When I saw the familiar bell-shaped logo on the side of the desert highway, I pulled in. Although I hadn’t eaten in 118 miles, this Taco Bell location was no pitstop on a road trip—it was my destination. My stay at The Bell, the fast food chain’s pop-up hotel and resort, was about to begin.
An over-the-top play on its limited-time offerings, the fast-food chain transformed the 70-room V Palm Springs hotel in California into a Taco Bell-themed resort for five days in August. Starting at $169 per night, guests got to live in a world layered with the sights, smells, and tastes of The Bell, from a salon with nail art inspired by the “Live Más” slogan to a pool with hot sauce-shaped floats and a room service menu offering build-your-own breakfast tacos.
It’s not every night that you get to play and sleep inside an ad, er, immersive marketing experience. And even though I usually lean more fries than chips and guac (yes I’ve tried the Nacho Fries, please don’t @ me, T-Bell diehards), I’ll admit to getting a bit giddy when the front desk handed me my room keycard designed to look like one of Taco Bell’s trademark hot sauce packets.
Why a Taco Bell Hotel, Exactly?
When Wharton marketing professor Americus Reed II first heard about Taco Bell’s hotel plan, he “thought they were kidding. Sometimes companies will make an announcement to grab attention that’s actually a one-day marketing stunt, like on April Fools’.“
Jennifer Arnoldt, Taco Bell’s senior director of retail engagement and experience, isn’t a stranger to the skepticism.
“A lot of people were asking why we were doing this hotel,” she said, sitting across from me in a hotel room sauced up with branded bathrobes, toiletries, blankets, notepads, pillows, and a no-charge minibar stocked with Mountain Dew and and tortilla chips. “But it’s like, of course we would do the hotel. Because someone wants the ultimate Taco Bell experience, the ultimate vacation, food they can’t get anywhere else, merchandise they can’t get anywhere else.”
COURTESY OF TACO BELL
A whole lot of someones, actually. The Bell sold out less than two minutes after reservations went live in June to fans from 21 different states. When asked about The Bell’s ROI, Arnoldt pointed to this immediate fan interest as a sign that the endeavor was already a success.
“The goal is not necessarily an exercise to make more money in terms of selling more stuff at Taco Bell,” said Wharton’s Reed, although bathing suits from the gift shop cost as much as a night at the hotel. “This is a brand elevation exercise meant to prepare people to think of Taco Bell as a cool brand that is ready to step out of its comfort zone and do new things to try to connect with and engage consumers.”
Every inch of The Bell screamed Instagram backdrop, turning guests into brand ambassadors as they watched performances by synchronized swimmers (who were wearing bathing suits designed to look like hot sauce packets) and took morning yoga classes (on hot-sauce mats, natch). A drone hovered overhead, taking photos.
Taco Bell isn’t new to creating immersive, social media-friendly brand experiences. The company turned a restaurant into an AirBNB—complete with a taco butler—in 2016 and permanently converted its Las Vegas Cantina into a wedding venue in 2017.
“Brands are looking to live in different spaces,” Reed said, noting Capital One’s decision to open cafes in its banks to help customers imagine new reasons to spend time at a branch. “It’s hard to bring messages to them in traditional ways, so you have to come up with new, interesting, cool, creative ways to grab their attention. [Opening a hotel] is a gutsy example of that.”
Although brands including Equinox, Restoration Hardware, and West Elm are opening hotels of their own, and Hasbro briefly opened a Trivial Pursuit-themed luxury cottage in Russia last spring, their branding-prowess seems mild compared to The Bell’s far saucier immersion experience.
“If the brand’s going to do something like this, it has to sociologically unpack what people do at Taco Bell restaurants that delivers the magic, if you will, and try to capture that as much as you can in the hotel setting,” Reed said.
Hot Sauce and Glitter
I stayed at The Bell during the hotel’s preview, when it was filled with camera-ready media types, influencers, and super fans. I arrived looking more road trip weary than camera-ready so I headed to the salon. A manicurist painted tiny tacos on my nails and a hairstylist twisted my mane into a do called the “Baja Blast,” named after the chain’s exclusive Mountain Dew drink. I left sporting a mushroom cloud bun decorated with flowers fashioned from hot sauce packets and dusted with aquamarine glitter reminiscent of the beverage’s radioactive glow.
COURTESY OF TACO BELL
Later, in the pool, a plume of glitter showered the water when I whipped my head around in response to an “Oh my god, it’s Drake” from the woman next to me.
No. Not that Drake.
The Bell’s Drake was, fittingly, Drake Bell, a musician and the former child star of the Nickelodeon show, Drake & Josh.
But the real stars of the hotel were the social media influencers like makeup maven Jeffree Star, who has more than 15 million YouTube subscribers, and a large order of mid-tier and micro-influencers whose own brands were all Taco Bell related.
Singer/songwriter Tyler Conroy’s “used to drive up to Taco Bell and parody songs to sing my order at the drive thru,” he said. His 2016 video ordering a double crunch wrap to ‘Part of Your World’, prompting the worker to sing back, has been viewed 60k times on YouTube.
Though Conroy now lives in New York City and walks into Taco Bell to place his order, his devotion to the brand remains. His own visit to the salon left him with a bell-shaped fade.
Taco Bell also invited Tarun Sinha, who pairs wine with Taco Bell menu items on his @tacobellsommelier Instagram account.
Sinha grew up eating Taco Bell with his parents, who emigrated from India to the U.S. “To an immigrant family that just came to America with a limited income, and they want vegetarian food, Taco Bell is like the only option,” said Sinha.
His story is the kind of “magic” Reed had mentioned. “When people go to the restaurant, whether they’re taking a study break during finals or hanging out late-night with friends, the brand becomes a part of the story of their lives,” he said.
So, How Was the Food?
Before the 114 degree heat could melt my Baja Blast with Watermelon Popsicle check-in drink, I found out The Bell’s only restaurant—the poolside Baja Bar—didn’t serve any Taco Bell menu items.
Sinha and his wife, who were at The Bell on a mini-honeymoon, “had the fish tacos and paired it with a Pinot Grigio and it was exquisite.”
More familiar Taco Bell items were served during random intervals of poolside food drops. But if you weren’t in earshot of the bell that was used to signal another another pass-around of nacho fries or crunch wraps, you missed out—which was especially disappointing for exclusive items in testing.
While wandering from the salon to the pool to the gift shop to the Freeze Lounge and back again, I completely forgot about dinner. It was 9 p.m. and the restaurant was closed. I was starving, and considering Taco Bell’s devotion to marketing itself as a late-night food option, my Diablo-level hunger left me hangry.
But, luckily for me and several other Crunch Wrap Supreme- and Fritos Burrito-loving hotel guests, we weren’t far from a real Taco Bell—which we ordered from on Postmates. Now that’s an immersion experience.
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