Photography by Asaf Kliger

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Sweden’s Icehotel has a lot of admirers. As the world’s first inn constructed entirely of snow and ice, it has been fending off frozen copycats for decades. So what’s the secret to staying ahead of the competition?

“Seeking out conceptual artists instead of ice sculptors,” says longtime Creative Director Arne Bergh. “Otherwise, we’d just have a lot of swans and eagles.”

Icehotel was founded back in 1989 by Swedish art enthusiast Yngve Bergqvist. At the time, he was leading summer rafting trips in the remote village of Jukkasjärvi, 124 miles above the Arctic Circle, and brainstorming ways to attract tourists to the area year-round. Intrigued by ice as an artistic medium, he asked two Japanese sculptors to lead an ice-carving workshop in nearby Kiruna that winter. The next year, Bergqvist hand built an igloo art gallery atop the frozen Torne River. Visitors thought it was so cool that they asked to spend the night — and Icehotel was born.

Photography by Asaf Kliger

The project snowballed from there. Every March, Bergqvist and his team harvest 2,500 ice blocks from the Torne. These two-ton slabs are stored in giant coolers until they can be used the following winter. It takes some 323,000 square meters of “snice” (a high-density combination of snow and ice) to build the inn. Temperatures outside may plummet as low as -40 degrees, but guests stay toasty warm thanks to Arctic-grade sleeping bags. “Icehotel is about experiencing something different,” Bergh explains. “It should be an adventure to stay here.”

Photography by Martin Smedsén

Indeed, 30 years into its existence, Icehotel has become a bucket-list destination, drawing upward of 70,000 visitors a year. The demand is so high and the tourism season so short — the hotel opens in December and melts in March — that Bergqvist introduced a year-round sister property three years ago. Located next door, the solar-powered Icehotel 365 has 20 ice suites and an ice bar that stay at a cool 23 degrees, even in the summer.

With the celebration of Icehotel’s 30th anniversary also comes a change in leadership: Bergh is passing the torch — or should we say chisel? — to Luca Roncoroni, an Italian ice impresario who has worked with the brand since 2001. Roncoroni has big plans for expansion, but the creative process by which the original Icehotel was built will remain in place.

Photography by Asaf Kliger

This year, 126 design concepts were submitted to an open call by candidates from 34 countries. A jury selected 15 sketches and invited the artists to Sweden, where they will have two weeks to execute their vision before the December 13 opening. Half of them have experience working in snow and ice while the rest are rookies.

“Sometimes we bring in people who have never even seen ice,” laughs Roncoroni. And though it makes the final execution more challenging, the brand’s willingness to work with neophytes honors Icehotel’s artistic roots.

People with no ice sculpting experience often think outside the box, Bergh notes. “When I look into a full ice block, I see a world of possibilities,” he muses. 

Read this article as it appears in the magazine.