TALLINN-VILNIUS - Paul Taylor and Michael Pilkington had an idea. Based on feedback they had received over the years from businessmen and tourists visiting the Baltics, they saw a golden opportunity for a no-nonsense hotel chain in the three-star range, but one that would offer clients a little extra something to remember their stay by.
The resulting concept - four-star quality at a three-star price - is truly one of a kind in the Baltic market, and from that the name followed easily: Uniquestay.
The first hotel opened in Tallinn in April 2003. Though it had only 17 rooms, it quickly expanded to 75. Bright and minimalist, every Uniquestay room boasts Internet access and coffee and tea. This gives guests a practical alternative during the evenings or on inclement days when the rain and snow has them cooped up inside. Considering Baltic weather, this is a breakthrough for the hospitality industry.
"We have just about everything that a four-star hotel has, but we kept it on a three-star level," says manager Enely Muhlberg. "Our lobby and cafe areas are smaller."
Remarkably, the Uniquestay concept has undergone some fine-tuning over the months. For instance, in order to attract corporate clientele and international conference participants during the long low-season, the hotel owners introduced Zen rooms - an upgraded version of the basic room designed to maximize relaxation. In addition to a whirlpool bath, therapy oils, bathrobes, these rooms offer so-called gravity-free chairs - NASA-designed chairs that restore the body's blood-flow balance.
The second refinement was the addition of Estonian folkloric dinner shows. The shows take place in a converted limestone stable behind the main hotel building, which was built in the 1870s by a German baron (and converted into a science institute during the Soviet period). Lasting over two hours, the shows were greeted enthusiastically by tour groups and, according to Muhlberg, will continue next summer.
In the future, the chain's three owners - Taylor, Pilkington and David Heir, all from the U.K. - intend to export the Uniquestay concept. Just last month they opened a branch in Vilnius, and their third hotel should appear next summer in Riga.
The Vilnius hotel is markedly different from the one in Tallinn in that the owners contracted the local Centrum chain to use the Uniquestay brand. Though the building, built in 1995, is in stark contrast to the fortresslike facade of the one in Tallinn, the three-star approach still holds. And of course, every room comes with a computer monitor and a keyboard.
"Riga is the most interesting in terms of expansion," says Muhlberg, adding that the owners are yet unsure whether they will opt for leasing a building or signing another operational agreement as in Vilnius. "We need the brand in Riga."
In all, the owners hope to have 10 hotels by 2007, and with any luck they'll have one in St. Petersburg. Given the dearth of genuine three-star service in Russia, Uniquestay would certainly be a hit in the Venice of the North. But as Muhlberg explains, the greatest challenge for any Baltic hotel these days is just keeping the rooms full - especially in the winter. As she aptly puts it, "the most expensive room is the one that's empty."