“Walls are hot right now, but I was into them long before Trump made it cool,” Banksy

You may have heard this week, British graffiti artist Banksy – famous for never revealing his identity – has opened a hotel… in Bethlehem.

The Walled Off Hotel is nestled against the controversial barrier wall separating Israel from the Palestinian territories. According to The Guardian, the owner says it has “the worst view of any hotel in the world”, and its 10 rooms get just 25 minutes of direct sunlight a day.

However this unique destination offers something a little more than your standard holiday lodgings. This destination is a hotel, museum, protest and gallery all in one, packed with the artworks and angry brilliance of its owner, Banksy.

From the disconcertingly lavish presidential suite where water splashes from a bullet-strafed water tank into the hot tub, to the bunk-beds in the budget room scavenged from an abandoned army barracks, the hotel is playful and strongly political. All the rooms look out onto the concrete slabs of the wall, and some have views over it to pill boxes and an Israeli settlement on the hillside beyond.

The hotel opens to guests on March 20, with bookings via the website. The team hope Israelis, who rarely see the barrier wall up close or visit Palestinian towns, will be among the guests, even though visiting means breaking the law. Israelis are banned from visiting Bethlehem and its famous sites. And although Banksy has chosen a site officially under Israeli military control – meaning it is legal for Israelis to stay there – all the roads to reach it involve an illegal journey through Palestinian-controlled territory.

The hotel, a former pottery workshop, has a dystopian colonial theme, a nod to Britain’s role in the region’s history, the reception and tea-room a disconcerting take on a gentlemen’s club where a self-playing piano provides an eerie soundtrack. The fire flickering in the grate glows under a pile of concrete rubble, like a blaze at a bomb site, a classical bust in a niche is wreathed in clouds of gas snaking out of a tear gas canister, and in traditional seascapes the beaches are littered with life-jackets discarded by refugees.

A small museum explains the wall, the controls on movement, and the troubled history of the region, curated together with Essex University professor Gavin Grindon. “If you are not completely baffled then you don’t understand,” the presenter of a video history signs off.

tcp-banksy-walled-of-hotel__tcp_largeAlso in the building, part of a plan to promote dialogue, is a gallery showing the work of Palestinian artists. It is the first in Bethlehem, says curator Housni Alkateeb Shehada, and a way for artists, who often find it hard to travel, to reach a wider audience.

This isn’t the first time Banksy has used a physical space to make his opinions heard. In fact, previously he’s even ventured into ‘retail’. Back in 2008 we visited Banksy’s ‘The Village Pet Store and Charcoal Grill’ in New York, a small store big enough to hold around 20 people, featuring animatronic animals and pointedly comic overtone, making a statement about the exploitation of animals.

“New Yorkers don’t care about art, they care about pets,” said Banksy, “So I’m exhibiting them instead.”

The reasoning behind today’s column is to get retailers thinking about what statement they want to make. Owning a physical retail store, a website, or any of the alternative brand touchpoints available to your customer today is a chance to truly make your brand voice heard; so what is it that you want to say?

Today we brought you the artist Banksy who utilises a physical space in a very powerful, impactful and political way. The result? You simply can’t look away. Banksy captivates audiences across the world, because he’s saying things that others are not and is challenging the status quo. There is no doubt that Banksy is an extreme example in this case, however exploring the extremes allows us to open up our mind to the potential.

The retail experience doesn’t have to be inspired by other retail experiences, or follow a particular rule. Some of the best retail experiences in the world are designed around alternative industries, experiences or lifestyles.

SneakerboyTake Sneakerboy in Sydney and Melbourne. Famous for the being ‘the store with no stock’, Sneakerboy’s stores are designed around public social spaces like bus stops and train stations to encourage that kind of human behaviour in stores. Consequently they have loyal customers just ‘hanging out’ in store, connecting with the brand, building relationships with the sales associates, who are brand ambassadors and now have their own social media followings, and treating the store like their own.

While there are certainly elements of store design and visual merchandising that are best practice and see significant ROI, it’s also important to look outside of the retail landscape when designing your retail ecosystem. Consider your brand, message and company ethos – what are the messages you as a brand value the most, and how will you communicate this in a way that your customer can align themselves with? Explore human behaviour and the way humans act in certain social and physical environments, then consider the way you want them to act in your store environment, and at every touch point on the customer journey.

Finally, take a leaf out of Banksy’s book. Challenge the status quo, knock down preconceived barriers of what a retail ecosystem should be, and offer your customers a unique experience they will never forget.

If you’re seeking to take the first step in this process, click here to find out more about our strategy workshops.

First published on Inside Retail, 9th March 2017.