With two-thirds of Americans now supporting the legalization of cannabis, some hoteliers are recognizing the opportunity to deliver a unique hospitality offering that addresses education and experimentation.
by Lisa Gordon
The numbers don’t lie. According to two recent polls from Gallup and the Pew Research Center, about two-thirds of Americans currently support legalizing cannabis. Those numbers are steadily climbing; in fact, the percentage of supporters has doubled since 2000, Pew reports.
So far, recreational marijuana is legal in 10 states for adults over the age of 21, while medicinal cannabis is permitted in 33. Last December, President Donald Trump signed the Farm Bill into law, which legalizes hemp. With qualities roughly identical to marijuana, hemp is a key source of cannabidiol (CBD), a non-intoxicating compound that is widely touted for its therapeutic properties.
And while cannabis-related products become increasingly acceptable, the traditional stigma associated with being a “pothead” is slowly fading. Cannabis culture is becoming more attractive to ordinary people who are curious about the plant’s benefits, and they’re not just interested in smoking it. The makers of edibles, topical creams, and other cannabis-infused concoctions are doing a roaring business as customers start to learn and experiment with their products.
It’s no wonder the hospitality industry is examining cannabis and so-called “cannatourism” as a tantalizing business opportunity.
Leading the Way
One of the pioneers in this space is the Desert Hot Springs Inn in Desert Hot Springs, CA.
John Thatcher was working in public relations two years ago when the inn’s owner asked him to help develop a marketing plan for the 62-year-old boutique property, where occupancy rates were flagging.
With a population of about 30,000, Desert Hot Springs is located in the Coachella Valley region and has long been a popular destination for those drawn to its hot and cold mineral springs. It also is the first Southern California city to legalize large-scale medical marijuana cultivation.
While the Desert Hot Springs Inn had previously differentiated itself as a dog-friendly property – complete with a dog park, pet beds, and water bowls in every room – Thatcher realized he could tie the property’s new marketing plan to the region’s booming cannabis industry. With 12 grow operations in the area, not to mention dispensaries, he believed it was the ideal time to rebrand as a cannabis-friendly property.
“I asked City Council if I could rebrand and they said sure – so we did,” Thatcher said. “I redid the website, initiated some social media placement, and off we went. All of a sudden, the phone started ringing.”
Since officially becoming “420 friendly” in August 2017, the six-room Desert Hot Springs Inn has more than doubled its revenues.
“We’re one of the more expensive properties in the city. We’ve been able to get a high room rate and increase our occupancy considerably.”
Thatcher said he had a lot to learn about the cannabis industry when he took over as innkeeper, and some of those lessons have been surprising. First, he said cannabis users are an upscale, professional crowd – not the greasy-haired potheads of yore who were famous for their lazy ways and powerful snack cravings.
“The people who come here and want to consume cannabis on the premises are mostly baby boomers, not the basement stoner crowd,” he said. “They are 40 to 65 years old; you’d never think they are pot smokers. We also have a lot of medical users, people who are dealing with Parkinson’s disease, cancer, and a lot of serious medical issues.”
He said he was surprised to find that cannabis users aren’t necessarily smokers. In fact, he rarely smells pot when he walks around the property. Instead, guests are imbibing with edibles and tinctures, and some book the inn’s proprietary CBD oil massages. Unlike those who become drunk on alcohol, he added that cannabis users tend to be mellow and rarely cause problems.
Guests at the Desert Hot Springs Inn are permitted to use cannabis products anywhere on the privately owned property, although local rules prohibit Thatcher from selling cannabis products on-site.
Currently, he is working with tour companies to set up so-called “cannatours” of the Desert Hot Springs grow facilities and dispensaries. He said the bus tours will meet a growing demand to learn more about cannabis and its uses.
“A lot of people come here and they want to try medical marijuana, but they don’t know anything about it. It’s a virtual supermarket of products. Typically, I send them to one dispensary where they can be educated and talk about tinctures, dabs, flowers, etc., and they will try to match them with a strain of cannabis to suit their medical condition. People definitely want to be educated.”
After that, Thatcher said the tour would return to the hotel to allow guests to partake in their purchases before enjoying lunch and a daytime hike through the region’s beautiful desert landscape.
“I’m going to pioneer cannatourism in the Coachella Valley. So far, no one has been successful at that,” he said.
The cost of branding the Desert Hot Springs Inn as a cannabis-friendly property was negligible; in fact, for the price of a new website, things were up and running. Thatcher finds Instagram to be the best vehicle for spreading the word about the boutique property, although Airbnb also allows the cannabis-friendly designation.
On July 1, 2015, the state of Oregon legalized recreational cannabis. In Portland’s artsy Central East Side district, the Jupiter Hotel recognized an opportunity. Soon, the 148-room establishment – which has always been known “as the place where you can be yourself,” according to Community Manager Katie Watkins – rolled out its 420 Experience Package.
Today, it is the most popular package offered by the hotel.
“We started it because we felt our community is always looking for ways to express their real selves,” Watkins said. “We worked with some dispensaries around town to offer fun swag. Although we can’t offer cannabis in the package itself, [Portland dispensary] Jayne put together an ‘Everything But The Weed’ kit for us.”
The kit – which costs $50 in addition to the hotel’s accommodation rate – includes a Jayne vape pen, Jayne lighter, Jayne grinder, raw rolling papers, a Jupiter hotel T-shirt, discount coupons to local dispensaries, the latest issue of Oregon Leaf Magazine, and a munchie kit.
It’s important for hotels to partner with cannabis brands that fit with their property’s image, Watkins added. “We lean on our partners pretty heavily to tell us what the latest gadgets are.”
According to Oregon state law, it is illegal to consume cannabis in any public space, which includes the hotel.
“But I will say that what happens in your room is your business, and it’s your private space,” Watkins said. “But you can’t smoke or vape in the rooms at all.”
She added that it’s fun to pioneer cannatourism by offering Oregon’s first hotel cannabis package, which is purchased by an eclectic group of people from age 21 through to the older baby boomer crowd.
“We’re willing to be edgy. We don’t tell people how to enjoy themselves, so by offering all of these different ways they can do that, we’re known as being open and inclusive.”
Many of those options are offered up by Roxy, the Jupiter Hotel’s in-room, speech-enabled concierge. It’s been programmed to suggest and highlight all of the hotel’s community partners – from pizza places to joints of another nature entirely.
Recently, the hotel signed a deal with bus tour operator Potlandia. Guests are picked up at the hotel and taken to visit local dispensaries. Afterwards, they can sample the wares they’ve purchased in the back of the bus, which is separated from the driver by a clear Plexiglas panel to prevent any “cross-contamination.”
Watkins said people seem to enjoy the tours, which are educational in nature.
“It’s a really easy way for people to begin to experience the industry, especially people from a place where cannabis is still illegal. We offer all these pieces to finish your puzzle. You just have to show up and jump in,” Watkins said.
She thinks that once society “shakes the stigma loose,” cannabis will be as accepted as alcohol.
As more and more people edge toward tolerance, if not yet acceptance, it does appear to be merely a matter of time before consuming an edible treat at a local bud bar will be as common as ordering a beer at a restaurant.
Back in Desert Hot Springs, Thatcher agreed.
“I’ve seen an amazing shift of attitude in the last two years since I’ve been here,” he said. “You have to use the same mentality with cannabis as you do with alcohol. It’s legal, and the stigma is going away.”