Standing on the rooftop of his three-storey carpark in Melbourne’s CBD, James Fry was in a quandary. What to do with his much sought-after slab of real estate that oozed potential, but for years had been under-utilised? There had been a multimillion dollar offer from an international investor wanting to build a 40-storey apartment block. He had toyed with the idea of adding a three-level suite of offices with a rooftop bar. But none of the proposals really inspired much excitement in James.
“It was frustrating having this beautiful rooftop, with such a beautiful view, with no use at all,” says James. “I was standing out there with a couple of mates and we had a six pack and were just drinking some beers, chatting about some different uses and that’s when I came up with the idea of accommodation.”
And not just any accommodation. Notel (‘hotel it’s not’), which opened in September 2016, is essentially a glammed-up American-inspired trailer park, sans trash. Picture six gleaming 1970s-era Airstream trailers corralled on a rooftop festooned with red synthetic turf, set against a backdrop of vivid pink street art. It’s a titillating sight for the hipster crowd in a city renowned for its quirky laneways, artistic verve and urban surprises. James, who has owned the Flinders Lane carpark with his storage-king father Blair for a decade, spent AU$1.15 million creating Notel. His self-imposed brief was simple: the concept had to be different, luxurious and authentically ‘Melbourne’.
“I’ve always been accused of being a little bit different and I embrace that,” he says. “I don’t try to fit into the standard mould, I don’t try to be like everyone else; I think normal is boring.”
Ditching boring for bold, James needed a concept that would push the envelope. He considered a tram or bus conversion, but the ‘outdoor’ bathroom logistics were a turn-off. He wanted a solution where the bathroom could be seamlessly incorporated into the guest space, and eventually settled on Airstreams – trailers that are every bit as cool as they are functional.
“After a few beers and a little bit of courage, I decided that that’s what I was going to do and embarked on a journey to go and get them,” he says. Within two weeks James was on a plane to California. He checked in to AutoCamp Airstream hotel in Santa Barbara, and became sold on his idea. James engaged local dealer Townsend Travel Trailers, setting in motion a massive two-year, transcontinental venture to get a sextuplet of Airstreams sourced, restored and shipped to Melbourne to be rebirthed as city sleep pods.
“They travelled all over the west coast of America and the mid-west coast sourcing these caravans out of mum and dad backyards,” says James of the dealer that sourced six Airstreams that cost him AU$70,000 each. “They’d sort of been rotting away, just sitting there unutilised. They [Townsend Travel Trailers] drove as far as New Mexico to get one caravan; it was a 40-hour round trip for them to drive there and pick it up.”
It took hundreds of hours of restoration work, including three coats of polish, to restore the trailers to their former glory. They were then shipped to Geelong, Victoria, transported by road to Melbourne and winched onto the rooftop by a crane.
That’s when the fun really began: James enlisted a team of architects, engineers, designers, builders and other tradespeople to refit the trailers’ interiors and refurbish the rooftop space, all while satisfying strict planning, construction and safety laws in the process.
“Every day there was a new struggle, a new hurdle to get over… but it was exciting from start to finish,” he says.
“The feedback was so overwhelmingly positive, so overwhelmingly ‘wow’ that it was just a constant motivator to get me up in the morning and to keep going and to push everyone to get this project finished and perfect. I couldn’t be happier or prouder of the way we’ve not just done something different but done something different really well.”
The trailers are modern, bright and sleek, with queen-size beds and full-size bathrooms (the chassis was cut out to enable a standard-height shower to fit over a sunken floor) while one trailer (Airstream with Benefits) even has an outdoor spa overlooking the city lights. Notel has partnered with a number of local suppliers and designers to provide boutique furnishings and fittings, while the wall art is by street artist Ash Keating, who used pressurised paint in a fire hydrant – a signature of his – to create the graffiti mural.
Guests are given an experience that “pushes their buttons and their senses of what is normal”, says James. It starts when they arrive, entering via a speakeasy door in a cafe that funnels them through a stairwell to the rooftop.
The hidden entry is part of James’s trenchant desire to create something unique that defies the usual cookie-cutter hotel brand.
“I kept asking myself the question: what is normal, what would be expected, what is traditional? And at every chance, let’s try and do the exact opposite,” he says. “I wanted to create two things;
one is a unique experience but the other one is a really Melbourne, local experience. I’m a Melbourne boy, I love Melbourne, everywhere I travel when I come back home I just think how lucky we are to have such a great city – our coffee culture, our street art, our laneways. That’s what I really wanted to give, that local Melbourne experience.”
It’s one that guests, undeterred by the still-operational car park below, have embraced, with bookings pouring in even before Notel’s final design was revealed. Weekend reservations for the spa trailer are booked out months in advance.
“The bookings just went completely gangbusters and they’re still going gangbusters every day. It’s so satisfying for all the hard work to be rewarded and to see these rooms booked out day after day after day. It’s amazing.”