Hotels are closely linked to tourism, although the activity is broader, welcoming all kinds of guests not necessarily travelling for pleasure. Some are places of power where social capital is maintained, where contracts are confidentially negotiated, where spies, businessmen, diplomats and journalists cross paths. This role has made them targets for terrorists. Some have hosted peace negotiations, others refugees or war casualties. Some offer rooms for day use, which provide access to the hotel’s services without spending the night, or a discreet meeting place for lovers. In two centuries it has become a major and ubiquitous infrastructure, revealing a form of globalisation, through its standardisation and spread, including on sandbanks at the water’s edge, such as the island hotels in the Maldives.

The meaning of words

Hotel comes from the French hôtel, derived from hôte (‘guest; host’) and the Latin hospes (one who receives another). Hospes is etymologically linked to hostes (‘stranger; enemy’). The origin of both words is the verb hostire, ‘to treat as an equal’, ‘to requite’, ‘to recompense’. The verb gave hostia (‘victim’, in the sense of ‘victim sacrificed to soothe the wrath of the gods’) and hostes (‘enemy’). Hostia refers to the victim offered to the gods for expiation (reparation); the host, which Catholics take at communion, is the body of Jesus Christ which he gave to mankind to remit sins. In French, hostis led to ‘hostile’. Hospes would be the equivalent of ‘master of the guest’, ‘one who exercises a certain power over one’s guest’. The word ‘hostage’ comes from the French hôte.

In the Middle Ages, ostage designated a residence, ostoier meant ‘to lodge or house’. In the 16th century, ostel was ‘house, home, dwelling; inn, lodgings, shelter’ (which led to hostellerie, hôtellerie and hôtel in French). Eventually, expressions using the term ostage, which originally meant ‘to shelter’, ‘to lodge by a landlord as security’, led to the term being used to designate the lodger who was held, i.e. the person kept as a guarantee for the execution of a promise. By receiving the hostis, however, the hospes put the former on the same level as himself; the original meaning of hospitality was merely an act of compensation (for a more detailed history of the French, see the diagram tracing this evolution and related words in Dictionnaire historique de la langue française, Le Robert, 1998: p. 1745).

In the Middle Ages, a hotel was a residence or dwelling, and especially a place where guests at a monastery were received. It was also accommodation for important figures, i.e. the wealthy, a sense which continued to the 19th century in the French hôtel particulier(‘grand townhouse; mansion’). In the 13th century, it was a furnished house used as a lodging or inn. Around 1760, the word was introduced into English as ‘hotel’ to signify a guesthouse of quality. It soon become associated with a category of architecture. In the following century, the word and the commercial institution became more widespread, and the word auberge (‘inn’) was less used. The hotel had been a place where people rented accommodation for relatively long periods of time. It then took on the functions of an inn, but with greater prestige and comfort. Today, the word has a neutral connotation, referring to hotels of all sizes. It is in this sense that the French word hôtel has become international.

The English word ‘resort’ comes from the French ressort meaning ‘to flee’ or ‘to withdraw’ in the 13th century. It entered the English language the following century, becoming part of expressions such as ‘public resort’, ‘a place which provides accommodation for the general public’, and later, ‘a place for rest and leisure’ as an establishment. In English, ‘resort’ may be used to refer to a town or city where people go for outings or holidays and which usually offer hotels where holidaymakers can stay. In American English, a resort is an all-inclusive commercial establishment intended to meet most guest needs on site, such as food, beverages, accommodation, sport, entertainment and shopping.

The rise of hotels

The authors agree that the first hotels appeared in the late 18th century and early 19th century. Examples include the Royal Clarence in Exeter (England) and the Union Public Hotel in Washington (United States), which was opened in 1793 by Samuel Blodget Jr, a financier and friend of Washington and Jefferson. Blodget was appointed supervisor of buildings and improvements in the new capital city of Washington. He realised that the capital needed to provide accommodation for travelling civil servants and businessmen. The hotel offered rooms on the upper floors, with several large public meeting rooms on the ground floor. The building served a variety of social and public functions; most famously the rooms were used by Congress from 1814 to 1815 after the Capital was destroyed in the War of 1812 against British forces.

Hotels largely originated in the young republic and greatly assisted in the construction of the federation (Sandoval-Strausz, 2007). The Tremont House in Boston, which opened in 1829, had novel indoor toilets and bathrooms, running water, a reception desk, locked guest rooms, bellboys, complimentary soap and other amenities. The Swiss hotel tradition emerged during this period with the opening of Hôtel des Trois Couronnes in Vevey in 1842. Gustave Flaubert, in his Dictionnaire des idées reçues (Dictionary of accepted ideas), published posthumously in 1913, wrote: ‘Hotels: Are only good in Switzerland’.

Modern and monumental

Hotels are a major element of modernity and benefit from technical advancements. The Ponce de Leon Hotel in St Augustine, Florida, opened in 1887 and was one of the first major buildings to be constructed entirely of poured concrete. The Savoy Hotel in London, opened in 1889, was the first hotel in Great Britain to be lit by electric lamps and the first to have electric lifts. The Waldorf-Astoria in New York, opened in 1893 and 1897, impressed guests with its monumental size. The two connected buildings had over 1,000 rooms, making it the largest hotel in the world. In 1919, the Hotel Pennsylvania surpassed it for over a decade with 2,200 rooms.

After an interlude, this race to monumentalism has picked back up in recent decades (Penner, Adams and Robson, 2013). Some establishments now exceed 7,000 rooms, such as First World Hotel in Genting Highlands, Malaysia, and the Venetian Resort in Las Vegas. Abraj Kudai in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, which is set to open soon, will be the first hotel to have 10,000 rooms. Dubai and Las Vegas, in addition to Orlando, Paris, New York and London, boast the most hotel rooms (150,000 in Las Vegas and 126,000 in Dubai in 2019), in a race to build the largest and tallest hotels: Las Vegas has six of the twelve largest hotels in the world; Dubai has six of the ten tallest.

Trains and hotels

As roadside inns declined and railway lines were developed, hotels were built at terminal stations, such as the Charing Cross Hotel (1865) and the St. Pancras Hotel (1873) in London. The hotel was integrated into the station, as was the case with Bordeaux-Saint-Jean and Gare d’Orsay (Paris). Transit hotels then spread to the country.

The Pereire brothers had the idea to create a system in France that would include transport infrastructure, accommodation, meeting places, leisure spaces and commercial facilities. Building on what was happening in Germany, England and the United States, the Pereires founded Compagnie immobilière, with the conviction that developing a grand hotel would be a promising venture. Société du Louvre was created and the Grand Hôtel du Louvre opened in 1855. In 1887, Société du Louvre entered into negotiations with Compagnie des chemins de fer de l’Ouest to obtain the lease of the hotel planned across from Saint-Lazare station, the future Terminus Saint-Lazare, modelled after England’s station hotels. The hotel opened in 1889 for the fourth Exposition Universelle in Paris (Vajda, 2008). Georges Nagelmackers (1845-1905) introduced a system which looked after travellers from their departure to their return. The Belgian engineer founded the original Compagnie internationale de wagons-lits (CIWL) in 1872. He understood the potential in also offering accommodation to the wealthy customers who travelled by luxury train. He founded the Compagnie internationale des grands hôtels in 1894 to manage the company’s hotels. The Élysée Palace was the CIWL’s terminus in Paris. The Riviera Palace in Beausoleil and Cimiez (Nice) were the company’s two flagship locations in Côte d’Azur (Callais, 2019).

In North America, Henry Plant and Henry Flagler developed a hotel system closely associated with their railway networks that conquered South Florida (Braden, 2002). Transcontinental railways multiplied the number of hotels along their lines; the Northern Pacific sold Yellowstone Park with the Old Faithful Inn (1904); the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway offered the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River with the El Tovar Hotel (Shaffer, 2001). The Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) developed two types of hotels: urban hotels and rural resorts. Urban hotels, such as the Château Frontenac in Quebec City, were near the station and catered to businessmen and visitors, as well as travellers passing through who needed accommodation. Resorts were located in areas serviced by the CPR and offered unique scenery; the locations along the route were advertised as tourist destinations, such as Lake Louise, Banff National Park and Banff hot springs (Ill. 1).

Ill. 1. The Fairmont Banff Springs built in 1888 by the Canadian Pacific Railway (Alberta). Destroyed by fire in 1926, it was rebuilt and expanded but retained its château style. It is a national historic site in Canada and was designated as a heritage site in 1988 (© Jean-Christophe Gay, 2018).

The motel: Where the automobile meets the hotel

The automobile gave way to motels, a word formed by an amalgam of ‘motor’ and ‘hotel’, first recorded in San Luis Obispo, California, in 1926. In 1940 FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover warned that motels were the new hotbed of corruption and vice. Yet their numbers would only increase — there were nearly 10,000 motels in the United States in 1935, over 25,000 in 1950 and 61,000 in the early 1960s, when they reached their peak (Jakle, Sculle & Rogers, 1996).

Their architecture and neon signs are part of the American landscape. They allowed African-Americans to travel throughout the country, as segregation often prevented them from using hotels. Motels played a major role in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. It was in a motel that Martin Kuther King was assassinated in 1968. The Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, later became the National Civil Rights Museum, devoted to the history of the civil rights movement.

Motels would go on to profoundly transform the hotel industry with the rise of franchised chains. The movement began with property developer K. Wilson who opened a motel in Memphis (1952) called Holiday Inn, the name of a musical about an imaginary inn open only on holidays. Each new Holiday Inn motel featured a TV, air conditioning, a restaurant and swimming pool. The motel chain pioneered a national room reservation system designed by IBM. The first Ramada opened in Flagstaff, Arizona in 1954. The name came from Spanish and means a ‘shady resting place’.

In France, motels also led to a profound transformation in the hotel industry with the creation of the Accor group. In 1967, Paul Dubrule and Gérard Pélisson applied the American Holiday Inn model. They came up with a motellerie concept, with free parking and on-site catering. These ‘decentralised hotels’ were located near industrial zones, tourist sites and airports. Their first establishment was a Novotel in Lesquin, on the outskirts of Lille in the north of France; it had the advantage of being near the airport and notably the newly built A1 motorway. It featured a number of innovations including air-conditioning, in-room TV and a grill-style restaurant. This was the beginning of the Accor empire (Ill. 2).

Ill. 2. The Novotel in Colmar
The second Novotel opened in France in 1968. Today it is an Ibis Styles. Its architecture is highly representative of the first motels (© Jean-Christophe Gay, 2021).

Aviation and globalisation

The aeroplane was the most important agent in the rise of a global hotel industry, pioneered by the InterContinental Hotels Corporation (IHC) and Hilton Hotel International (HHI). This movement started with President F. D. Roosevelt in 1944 to prepare for the postwar period. He turned to Pan Am owner Juan Trippe to develop a network of hotels in Latin America to penetrate the market and promote US tourism abroad. Until 1959, all the hotels of IHC, a subsidiary of Pan Am created in 1946, were in Latin America; the first one opened in Belém, Brazil, in 1949. In the 1960s, other establishments opened in Asia, Europe, Africa and Oceania (Ill. 3).

Ill. 3. The Tahara’a InterContinental in Tahiti opened in 1968 and has been abandoned since 1998 (© Jean-Christophe Gay, 2017).

Under the Marshall Plan, funding was allocated to the European hotel industry as several European countries waived visas for US citizens in 1948 (Quek, 2012). This economic context led to the expansion of US hotel firms. Vertical integration streamlined travel plans, making it easy to book hotels and flights at the same time. Another advantage was that airline-owned hotels could be used for staff working around the world, especially for aircrew who required accommodation for longer periods. Their presence gave the hotels prestige; they became a kind of parallel embassy.

Other airlines followed, such as TWA acquiring Hilton (HHI) in 1967, United Airlines merging with Westin in 1970, Japan Airlines (JAL) creating Nikko Hotels that same year, and Air France creating Meridien Hotels in 1972 (Ill. 4). At the same time, five airlines — Alitalia, BEA, BOAC, Lufthansa, Swissair — and five banks created the European Hotel Corporation, which led to Penta Hotels. This phase of vertical concentration, which gave rise to ‘jumbo’ hotels, in reference to long-haul aircraft, came to an end in the 1990s, but contributed greatly to the global spread of international hotel chains (Gay and Mondou, 2017). The boom in airport hotels today demonstrates the ever-close link between air travel and the hotel industry.

Ill. 4. Nikko Paris opened in 1976.
A large-scale establishment with over 750 rooms, it was bought by the Accor group in 2001 (Novotel Paris Tour Eiffel). One of the most famous Japanese restaurants in Paris, Benkay, still occupies the lower level (© Jean-Christophe Gay, 2015).

A tool for colonisation and westernisation

If this episode in hotel history reveals the economic conquest of the planet by American capital, which began spectacularly in the early 20th century in the Caribbean and Central America with the fleet, plantations and hotels of the United Fruit Company, and in the Bahamas and Panama, the spread of the hotel industry is also a milestone in global westernisation and a tool of American soft power through its international chains, led by Hilton and InterContinental (Fregonese and Ramadan, 2015).

This is particularly evident in East Asia, where the hotel industry has developed with the arrival of Westerners and become a tool of transformation. The Peace Hotel in Shanghai, the Taj Mahal in Bombay, the Peninsula in Hong Kong and the Raffles in Singapore all exemplify Western economic influence (Ill. 5). In contrast to Japanese-style hospitality (omotenashi) and ryokan establishments, which have lost momentum (Ohe and Peypoch, 2016), hotels were introduced in Japan as it opened up to the world after 1858; this required new accommodation to meet Western standards. The free movement of foreigners from 1872 onwards led to the construction of new hotels for high-class travellers (Sanjuan, 2003). The Rokumeikan in Tokyo opened in 1883 and was built to accommodate foreign VIP guests. It is considered a symbol of controversial Westernisation during the Meiji period (1868-1912). Furthermore, the Astor Hotel in Tianjin was the first large Western hotel in China (1863) and symbolically conveyed Western lifestyles and innovations. It functioned as an enclave, an extraterritorial space, where Sino-foreign negotiations took place.

After the Korean War, the Walker Hill Hotel (1963) introduced the North American model in South Korea. The hotel catered to the military, US embassy personnel and technical advisers. Today, in South Korea, a country where outbound travel was banned for its citizens until the 1980s, where purchasing power long remained limited and where holidays remain short — two weeks per year on average — the international hotel gave the impression of travelling in the West. Their Westernness is a sign of prestige. Visiting them allows one to display one’s social standing (Gélezeau, in Sanjuan, 2003). Hotels have also been used as a tool for proselytising, like the Marriott chain, founded by Mormons, where every room includes a Bible and a Book of Mormon. (InterContinental no longer requires hotel managers to put Bibles in every room.)

Ill. 5. Raffles Hotel Singapore
Opened in 1887, it became a luxury hotel at the end of the 19th century. It is an emblem of colonial lifestyle and British influence (© Jean-Christophe Gay, 2011).

Heritage and starchitecture

The rise of boutique hotels (i.e. ‘lifestyle hotels’ or ‘design hotels’) in New York and San Francisco in the 1980s was a response to the standardisation of international hotel chains. It shows the evolving role of architecture in the hotel industry. These hotels often feature a theme and interior design that provides a sense of intimacy and authenticity.

Some hotels have been identified as heritage sites for the purpose of preservation or enhancement. On the website for the French Ministry of Culture, the Open Heritage Platform lists 62 hotels classified as ‘historic monuments’, such as the Carlton Hotel in Cannes, which opened in 1913 (Ill. 6). Some 60 establishments of historical and architectural importance have been named a Swiss Historic Hotel. In the United States, Historic Hotels of America is a system under the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which was founded in 1989 to identify hotels that have retained their authenticity and architectural integrity. In 2015, there were more than 260 members.

To qualify, a hotel must be at least 50 years old, be designated by the United States Secretary of the Interior as a National Historic Landmark, or on or eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, such as the Don CeSar in St. Pete Beach, Florida; the Moana Hotel in Waikiki, Hawaii; and the Stanley Hotel in Colorado, popularised by Stephen King’s novel The Shining . The hotel industry of yesteryear therefore became the object of contemporary interest in a kind of mise en abyme. At the same time, hotel groups are increasingly using starchitecture, a portmanteau formed from ‘star’ and ‘architecture’, to promote their hotels.

The fame of celebrity architects often comes from a sense of avant-garde innovation. The Marqués de Riscal in Elciego, Spain, designed by Frank Gehry, is a good example of this, as is the Opus in Dubai, designed by Zaha Hadid. The Puerta America in Madrid brought together 19 of the world’s best architecture and design firms and three Pritzker laureates (Nouvel, Foster and Hadid), with each floor assigned to a different architect or designer (McNeil, 2008).

Ill. 6. The façade of the Carlton during the 2013 Cannes Film Festival (© Jean-Christophe Gay, 2013).

Hotels have been built over water, in mines, igloos, concrete pipes and shipping containers… Churches, prisons (the Liberty Hotel in Boston, MA), car factories (the Lingotto in Turin, Italy), railway stations (the Canfranc in Canfranc, Spain), hospitals (Hôtel-Dieu in Marseille, France), car parks, department stores, mills, liners, and more, have all been turned into hotels. There is an effort to embrace new consumer trends, such as the Accor group’s Greet brand, which uses upcycled decor, and new environmentally mindful design, such as Qo Amsterdam, which combines luxury, technology and sustainability with a ‘self-sufficient greenhouse and smart façade’. The hotel Svart, located at the bottom of a Norwegian fjord, should be the first energy-positive destination according to the Powerhouse building standard. An icon of modernity, hotels are gradually making the environmental shift.

Jean-Christophe Gay


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