitality began with the idea of the hotel shifting its setting every six months, meaning it would appear in a spectacular destination – and then, several months later, be gone.

While it was the first of its kind, hotels with a disappearing nature have long existed in various other forms (not to mention, of course, the most transient of all, camping) – often with nature as their inspiration. Ice hotels, for instance, are constructed from sculpted ice blocks and snow, being rebuilt every year when sub-zero temperatures allow. The original was formed in the late ’80s in Jukkasjärvi, Sweden, beginning as an ice art gallery, making use of the annual freezing of the Torne River. Now the “art suites” at the hotel are designed by architects, industrial engineers and artists each year, before melting away in the spring.

The name for 700’000 Heures comes from the average number of hours a person spends on earth, and the concept was born out of Teyssier’s love for discovering new places and exploring different cultures. With a private-members’-club set-up, the company has a community of members who have the opportunity to stay at each property, where the local area and people are involved in the project.

“I believe in a new way of hospitality,” Teyssier explains of the way he redefines the principles of luxury travel. “Luxury is no longer having the biggest private pool or the presidential suite. It’s unique moments with people you love, which can be simple and in a beautiful place, where you are introduced to the local culture.”

Part of the appeal for guests, he thinks, comes from the art of complete surprise, which we rarely get to experience in our information-filled world. “With so much available via social networks and the internet, people have access to numerous views of the world. Our trips allow them to enjoy experiences that are impossible to live or to witness in any other way.”

700’000 Heures offers a vast range of unique, one-off travel adventures, from discovering the natural beauty of Salento in southern Italy to experiencing the flooded desert of Santo Amaro in Brazil

Past destinations have ranged from a “forgotten palazzo” in southern Italy and a traditional Khmer house hidden in Cambodia’s Siem Reap to a paradise of dunes and lagoons in eastern Brazil and private apartments on the Place Vendôme in Paris. Previously reserved for the private community of members – Le Cercle des Amazirs – this year, some of its houses will be opened to non-members in a collection called The Constellation. The first destination will be in Brazil’s Santo Amaro, which will open from the end of May to the end of October.

The interest in this idea of an evanescent hotel is, Teyssier believes, proof that we are seeking something different from our travels. “People are no longer looking to be distracted. They are looking for impact and meaningful experience,” he says. “We offer them the chance to travel in a more memorable way. And, by traveling with us, they support the local communities and are respectful of the local cultures.”

Luxury travel company Black Tomato has developed its own formula for the hospitality pop-up, called Blink (as in “blink and you’ll miss it”). Promising to be “the most personalized luxury travel experience imaginable”, guests design their own customized accommodation, which is then transported to places “so private and untouched that no one else will have stayed there before – and never will again in the same way”. These have included safari-style tents along Southeast Asia’s Mekong River and “lunar-like bubbles” on Bolivia’s Altiplano.

So how do hospitality brands so temporary by their very nature manage to champion sustainability for the environment and local community?

Black Tomato considers the lasting effects on the locations it makes use of. The idea is that, once dismantled, the accommodation and experiences will have left no trace on the natural environment. Sweden’s Icehotel actually became a certified Sustainable Arctic Destination in 2018. “Borrowing” from its surroundings, ice is harvested from the River Torne each year, then melts back into it when spring arrives. And while there is now also a permanent hotel on the site since Icehotel 365 opened, sustainability is still at the core of the design. Solar panels on the roof harness the same sun rays that melt the seasonal winter hotel, using them to create cooling energy to keep a constant (and necessary) 23 degrees Fahrenheit inside the permanent structure.

I believe in a new way of hospitality. Luxury is no longer having the biggest private pool or the presidential suite. It’s unique moments with people you love, which can be simple and in a beautiful place where you are introduced to the local culture
Thierry Teyssier, 700’000 Heures

To ensure it is not only guests who benefit from their travel experiences, 700’000 Heures launched a legacy program, Daem (named for the word for ‘permanent’ in Persian). “While our hotel experience is ephemeral by design, we looked for a sustainable development approach to aid these communities in the most meaningful way,” Teyssier says.

“Daem was launched by 700’000 Heures to train local talent and entrepreneurs, to optimize the experience in these local communities long after we move on to the next exceptional destination, and to protect each environment for everyone’s benefit into the future,” he explains. The program is split into three main components: hospitality training, environmental protection and financing sustainable local work.

The projects in each destination are designed to work in a circular economy, with the aim of reducing waste and regenerating resources. “I find existing houses and I propose to their owners to restore them and rent them for several months,” Teyssier shares of the process that goes into researching each destination. “Once the houses are settled, the 700’000 Heures team trains locals, which creates employment. It allows the village to grow its economy while preserving its way of living.”

Moreover, the brand has recently teamed with the Global Heritage Fund “to generate economic opportunities for local communities through sustainable tourism surrounding world heritage”. This will support the creation of accommodation and enhance Daem’s work along with other hospitality projects, all of which will be anchored by this “vibrant” circular economy.

After all, in the era of championing longevity, even the most temporary of travel should be focused on maximized experience with minimized footprints and long-lasting positive impacts.