ZURICH, Switzerland — The room prices at the four-star hotel will be listed on electronic signs strangely reminiscent of McDonald's menu boards. The color scheme will be a softer version of the fast-food chain's famous red and yellow. And guests will spend their nights on a Big Mac bed.
After decades of serving up Happy Meals around the globe, McDonald's Corp. is cooking up something new: the Golden Arch Hotels. In March, the company will open two hotels in Switzerland, aimed at business travelers during the week and families on the weekend. The hotels will offer 24-hour service and room service — amenities necessary to qualify for four-star status in Switzerland.
If the venture is successful, more hotels could follow in other parts of the world.
"Innovation is always on the menu at McDonald's," Jack Greenberg, McDonald's chairman and chief executive officer, said in a video shown at a press conference last week announcing the hotels. "Our passion for making customers smile extends very naturally to the hotel sector."
Back at McDonald's headquarters in Oak Brook, Ill., spokesman Jack Daly says that hotels are a concept that may never expand beyond Switzerland. "This is definitely a Swiss project," he says, attributing its genesis to Urs Hammer, a hotelier before he became chairman and CEO in 1980 of McDonald's Swiss Holding AG, a joint venture.
Yet the hotel test fits into a larger pattern of McDonald's experiments in Europe. In Germany, the company is selling McDonald's brand ketchup in grocery stores. In countries including Portugal and Austria, it is operating McCafe, a coffee-bar concept that will be introduced in the U.S. next year.
The efforts represent the determination of Greenberg, chief executive since 1998, to leverage the McDonald's brand beyond hamburgers and french fries. In the U.S., where sales growth has been sluggish for years, that campaign has included the purchase of some or all of a Mexican restaurant chain, a pizza chain and Boston Chicken Inc.
Still, it is a bit of a leap to hotels. Greenberg said at the press conference that he believes clients will be attracted by the things they have come to expect from McDonald's: quality, service, cleanliness and value. A room will cost between 169 Swiss francs and 189 francs ($94.99 and $106.24), with 25 francs added for a second person.
"At a McDonald's, you have the security of knowing what you get," asserts Golden Arch Hotels Sales Director Mirjam von Zweden.
A Web site touting the Golden Arch Hotels highlights fitness centers, the "Golden Arch Bar," "extra-sound-proof walls" and, of course, McDonald's food. The site (www.goldenarchhotel.com) describes the hotels as catering to families and businesspeople. It also mentions a playroom with games, raising the possibility that a hotel chain could win the allegiance of children the way that fast-food playgrounds have done in the U.S.
But will Swiss business travelers bite? "I've just come back from lunch at McDonald's. But I can't imagine staying at a McDonald's hotel on a business trip" because it doesn't seem to fit a banker's image, says Rene Weber, who spends a lot of time on the road as head of the food- and beverage-research team at Bank Vontobel, a major Swiss bank.
Others seem a little more open-minded. "I usually stay in five-stars. But if there isn't one around, why not stay at a McDonald's?" asks Erwin Brunner, an asset manager at Brunner Invest AG. However, he is cautious and adds: "I'd test it first."
Hammer, who spends three nights a week on the road, says he knows exactly what a traveling businessman wants in a hotel. On arrival, there will be automatic check in, says Beat Kuhn, manager at the 211-room hotel planned at the Zurich airport. (The other will be on a highway in Estavayer-le-Lac, in the French-speaking region.) A room badge will give guests access to all facilities. The room will be equipped with a Big Mac' bed that has three built-in motors for a variety of positions. It will also have Internet and computer facilities, with the TV screen serving as a computer screen. A cableless keyboard will be usable from any part of the room.
After meetings in one of the hotel's nine conference rooms, executives can look forward to a hamburger with a choice of wines or beers in the hotel's McDonald's restaurant. In the morning, executives can get a self checkout.
Still, analysts think it will be a while before executives develop a taste for the Golden Arch Hotels. Peter Oakes, a restaurant analyst with Merrill Lynch Global Securities, says he would be surprised if the Golden Arch Hotel expands to other countries. "Going forward, I don't think hotels are going to be in McDonald's vocabulary," he says.
Marc Vifian, hotel and restaurant analyst at Lombard Odier & Cie., estimates it will be two or three years before the company sees a profit from its hotels. He says the Zurich facility's location at the airport is an advantage, but overall, he believes businessmen think of McDonald's for eating—not sleeping—and "it will be a great challenge to make McDonald's hotels work."
That shouldn't pose a problem for the U.S. chain, which has always had the stomach for battle. When McDonald's opened its first restaurant in Switzerland in 1976, critics shook their heads at the thought of fast food in a fondue-loving country fond of leisurely eating. Today, McDonald's has 116 restaurants in Switzerland, with four more opening by the end of the year. It now has 70 million customers every year in a country with a population of 7.4 million.
Hammer says if one in 1,000 of those clients chooses a Golden Arch hotel, the project will be a success.