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James Fry: Making room for Melbourne’s first rooftop caravansary

Notel James Fry

Owner of Notel

"More than the caravans, Notel is about celebrating Melbourne."

It’s a brisk late summer’s evening. The breeze that meanders through Flinders Lane down below has a bite to it but the car park rooftop on which we’re standing is protected from the elements by the surrounding high-rises.

James Fry, the freewheeling owner of the car park, gazes up at the hotel towering above us and remarks, “We see guests looking down and wondering why the hell they’re staying in a five-star hotel. But you have to have a sense of fun if you want to stay here.”

“Here” is Notel, Melbourne’s (and quite possible the world’s) first luxury rooftop accommodation where guests retire for the night in one of six gleaming 1970s-era Airstreams.

“At first I thought of maybe a tent or a tram or a bus,” James says. “Then I saw the caravans during a trip to the U.S. and fell in love. They’re so sexy! Everyone who sees it looks twice.” And when the sextuplet was finally in his possession, he turned up the glamour dial.

Each trailer is outfitted with boutique furnishings and fittings, including an iPad, a minibar and an en-suite where the chassis used to be. The only guests who need to brave Melbourne’s weather are those who book into the sole Airstream With Benefits for its outdoor Jacuzzi.

Notel, which launched in September 2016, is an authentic Melbourne experience from beginning to end. That beginning starts with guests receiving a virtual key (if you don’t have a smart phone, you’ll be told to book into a five-star hotel) and a cryptic welcome message that must be deciphered to access the pink spattered stairwell to the rooftop.

“Every hotel has the same set up,” James points out. “A lobby, a reception, a lift. So I decided, let’s remove those bloody things!”

And in doing so, he has made room for imagination, creativity and a personal salute to a city he loves.


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“I’m a parking valet. I own two car parks in the CBD and two in Port Melbourne. Every morning I come to work and park customers’ cars. I still really enjoy it. I get a little bit of each person for about a minute a day and over time, I get to know them quite well. I park a car quite well too – 4km/hr in reverse.

But you get a bit stale doing the same thing for so long and I was really ready for a new project. The timing was right and the space was here. I didn’t want to compete though. What we do in Melbourne, we do really well so why would I want to be just another rooftop bar or cinema and have to put a twist on it? I wanted to do something that no one had done before, not just in Melbourne, but in the world.”

“Ash Keating did our feature wall. He’s a well-known Melbourne street artist who uses a pressurised fire hydrant to paint. He came in, blasted the paint up there and set the tone for the rest of his work here. A branding company was influential in setting the colour scheme and our interior designer then used that colour palette.

The red turf grass came about because almost everyone who came up here during the building process would say, “Aw James, how good would this look with green grass?” I’m never going to choose green if that’s what everyone wants so I did the opposite. Red is the opposite to green on the colour spectrum.

A friend who does landscape gardening said I needed a couple of big trees to break up the space. I love cactus so I bought as many as I could to create a desert feel and keep to the American theme.”


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“I didn’t call any media on the morning the caravans went up because I wanted the publicity to be self-generating. In my mind, the whole of Melbourne was going to come out during their lunch break and watch these caravans being lifted onto the rooftop. I imagined people calling their friends to come over for a look and having it go semi-viral on social media. But the crane driver was too good! The first caravan went up at half past ten and they were done at a quarter to twelve. No one except the people around here saw a thing.”

“I was up at five on the morning of our launch and I was still working when guests started arriving at half past seven. When I finally had to stop, I sat alone in one of the caravans and had a quiet beer. I was done working. I just wanted to stop and enjoy the moment. It was really special. And it’s been amazing ever since.

The first month was a lot of fun because people were speculating and taking photos. There was talk that we were a food truck park. Then a report claimed we were a homeless accommodation. Another said we were a backpackers' lodging. It was time we set the record straight so my PR guru called the media. From there on, it was a whirlwind of PR activity. Getting the attention was very humbling."


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"We give guests an iPad and a Notel guide to what’s current and hot in Melbourne. That list is updated regularly and there are no kickbacks for us. I just want my guests to go somewhere amazing. I love Melbourne and I think it’s the best city in the world. If you’re a local who rarely comes into the city or if you’re from interstate, don’t just eat takeaway in your caravan. Go out and see our street art and coffee culture and laneways. Melbourne has some of the best restaurants and you don’t even have to leave Flinders Lane to go to them."
"More than the caravans, Notel is about celebrating Melbourne. We really push the coffee culture, the street art and the laneways. I’m very fortunate that Melbourne is as cool as it is and that this works here. If I were born in Adelaide or Perth, would this work? Maybe. But I was very confident that Melbourne would love this and I was very lucky that Melburnians embraced the concept right away."

In A Snap:

Favourite Aussie phrase: “Rare as rocking horse shit.”

Favourite rooftop bar: Siglo

Best restaurant on Flinders Lane: Chin Chin

Best city café: The one in the building right opposite Notel. Pete, the barista, is excellent. I go there every single day.

Favourite Melbourne festival: The Night Noodle Market on Birrarung Marr

Most frequently asked question: "How did you get the caravans up here?"

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