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Truth and lodging in Amsterdam

December 27, 2009 |  2:00 pm

Author Mark Haskell Smith went to the Cannabis Cup in Amsterdam to learn more about competitive marijuana growing, the subject of his next novel, "Baked"; he writes about his trip in today's book pages. He doesn't mention where he stayed.

If he'd wanted, he could have checked into the worst hotel in the world. Well, it might not be the absolute worst, but that's how it's billed itself to tourists looking for a hostelry with a sense of humor. The Hans Brinker Budget Hotel has lauded its lack of amenities, its questionable cleanliness and more lowlights in ads for more than a decade. They're all commemorated in "The Worst Hotel In the World," a picture-heavy book that resembles an oversize hotel-room Bible.

The book is mostly a chronological showcase of the ad campaigns, led by Erik Kessels and his company, KesselsKramer. They've worked, if you judge by the percentage of the hotel's 513 beds that are occupied these days. And the comments in the guestbook also would indicate the ads are working; they fall along the lines of "It's not as bad as I thought it would be."

"All advertising is dishonest," says Rob Penris, the hotel's manager. "We overdo it. It's not as bad as we make out. They [the guests] think it is so bad they feel they have to go there. So even our ads are dishonest."

The book explains that the ads began saying what the hotel did have -- keys, doors, beds -- with bright, simplistic designs by Anthony Burrill (above left). They were followed by those bragging about outdated fabulous luxuries, noting, in the small print, that none were available. Later, the "unique design" series (above right) satirized high-end-design hotels with silhouettes of broken forks, mugs, chairs and a shower drain with a curled hair.

The ad agency was never afraid of getting gross. One campaign, inspired by a news report that we're becoming more susceptible to illness because of overly clean environments, featured images of pathogens and the words "improve your immune system." In another, playing off a Burrill poster with dog poo in the hotel's doorway, tiny flags were printed up bearing the words, "Now even more of this at our main entrance" with the hotel's information -- and planted regularly in fresh dog feces around the city by hotel staff. (Amsterdam, it turns out, has many dogs that use the sidewalks as toilets).

Although this generated lots of publicity, the gross-out tactic has sometimes gone wrong. One series of advertisements likened the conditions of the hotel to the places its residents had left behind -- mattresses on the floor, empty rooms, dirty sheets. But, the book says, MTV declined to air a TV ad that depicted a hungover girl stumbling through a messy bedroom and stepping on a used condom. The ad, the book promises, is on the DVD in the back of the book.

Except there is no DVD. Because if the hotel's idea of an amenity is a piece of paper with the word "shampoo," the book shouldn't have any extras.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Images: Advertising by the KesselsKramer agency