The Hotel Suite that Fell out from the Sky: Null Stern Hotel
By Teh Chin Liang
A young couple walked hand in hand up a hill in the picturesque medieval village of Saillon, Switzerland. From above, the village stretched out before them like a breathtaking painting. They seemed to be sightseeing, but they were actually there for something else.
They were checking into a hotel.
In the middle of nowhere, up a hill covered in shrubs, some people might have scratched their heads in puzzle, wondering where the hotel was.
Then, a fluffy bed came into view, sprawling on the grassland atop a simple wooden platform, flanked by nightstands on either side. The sight would have caused jaws to drop in disbelief.
A butler, clad in a neatly pressed suit, emerged carrying a tray with welcome drinks. The couple took a swig of the drink and climbed into the bed, draped in pristine white linen. They were ready to call it a night beneath a celestial blanket of stars.
This unique accommodation is none other than Null Stern, a one-of-a-kind hotel that that defies the norm of star ratings. Instead, the stars are bestowed to its guests, as exemplified by the hotel’s slogan, “Null Stern – the Only Star Is You.”
From a Nuclear Bunker to Zero Real Estate Suites
Null Stern was born in 2008 through a collaboration between conceptual artists Frank and Patrik Riklin and hotelier Daniel Charbonnier. In 2009, the first Null Stern hotel was opened in a repurposed nuclear bunker in Teufen, Appenzell AR.
In 2016, they radicalized their concept to create rooms without walls or roof, also known as “Zero Real Estate suites”. Between 2017 and 2020, Zero Real Estate suites spilled out across different regions of Eastern Switzerland including Safiental, Appenzellerland, Toggenburg, St. Gallen-Lake Constance, Heidiland, Thurgau, Schaffhauserland and the Principality of Liechtenstein.
In 2022, Null Stern launched four Zero Real Estate suites in Saillon, Valais, for the first time in French-speaking Switzerland.
Hospitality Meets Art
“In 2009, Frank and Patrik created the Null Stern Hotel, an art installation in a nuclear bunker. I saw it as more than an art installation: a concept that was in tune with the evolution of what guests are looking for, which is to be at the center of the experience,” Daniel said in a recent interview with me.
“I called them immediately and discussed how we can combine my vision with their art. We’ve been partners ever since.”
“Exclusive and personalized service used to be a luxury hotel monopoly. However, guests now value intangible aspects like guest service, emotional experience, and anticipation of needs everywhere they go and from any hotel category.”
Null Stern is a minimalist hotel that puts the guest first and offers tailored service above luxury.
“If a guest is happy in a nuclear bunker, then the intangible aspects of hospitality outweigh the tangible,” Daniel said.
Idyllic or not? Your Choice
Null Stern offers two types of suites: The Idyllic and the Anti-idyllic suite.
The Idyllic suite was launched in 2016, nestled amidst Switzerland’s stunning and beautiful landscapes of nature.
“This type of suite is perfect for guests who want to experience the Swiss natural beauty up close and personal, without a roof over their heads,” Daniel said.
The Anti-idyllic suite came into existence in 2022, drawing inspiration from the Ukraine war and offering a space for guests to reflect on global crises, such as ecology, sustainability, conflict etc.
“The Anti-idyllic Suite is located at a gas station by a thoroughfare. Unlike traditional sleep-centric accommodations, this accommodation’s purpose is to prompt reflection on global crises including ecology, sustainability, war, cost of living, energy crisis, and the prevalence of fake news,” Daniel elaborated.
Seamless check-in process
The check in process is standard. You can book a suite of your choice online through a booking platform. The hotel’s butlers will meet you at a designated location and escort you to your suite. Guests will be served with a welcome drink, local cheese and cold cuts upon arrival.
When guests make reservation, they book a Null Stern suite and a back-up room in case of bad weather. The back-up room can be in a neighboring hotel or in a mountain cabin depending on the location.
Guests are responsible for the safety of their luggage and personal items, but they can request that the butler safeguard their valuables during their stay.
In the morning, the butler will serve breakfast in bed. Guests in countryside suites can use the nearby bathrooms for land workers. The anti-idyllic suite is always close to public bathrooms. Guests can take showers at a nearby hotel with which Null Stern has a partnership.
Raised Eyebrows? Who Cares?
Guests in the Null Stern hotel inevitably must deal with the curious gaze of the public.
“How people react depends on the type of guests, like their age and gender,” Daniel explained.
“Married couples in their 50s were generally left alone, but young ladies were sometimes subjected to inappropriate comments.”
“Anyhow, the suite was designed to highlight and question issues in today’s world, such as gender equality. Guests had the opportunity to reflect on these issues. They all walked away with a new outlook on life.”
Unique Sleep Experience at Null Stern
Daniel had an extraordinary experience staying in a Null Stern suite.
“What makes it unique is once you close your eyes, you feel like you are in a hotel room,” Daniel reminisced the experience.
“You might wake up during the night to the gentle touch of the breeze or the sound of a bird singing. You open your eyes and for a moment, you think you’re in a hotel room. Then you look up the dark sky and see the stars. You realize you are enveloped by nature. It’s a very special moment.”
“The questions that came to me during the night were ‘what is value?’ and ‘what does comfort mean?’”
“I also realize how fragile we are without a roof over our head and my thoughts went to all the people that are forced to sleep outside for whatever reason. I can say, the experience humbled me.”
Switzerland’s Landscape as the Backdrop
The process of choosing a location for the Null Stern suites is meticulous and requires careful planning.
“Given that our concept is to feature Switzerland’s landscape as the backdrop, the selection of the location is key,” Daniel explained. “We scout for locations that are both dramatic and stunning, while also being well-suited for operating the Null Stern suites. Factors such as access roads, bathroom facilities, and nearby backup shelters in the event of bad weather must all be taken into consideration.”
The set up and operations of the Null Stern suites require extensive planning and coordination.
“We need to obtain all construction and operations permits from the local authorities. The construction process is always different for each Null Stern suite, due to differences in terrain and environment,” Daniel explained.
Promote Local Know-How
“The success of the project depends on the support of the local community and authorities. We promote local know-how by only working with local construction firms and sourcing for local talents.
It usually involves multiple meetings with stakeholders to come to a win-win solution.”
Guests are the focus at Null Stern, and the Modern Butler plays an integral role in ensuring that they are well taken care of.
“The Modern Butler provides guests with personalized service and to remind guests that they are the star – not the hotel,” Daniel remarked.
The Modern Butler
The concept of the ‘Modern Butler’ was born through the fusion of the classic hospitality world, with its white gloves, black bow tie, and white shirt, and the artistic world, which empowers its butlers to be unconventional and creative while fulfilling their mai duty of focusing on the guests, the only star.
Butlers have traditionally been associated with luxury hotels and palaces. At Null Stern, luxury is redefined by providing a butler service in a minimalist environment.
“The butlers are all locals who have no prior experience in the hospitality industry. They undergo rigorous training to provide top-notch service, such as learning how to make the bed outside in windy weather and carrying trays of drinks up a steep hill without spilling.”
Null Stern is a Force of Nature
When asked if he has plans to bring Null Stern beyond Switzerland, Daniel responded, “Over time, I’ve come to realize that Null Stern has taken on a life of her own. She is a force of nature.
We may think we’re in control, but she’s the one who’s really in charge. She has a mind of her own, and we’re just along for the ride.”
“We’re exploring the possibility of expanding Null Stern beyond Europe, but we can’t say anything more at this time.”
Null Stern Provides the Setting, Guests Write Their Own Script
Null Stern bookings are limited and sell out quickly. People are attracted to this anti-idyllic suite, even though it lacks comfort and privacy.
“I think people are attracted to Null Stern because it puts them in control of their own experience. We provide the setting, but they write their own script.”
The next time you find yourself in Switzerland and come across a bed lying in the middle of a farmland or a thoroughfare, as if it had dropped from the sky – as Daniel described it, just leave it be. In that space, two people are in retreat, immersed in their own contemplations. This is a suite designed for incubating changes, for they often begin with a single thought.