Pint-size homes inspire new uses

Firms use them as marketing tool

Posted: November 5, 2017 at 1:10 a.m.

It's a philosophy. It's a lifestyle. And now, it's a marketing tool.

The tiny house, which captured the public's fascination in books like The Not So Big House by Sarah Susanka and TV series like Tiny House Nation is catching the attention of corporate America and entrepreneurs nationwide. Businesses are piggybacking off the trend, wooing customers and solidifying their brands.

Some 10,000 people in North America live in the humble homes to shrink both their housing costs and their carbon footprint, according to Ryan Mitchell, founder of The Tiny Life, a website devoted to tiny houses, and the organizer behind the annual Tiny House Conference. Furthermore, a building industry specializing in tiny homes has blossomed with at least 50 vendors in the United States boasting a range of architectural styles from cottage Americana to industrial chic. List prices generally start at $40,000 and climb past $100,000, depending on customer upgrades.

"It's still a market in its nascent stage," said Dan Dobrowolski, owner of Escape Traveler, a designer and builder of tiny homes in Rice Lake, Wis. "It has not by any means matured."

In December, the developer of Mountainside at Northstar in Lake Tahoe, Calif., unveiled Rendezvous Cabins, a set of three 400-square-foot homes to be used as perks for residents, said Ron Barnes, senior strategist for the developer, Mountainside Partners.

"I wanted to create an experiential community where people discover paths and get to know nature a little more," Barnes said. Mountainside homeowners can book them for free for any number of purposes, such as parties, sleepovers or lodging for visitors.

Two of the tiny cabins each feature a porch with Adirondack chairs, floor-to-ceiling windows, a leather couch, a kitchen, a bathroom and a king-size bed. The third building is set up more as a living room and meeting hub. To encourage people to disconnect from digital distractions, the units are not equipped with televisions or Wi-Fi, Barnes said.

Mountainside promotes the Rendezvous Cabins in its marketing strategy; prospective buyers of homes in the development can spend a night in a tiny house or model home to experience the neighborhood. The plan seems to be working: About 90 percent of the visitors become buyers after experiencing a weekend there.

"Everyone is having a great time staying in them," Barnes said.

Tiny houses are also used to help companies bolster their presence on social media sites like Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook.

This summer, Hormel Food Corp., the maker of Spam, sponsored a Tiny House of Sizzle Tour with an ornate unit painted in blue and yellow. The home on wheels made stops at festivals, malls and ballparks, where company representatives handed out samples as people took pictures inside and marveled at the Spam souvenirs.

"The tiny house idea is definitely on trend right now," said Brian Lillis, the Spam brand manager. "We are in the process of getting our social media numbers, but I am sure we tracked well."

Untuckit, a New York apparel retailer that specializes in untucked shirts, hauled a tiny house that resembled one of its stores throughout the East Coast in 2016, stopping at universities and in small towns. The aim was to expose more consumers to Untuckit and determine where to open locations, said the company's chief executive and co-founder, Chris Riccobono.

"If we sold shirts, that was a bonus," he said.

Driving the miniboutique around was like having a moving billboard, Riccobono said, and the payoff in social media presence justified the $40,000 investment. The campaign was so successful that the company is planning a second one for 2018.

Tiny homes are gaining traction as rental lodging, too. Across the United States, minihotels are springing up in RV parks and resorts and on private lots. Over the next five years, "we are going to see whole communities and tiny house hotels all over the place," said Jamie Mackay, the founder and chief executive of Wheelhaus, a maker of modular homes in Jackson, Wyo.

Mackay also runs the nearby Fireside Resort, which features 25 tiny homes that he designed. After guests asked repeatedly where they could buy one of the units, he started Wheelhaus to sell his houses.

The rental units offer a taste of what it's like to live in a tiny home without a full-time commitment. The website for the Tumbleweed Tiny House Co. in Colorado Springs tells buyers how they can make a profit on their investment and turn the houses into a hotel or bed-and-breakfast.

The Snake River Sporting Club, a 1,000-acre private club in Jackson, ordered a neighborhood of four one-bedroom tiny houses it calls Discovery Village. Lavished with Restoration Hardware furniture and accessories, the units can be booked for $225 to $525 per night.

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