There are meat lovers – and then there is Claus Böbel. Visit his Bratwursthotel, just south of Nuremberg, and you will soon understand what I mean. Described by Böbel as “very special”, each of the B&B’s seven rooms is a shrine to Germany’s sausage-making heritage. And though this makes sense for a property run by a fourth-generation butcher, the intensity of Böbel’s vision is nonetheless remarkable.

When guests arrive, they are welcomed by an appetiser sausage served with a dash of local beer. When they leave, they are offered a sausage bonbon. Over their beds – covered with sausage bedspreads – hang sausage ornaments. Punters in one of Böbel’s rooms will be greeted by pictures of the spices that go into sausages. Guests in another can read up on recipes. It feels reasonable, in short, to agree with Böbel that visitors to the Bratwursthotel will get to enjoy nothing short of a “sausage experience”.

The owner calls his project unique – and, of course, he is right that few hotels would dare equip bathrooms with sausage-themed soap. In another way, however, the Bratwursthotel is merely part of a much wider pattern. Over recent years, encouraged both by buoyant competition and the rise of more discerning guests, themed hotels have burrowed into the industry’s consciousness. And though fanatical hoteliers like Claus Böbel are unusual, the array of options really is bewildering. The US alone hosts dozens of such properties, encompassing everything from zoo-themed rooms in Idaho to a pirate hotel in Florida. Further afield, people can snuggle in a Hobbit motel (New Zealand), shiver in an ice hotel (Sweden) or even risk their sanity at a hotel run entirely by robots (Japan, obviously).

Not that embracing themed hospitality is as straightforward as the Bratwursthotel suggests. On the contrary, success requires careful collaboration and intensive attention to detail. And if eccentrics like Böbel clearly have fun flaunting their creations, other challenges lurk behind the pork mincer too. If, after all, a themed hotel attracts a certain type of guest, it presumably follows that others are likely to be put off by their strangeness. Although committing to a style has the potential to draw obsessives from far and wide, what happens if tastes change and your dream property transforms from an eye-catching zoo hotel into just another white elephant?

The dream theme

Themed hospitality has been around for decades. As long ago as 1955, for instance, Disney unveiled a fairy tale hotel at its park in California. Even today, the property’s signature suite boasts a four-poster canopy bed and a special greeting from Tinkerbell.

Yet, as Andy White explains, themed hotels have recently hopped to new heights. “I think they’ve always been popular,” says White, owner at Andy White Creative, a prominent hotel resort and visitor attraction design firm. “But I think they’re definitely growing as a kind of family experience.”

As White implies, this growth can partly be understood in terms of children. Especially since the post-pandemic revival of family vacations – the 2021 US Family Travel Survey found that 88% of US families planned on whisking their kids away, while half of British parents are willing to pay a fine for holidaying during term time – what young people want is being taken increasingly seriously. If nothing else, that is obvious in White’s own work, which showcases the Gruffalo, CBeebies and Peppa Pig, among other childhood favourites. Yet that is not the whole story. A Peppa Pig room is obviously aimed at children – but a property devoted to the bratwurst hardly needs to be. What has changed, suggests White, is the spectacular growth of social media and on-demand entertainment. Back in 1955, people could only really learn about Disney’s fairy tale hotel via leaflets or newspapers. Now, however, members of every fandom imaginable can easily gather online, and find even obscure hotels at a click of a button.

Böbel’s experience is a case in point. His hotel may be in rural Franconia, but he has welcomed curious guests from as far afield as Nigeria and China. Even more strikingly, the internet in all its power can birth new theme hotels from ones and zeros. Six months ago, ‘Squid Game’ was what lonely sailors did at night. Now, fans of the hit Korean drama can stay at a Singapore hotel based on the show.

This mad rush to be different is telling in other ways. Global hospitality is expanding at outrageous rates. The Chinese city of Guangzhou, to give just one example, has a pipeline of 8,694 rooms – and operators need all the help they can get to stand out. And if you build a property expressly designed to lure a certain type of hobbyist, chances are they will come back for more.

That is certainly apparent if you listen to hoteliers themselves. Around a third of guests at Vliegtuighotel, a Dutch hotel set in a decommissioned Ilyushin-18 aircraft, said they are either returning or treating friends after enjoying a night in the cockpit themselves. Böbel agrees. “I think for the next 20, 50 years, from all over the world, people will come here,” he says. “This is my market.”

Kings of the castle

Since 1068, Warwick Castle has stood sentinel over the towns and villages of the West Midlands.

Originally built by William the Conqueror, the fortress has been a faithful witness to English history in all its entanglements. In 1312, a royal courtier was imprisoned here for allegedly stealing the king’s treasure. Three hundred years later, its walls were battered and bruised in a Civil War siege. In more recent times, however, the castle receives less ominous visitors – thanks to the Knight’s Village at Warwick Castle. Staying at one of the property’s 28 guest lodges, guests can see falcon masters at work, try their hand at archery, and even watch a joust or two. The aim, says White, creative consultant behind the project, is to ensure that every corner of the village fits seamlessly into the historic setting beyond.

Listen to White explain the design specifics of the project, and it is clear that themed hotels cannot simply be willed into existence. On the contrary, they require punctilious care and forethought. That is true everywhere from the woven tapestries that decorate bedrooms to the wooden tables in the banqueting hall. The goal, emphasises White, is complete immersion. “Beyond just the four walls that the customer is going to be sleeping in, we create a whole experience.”

It goes without saying that Böbel sees his hotel in similar terms. To explain what he means, the German hotelier gives the example of many so-called wine hotels. “If the only thing you see is a picture of the weinkeller [wine cellar] over the bed,” he says, “it’s not a wine hotel.” Between the sausage bonbons and the sausage soap, it is clear Bratwursthotel does everything possible to avoid this trap.

Not that themed hotels can survive on enthusiasm alone. Both White and Böbel highlight that partnering with outsiders was crucial to their respective projects. Böbel, for example, worked with an architect who also helped develop his butcher shops. In White’s case, his team liaised closely with the Village’s operator, even figuring out what atmospheric background music would be played for guests long before the project was built.

Apart from being more efficient and saving money, these collaborations are surely important in another way too. No matter how captivating a night at the Knight’s Village might be, after all, White is similarly conscious that guests still need to be comfortable. As he jokingly puts it, few guests really want the genuine medieval experience of straw floors and glassless windows. In the same vein, the Bratwursthotel might be sausage crazy, but guests can ultimately still enjoy clean beds and warm showers.

Too niche to survive?

This last point is worth reflecting on. Until recently, mainstream hoteliers have generally avoided themed hotels, in part because they are concerned about sacrificing style and comfort. But as the Knight’s Village and Bratwursthotel elegantly prove, themed hospitality can be both relaxing and fun. No wonder, then, that even established brands are dispensing with the beige tones they have typically relied on. In Mexico City, for instance, Hilton has transformed one of its suites into a tribute to Barbie dolls. In New York, Marriott has decked out a room near Broadway in honour of the cult musical Beetlejuice. Between that and the continued growth of independent theme hotels, the field seems destined for continued success.

Or does it? If social media speaks to a world where fans can carve out a niche for their theme hotel fantasies, there are millions more people who remain unmoved. Inevitably, this drastically limits a property’s pool of potential guests. But for Böbel, that is not necessarily a problem. Vegetarianism may be rising fast across Europe – even in Germany, where nearly eight million people now forgo meat – yet, as Böbel stresses, his small B&B only needs to fill a few rooms each night, and, short of a total revolution in global eating habits, his carnivorous outpost should be fine.

The real difficulty, suggests White, is for more arcane pursuits. “Whether it fades away in the next five years, or whether there are 25 series of Squid Game, people who love it now will love it forever,” he says. “Whether there’s enough demand for a whole hotel for it – I’m not so sure.” Even here, White offers a solution. Just as traditional hotel designers revamp rooms and public spaces every few decades, there is no reason themed hospitality could not follow suit. A fair point – even if you do not get the impression that Claus Böbel and his Bratwursthotel will ever change for anyone.