Talking Taco Bell’s hotel stunt with its director of retail engagement

In a social media age, retailers increasingly need to go far outside the box to attract needed attention. But just how far outside the box can a major retailer go and still stay within its own wheelhouse? It’s one thing for a retailer to open a pop-up store, but something else entirely to open a pop-up hotel.

In August, fast-food giant Taco Bell raised eyebrows across the retail industry when it briefly converted a 70-room California resort into a Taco Bellbranded hotel. The popular V Hotel, temporarily rebranded and renamed “The Bell” for five nights in August, sold out in two minutes. Room rates ranged from $169 for a standard king to $299 for a poolside room with two queen beds. Guests were treated to everything from free food and beverage to free yoga lessons to free Taco Bell-branded bathrobes in their rooms.

But what was Taco Bell trying to accomplish? How successful was the public relations venture? And will Taco Bell do it again? For answers to these questions and more, STORES freelance writer Bruce Horovitz interviewed Taco Bell’s senior director of retail engagement and experience Jennifer Arnoldt.

Was The Bell a big publicity stunt?

When you think about Taco Bell, we’re all about the social nature of the brand. We found a way to bring fans together and provide experiences for them they couldn’t get anywhere else. The idea of a Taco Bell hotel made perfect sense to us. It was an opportunity for us to give our fans the ultimate Taco Bell experience.

You’re a fast-food chain, not a hotel chain — why open a hotel?

When you look at what we do as a brand, you realize we’re already in the hospitality business. We have 7,000 restaurants. We decided to use the hotel opportunity to really engage with our fans. If you look at what our fans posted, you can see we took this very, very seriously.

What made it special?

We looked at every single thing. We asked ourselves: What can we do to give our fans the unexpected? The minute you checked in, we handed you a Taco Bell beverage (Baja Blast) and a room key card that was designed to look like a soft packet of Taco Bell taco sauce. When guests walked into their rooms, the design was immersive. The bathrobes (which guests could keep) and even the phone display had a Taco Bell design.

We looked at every touchpoint in the hotel and at all of the experiences. I know that when I go on vacation all I care about is what I’m eating and where I’ll shop. We made sure the food and the merchandise was stuff you couldn’t get anywhere else.

As a retailer, what was your ultimate goal?

To provide something to our fans that they never dreamed of — and I think we accomplished that. We had salons where women got Taco Bell icons on their nails. Men and women could get icons shaved into their heads. There were Aqua Lily synchronized swimmers in the pool and a training camp for synchronized swimmers in the main pool. Every morning there was hot yoga classes. We curated an amazing experience for our fans.

What did hotel guests know in advance?

Not much. Even then, the hotel sold out in two minutes. I give fans credit because they didn’t know what they were going to experience. They didn’t know about all the complimentary food. They didn’t know about the various artists performing. We are a value brand and we gave our fans things they didn’t even know they wanted.

How long was this event in the planning stage?

We spent two years planning it. We worked with public relations firm Edelman PR and United Entertainment Group. Both were involved in it day-today. We met multiple times per week and worked together on the experiences. We all worked with the chefs and retailers and licensees there.

What surprised you the most?

The thing we didn’t anticipate was how the fans arrived so fully embracing the brand. They came dressed in homemade Taco Bell merchandise. Some came dressed in vintage Taco Bell uniforms. And they bought all kinds of Taco Bell merchandise from the store. They bought Taco Bell pool floats. Some guests colored their hair the color of Mountain Dew Baja Blast.

Keep in mind, the guests got all of this on their own. We didn’t pick the fans who stayed at The Bell. They picked us.

Did any special guests attend?

There were some honeymooners. There were some people having their anniversary. And the last night, someone got engaged at the hotel.

What did Taco Bell spend on this PR effort?

We won’t say, but it was worth every penny. We received the highest number of media impressions — double the media coverage — compared with our most successful product launch of all time, which was our Nacho Fries announcement. More than 5,000 stories were written about The Bell hotel.

Was this about shooting — and posting — video and images?

We captured content and took pictures, but once we started really talking to our fans, we decided to interview some in-depth because their stories were so fantastic. One couple had canceled plans to celebrate their fifth anniversary in Prague and, instead, celebrated at our hotel.

Why Palm Springs?

We wanted to have a place that had predictable weather. We wanted to be close to airports that our fans could fly into and out of. And we wanted to have a great backdrop for the brand.

How did you staff the hotel?

We used the hotel’s staff but also brought in additional staff and trained everyone. Every person who worked at the hotel was trained about the Taco Bell brand, in terms of who we are and what our approach is to hospitality.

Was Taco Bell using the hotel as a sort of test kitchen?

We had lots of food that we were trying with guests. Some of the most popular food included the Toasted Cheddar Club and the Candied Jalapeño Popcorn Chicken.

What about conventional Taco Bell grub — was that served, too?

You can’t go to a Taco Bell hotel and not have our classic taco and burrito.

What is your best tip to other retailers thinking of doing something like this?

My biggest advice: Focus on the fan. Focus on giving them an experience they can’t get anywhere else and make that your North Star. Our fans were at the core of every decision we made.

Does Taco Bell plan to do this — or something like it — again?

Taco Bell is known for limited-timeonly products and limited-time-only experiences. You’ll just have to wait and see.

Is this kind of event the future of PR for retailers?

Fans want to be a part of your brand in unexpected ways. If you can engage them in ways they can’t get anywhere else, you’re doing the right thing. Fans want a one-onone relationship with our brand, beyond the food.

Bruce Horovitz, a freelance writer, is a former USA Today marketing reporter and Los Angeles Times marketing columnist.