The Nordic island of Iceland has been known to create some headline coverage in recent years – positive and negative. Starting with the havoc created in 2008 following the burst of its debt bubble, and then in 2010 when the volcanic eruptions sent the travel industry into chaos, the country has made an impressive U-turn into becoming one of the hottest destinations to visit for the experiential traveller.
Entrepreneur Sigurlaug Sverrisdóttir knew that, after living in Switzerland since 2009 organising wellness retreats, coming back to her homeland in 2011 was ideal timing to become one of the first-movers to create a boutique hotel in Iceland. When Sverrisdóttir discovered an abandoned building, previously used as staff quarters for a geothermal power plant, close to UNESCO listed national park Thingvellir, she joined forces with Santa Monica-based Icelandic designer duo Minarc to integrate an innovative design with her vision of embracing adventure and wellness.
Following a two-year renovation, ION Luxury Adventure Hotel opened in 2013 and within the same year, was a nominee in the European Design Awards and a winner of the Boutique Hotel Awards.
The boutique/design hotel trend is still relatively new to Iceland. Have there been any upsides or downsides to being one of the pioneers to break into the sector?
Certainly there are pros and cons when being the first to introduce and build something new. The upsides would surely be the incredible media awareness we have received since opening. This has helped tremendously to increase bookings and attract high-end travellers to visit Iceland. The challenge previously was to find proper hotel accommodation outside of Reykjavík. ION was one of the first, and now there are more projects being developed in the pipeline.
The downside however is the on-the-ground staff training – given that the luxury travel sector is so new in Iceland, the education and knowledge of luxury hospitality is limited. We have solved this by hiring staff with experience from abroad in order to build our high standards. Therefore you can say that we are rapidly building and strengthening the quality of hospitality in Iceland.
Forbes has previously ranked Iceland as one of the healthiest countries in the world. What makes the wellness concept in Iceland so unique and how have you applied this at ION?
I’m convinced that this is due to the amazingly fresh water you find everywhere in Iceland. ION is located next to a dormant volcano, Mt. Hengill, at the ridge where the Nam and Eurasian plateau is drifting apart. This creates amazing source energy in the area, hence the name ION. The hotel is also located in a water-protected area, next to a green energy geothermal power station, which not only supplies water to Reykjavík, but the hot steam also produces electricity, making the cycle sustainable.
The hot water from the power station is pumped directly into the hot tub of ION´s spa where guests can literally soak, without adding any chlorine or other chemicals. The system is like a stream that runs through the hot tub allowing us to keep it unspoiled for our guests who can enjoy the rich minerals that the water contains. In order to be fully sustainable and to protect the environment, the water is cleansed before it goes back into the ground by running it through three different filters, allowing us to reuse the water in years to come.
The Icelandic Tourist Board predicts the country will receive approximately one million visitors by 2020. What type of guests are coming to Ion and what are their reasons for visiting Iceland?
The main reasons for travellers coming to Iceland is to fully experience and connect with the Icelandic outdoor life. To sip champagne on a glacier, hike on a volcano, fly fish in lake Thingvellir, soak it up in a hot spring, and most importantly, catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights – these are experiences where you can find all within close proximity to ION. I would say this is an attractive proposition for the affluent traveller who appreciates design and is eager to let out their adventurous streak.