Sabbatical Stories: Building the Ice Hotel

By: eBay Inc. Staff

After five years of service, eBay employees are eligible to take four weeks paid leave to recharge. Some choose to spend their sabbaticals far off the beaten path.

Two hundred miles inside the polar circle, in the tiny Swedish town of Jukkasjärvi, nearly 40 men and women were hard at work. Tightly bundled up in thick layers of clothes to protect against the sub-zero temperature, he crew labored in pitch-black conditions, moving tons of snow and ice, working against a looming deadline.

Sound like a good time?

For eBay’s Joffry Brusse, it was the perfect way to spend his sabbatical. And the result of the labor from his team ended up becoming one of the world’s most elegant ice hotels, located deep in Northern Sweden.

In mid-2011, Joffry, who works for eBay Marktplaats.nl in Amsterdam, saw a National Geographic documentary about ice hotels built in Sweden. The images of the eerily beautiful structures stayed in Joffry’s mind, and as his eBay sabbatical approached, he struck a deal to spend his time off building an ice hotel in exchange for accommodations and expenses.

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The hotel consisted of roughly 60 rooms,16 of which were crafted by artists who imbued the space with eye-catching designs. Joffry’s construction team included volunteers from many parts of the world, including Australia, Canada, Japan, Germany, Peru and the Netherlands.

“The hotel is basically a bunch of tunnels put together,” Joffry said. “After we built the tunnels, we went inside and put up walls to create rooms, and we cut doorways. We built beds, and put in lighting.” The artists on the team then put the finishing design touches on spaces inside the hotel. 

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What prompted Joffry to spend his sabbatical in such an unusual way? “I like the challenge of doing something totally out of my comfort zone,” he said, “and this particular adventure was more or less the opposite of what my daily life is. It was a real physical challenge. It was hard work.”

On a typical day, with temperatures hovering around -30 degrees Celsius, Joffry and the other construction team members would start working at 7 a.m. and finish at 5 p.m. Due to the location and the time of year, here was typically only one hour of daylight each day. “The rest of the time it was dark, really pitch black,” Joffry said.

What was it like sleeping in the ice hotel? “You go into the hotel, and strip down to only a single layer of thermal underwear, then you go into your inner sleeping bag and, as a last layer, you go into an outer sleeping bag,” said Joffry. “I would say it wasn’t the best bed I’ve ever had, but it was comfortable-ish. I had more fun building the ice hotel than sleeping in it.”

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"Waking up was really tough,” he recalls. “Although they had given me the advice to, I didn’t put my gear into my sleeping bag, so when I woke up, my pants were frozen and my boots were frozen. My jacket was frozen,too, so I just got up and pulled on frozen clothes and got on with things."

There was a lot of camaraderie among the team members. “We went on hiking trips and it’s really beautiful out there,” said Joffry. “We did dog sledding tours, hit the sauna, watched the northern lights and rode snowmobile scooters. The time just flew by, actually.”

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“It was really cool to see how creative people can be and what craftsmanship they can show with simple materials like ice and snow,” he added. “This was something I had put on my bucket list and because of my sabbatical, I actually got a chance to do it.”

Editor’s Note: You can visit Joffry’s blog for many photos and posts related to his sabbatical.