What it's like staying at a "hybrid hotel"
Greetings from the Netherlands! 🌷 I'm writing most of this issue while on a train from Delft to Amsterdam, where I'm headed to complete the second week of my study abroad course with 10 students from Rice University. I normally send out 4 bits on Thursdays, but the past 10 days since leaving the states have been more hectic than I expected. Here's an update of what I've noticed while I've been here.
Staying in the Netherlands, but in a different way
It's 10 am, the sky is clear, the air crisp, and the setting feels noticeably different from Houston. It's summer, but without the dreaded humid heat. Bikes pass by on a dedicated bike trail, but no one is wearing a helmet. There's a canal nearby with students lounging. Many of them are doom scrolling on their phones - some things, regardless of city and culture, seem to happen everywhere you go.
I'm sitting outside of the University of Amsterdam (UvA) business school on a bench waiting for everyone to show up for the second day of our study abroad course.
As people arrive, I ask them to draw from a stack of stickers. They then leave our meeting point to explore in pairs, each with a new lens based on what sticker they've drawn. Whether it's a civil engineer, a child, or a horticulturist, they're walking "in the shoes" of someone completely unlike themselves, so they can notice Amsterdam from a different perspective.
As they start walking away, I realize that seeing the Netherlands from a different perspective is what I've been doing ever since I came last Saturday. I've visited this country many times before, but only to visit family or to attend a music festival. I've never come here for work activities. When you're approaching with that lens, you notice different things.
I’ve also rarely stayed at a hotel or Airbnb while in the Netherlands. When booking a place for this trip, I wanted something unique and different. In the spirit of experience design, I'll share one of the highlights of my trip so far: staying at Zoku, a hybrid hotel in Amsterdam.
Your stay at Zoku begins by taking the elevator to the 6th floor. As the doors open, you're greeted by the sound of chirping birds coming from a speaker carefully hidden in the ceiling. You walk through an all glass corridor, surrounded by plants and the Amsterdam skyline. There are hammocks, chairs, and lounge areas where you can sit outside. When I arrived, the weather was beautiful, and people were basking in the sun while typing away on their laptops or socializing with each other.
Zoku describes their concept as:
A home-office hybrid with the services of a hotel and the social buzz of a thriving neighborhood. We facilitate global living and working for the traveling professional.
I’d hardly call myself a traveling professional, but I understand where they’re going with this: Zoku is meant to be a place where you can have the warmth and energy of a neighborhood with the hospitality of a hotel.
The 6th floor isn’t just a place to check in and get your hotel key: it’s also a restaurant and co-working space with a spectacular view. While hotel guests are out and about during the day, co-working members use the space to get work done, hold meetings, and be immersed in their work while being surrounded by others.
A home, not a hotel room
The rooms at Zoku are designed for longer stays. The Zoku team did over 150 interviews and tested out 6 different prototypes before creating the Zoku Loft.
In a regular hotel room or studio apartment, the bed always dominates. In the Zoku Loft, the big kitchen table serves as focal point, shifting the center of the space from the bed to the living room.
The small shift of the focal point (from bed → kitchen table) makes a big difference in how you feel when you walk into the room. It’s less about “I’m done for the day, and now it’s time for bed” and more “Let me sit down and unwind”. Pulling out a set of stairs reveals access to a bed that you wouldn’t notice otherwise. I’ve found it refreshing to walk into the space, particularly because the bed doesn’t take up any of the room and you have a more workable and livable area.
Make the space yours
You’re invited to personalize your Zoku Loft. Whether it’s by swapping the art in your room or grabbing kitchen essentials and other items from the shared pantry, Zoku gives you the space to add character to your room. Much of the “art” is little frames with motivational statements like “Collect moments not things” or “Free your shooting star”. I won’t be changing the art in my room, but it’s a nice addition nevertheless.
Unlike a regular hotel, Zoku hosts community events. But perhaps the most interesting moment for me at the stay so far happened while I was finishing writing this issue.
I was on the 6th floor, sitting at a shared table, typing away when a woman approached me. She invited me to join Fika, a Zoku ritual.
Originally a Swedish concept, Fika happens every weekday at Zoku between 3:30 pm and 4 pm. Members in the co-working space gather together around a table, have coffee and tea, share a snack, and get to know each other.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I joined Fika. I was pleasantly surprised.
I had a chance to talk with some of the Zoku team and get to know more about the hotel. It was casual, not a sales pitch.
I also met some new people I wouldn’t have interacted with otherwise. One person was visiting from the U.S. and works for a startup based in Houston. The CEO of their startup is a Rice alum. We chatted briefly and exchanged contact information, and their founder might come speak in a future class.
The conversations felt more natural and less like structured networking - perhaps because we only had to walk a few feet from our table to join Fika. It was an unexpected outcome at an unconventional hotel.
I often wonder how hotels keep up with the constant pressure to set themselves apart from their competition. The days of touting Egyptian cotton bed sheets or a flat screen TV are over. Instead, some of the best hotels think about how they can reframe a hotel into a home. But to really succeed, they need to develop the spaces and community to make it feel real. Zoku is one of the best examples I’ve seen of this in practice, and I’m looking forward to the next few days here.