A few days before the first McDonald's hotel in the world was due to open in Zurich this month, staff came across a bewildered Texan couple and their son standing in the brand new foyer. While the family were looking for a hotel in the area, the 11-year-old boy had seen a yellow neon "h" in the night sky and had begged his parents to take him to "the McDonald's hotel".
The disbelieving couple, unable to convince their son that such a place did not exist, drove over to the building to let him see for himself. There they met the chief executive officer of McDonald's, who offered them a free room for the night, making the boy the hotel's first ever customer.
It's a tale to make any McDonald's executive weep, and one that - with almost religious connotations - reflects the global strength of the brand. It's also a good tale with which to market the corporation's latest venture - selling hotel rooms to business people and families on the back of its burgers.
Some would say it was only a matter of time before the corporation launched a hotel arm, yet the Golden Arch hotel is not an idea from US head office but a Swiss project, conceived by chairman and chief executive officer of McDonald's Switzerland, Urs Hammer (left).
Opening a hotel has been a lifetime's ambition for the 54-year-old. Having grown up in the hotel industry - his father was the dean of Zurich's hotel school - he studied hotel management in Lausanne and worked for several international hotel chains in Europe and South-east Asia before setting up the McDonald's chain in Switzerland in 1976. He became a venture partner with the company in 1980 and went on to open a further 115 restaurants in the country.
The Zurich McDonald's hotel launch is something of a prototype, with eyes across the Atlantic doubtless watching to see if the experiment can work. It has taken four years and an investment of Sfr52m (£21.6m) to build the two sites. The first, near Zurich airport, began business on 18 March, and the second, the Hotel Lully, on highway A1 in Canton Frieberg, will open on 5 April. A third hotel is planned near the Geneva-Cointrin airport.
Both four-star hotels (accreditation from the Swiss Hotel Association is not yet official) are expected to attract business travellers during the week with their feng shui-designed rooms, high-speed Internet connection through a multimedia "infotainment" system and $4,000 Bico "sit 'n' sleep" beds. Other facilities include self check-in, meeting rooms, a gym, a public bar and Aroma coffee shop, easy-to-use luggage cart and, of course, a McDonald's restaurant.
A policy of transparent prices - posted up on a familiar electronic menu board - means room rates are fixed at Sfr189 (£78.75) for single occupancy, with Sfr25 (£10.40) for an additional person. A reduced price of Sfr174 (£72.50) is offered if booked over the Internet. Families checking in at weekends are given a rate of Sfr174 for two adults and two children.
"I have used my heritage, my past hotel experiences and influences from the Far East to build this hotel," says Hammer. "I am the best hotel guest. I travel a lot and know all the things that irritate me, be it the shower curtain that sticks to my belly or the sloping beds. For me, the bed is the burger in the bun. Our mattresses have a two-year expiry date. No other hotel in the world has that."
German designer Corinna Kretschmar created the hotel interiors, using softly curving walls to reflect Hammer's feng shui interests. Maple, glass, steel and stone are used throughout, from the foyer to the meeting rooms to the waterfall cascade in the bar. The bedrooms, costing Sfr180,000 (£75,000) each, also have softly curved red walls with maple parquet floors, plus a freestanding circular glass shower. A maple "M" headboard sits behind the beds and has a remote controlled motor to allow any combination of sitting or lying positions.
With the feng shui, technology and comfy beds, the room is a bargain for Switzerland at less than £80 a night. But will business people really accept fast food for their evening meal and no room service beyond a vending machine in the hall?
Hammer accepts that the target business traveller and the McDonald's burger-eater are not the same customer, yet there are no plans to introduce an alternative to the Happy Meal during the day or in the evenings. The only concession to the traveller unable to face an Egg McMuffin in the morning is the Swiss continental breakfast served in an upstairs dining room. The hotel also offers outside catering for business meetings and conferences.
"I don't think food is a problem for us," says Hammer. "Quite frankly, business people who are here the whole day want to see something else at the end of the day. The majority of business travellers don't tend to eat in their hotel anyway."
Beat Kuhn, the hotel manager at Zurich (left), also points out that McDonald's skill is not in the business of providing alternative catering, but in creating a consistent, high-quality product, be it food or hotel room. "What counts for us is quality, service, cleanliness and value - that's our philosophy," he says. "That's what we offer in our restaurant and that's what we are doing in the hotel."
Only time will tell whether business people will be tempted by one of the world's most famous and consistent brands, but based on the company's calculations, the future for the hotels looks secure. If one person per thousand of the 80 million customers from McDonald's in Switzerland spends one night a year in one of the two Golden Arch hotels, they will be fully booked all year.
"The main reason for the launch is the incredible potential that lies in the McDonald's brand." says Hammer. "The interest we received from other countries wanting to set up their own franchises, even before the hotel was finished, showed me that people believe McDonald's can extend their hospitality.
"It would be one thing if we started selling flowers, but our core competency is in the restaurant business and that is good for hotels too."
The Golden Arch Hotel project is not the first innovation to come from McDonald's Swiss team. Since the chain opened its first restaurant there in 1976, the US head office has been happy to let the Swiss team roll out new ideas under the McDonald's flag.
1992: The McTrain was a restaurant car on Swiss Intercity services that broke the railway catering monopoly. (ceased, spring 2000).
1996: The McPlane, the result of a venture between McDonald's, Swiss travel agency Hotelplan and the Swiss regional airline Crossair, was a 162-seat charter plane that employed special McDonald's hostesses to aid the regular cabin crew. It lasted five years and attracted 60,000 passengers (ceased, spring 2000).
1997: Mobile restaurants, carried by juggernaut lorries, still exist in Switzerland, travelling to various sports events.
GOLDEN ARCH HOTEL ZURICH AIRPORT
Tel: 00 41 1 828 8686
Opened: 19 March 2001
Projected occupancy for first 12 months: 85%
Hotel manager: Beat Kuhn
GOLDEN ARCH HOTEL LULLY
Tel: 00 41 26 664 8686
Opens: 5 March 2001
Projected occupancy for first 12 months: 85%
Hotel manager: Michael Markides
The lounge bar and lobby at the Zurich Airport hotel
Source: Caterer & Hotelkeeper magazine, 29 March - 4 April 2001