By David Schout
The owner of a quirky CBD caravan park has been taken to court by hotel giant Novotel for a name it claims is too similar to its own.
The costly legal battle has led James Fry to self-represent at the Intellectual Property Court in Canberra, the result of which he is anxiously awaiting.
Fry owns Notel on Flinders Lane, the name of which is intended to convey that it is “not a hotel”.
The trendy rooftop, atop a car park Fry himself owns, contains six refitted 1970s Airstream caravans that for three years has operated as a popular alternative overnight experience in Melbourne.
Guests reach the rooftop via a speakeasy style entrance in a downstairs café and eventually reach a red astro-turfed roof surrounded by cacti and the distinctive caravans that were shipped in from the US in 2016.
But Novotel’s owner Accor, one of the world’s largest hotel groups, has lodged court documents that claim the Notel name is “deceptively similar” and would cause consumer confusion; something Fry denies.
“We don’t want to be a hotel,” he said.
“We’re Notel, we’re not a hotel, we’re caravans on a rooftop. As if there’s any confusion to the general public? As if we’re ever going to be anything like each other?”
Should he lose, he would no longer be able to use the Notel name and could even be forced to pay opposition legal costs.
In July, Fry decided to represent himself in Canberra after legal fees continued to rack up.
“Novotel went in strong, they had a real crack,” he said.
“It was a pretty intimidating day up there in court but I tried to find the funny side from it and take a light-hearted approach. You know, embrace the David versus Goliath battle. But on the day, God, it was pretty hairy.”
Fry was thankful for the citywide support he had received throughout the legal process and was unsure which way the October judgement would fall.
“I feel honestly like it’s a toss of the coin. I feel I had a really strong case with the public weight behind it, and overwhelming support that Notel had that this was just a ridiculous case gives me confidence. But this is not about what people think, or the general consensus and common sense – this is law. And when it comes to law, the best case and case law often dictates the outcome.”
Fry described the hotel group as “bullies” with “endless pockets”, deploying deliberate tactics to have him change his name.
“This was always death by a thousand cuts,” he said.
“They bombarded me with paperwork, bombarded me with emails. And every time my lawyers responded to their emails, it’s a $750 to $1000 turnaround to read and respond to an email. You get 20 emails in, and all of a sudden you’ve flushed all this money down the toilet and you’re no closer to a resolution.”
After protracted emails back and forth, Fry offered to meet with Novotel in person to “stop the bleeding”, something he said they refused to do.
While he hopes to avoid changing the name, his hand may be forced.
“I haven’t put my mind to a name change yet, but I have contemplated the worst-case scenario, that being if we do lose I’ll have to change the name. What that name will be, I don’t know. I’m very hopeful that I don’t have to.”
Fry said that whatever the ruling, the CBD business would remain.
“There have been some reports that we’re going to close down – that’s not the case. We’re not going anywhere, it’s a great little business and the people of Melbourne love us. The concept will stay, if we have to change the name it’s a disaster but it’s not crippling, it’s not going to close us down.”
A long-time owner of Fry’s Fast Park, for years Mr Fry wondered how best to utilise his unique, low (the car park itself is just two storeys) CBD rooftop.
He eventually settled on the caravan idea, shipping them over from the US and refitting the interiors, a process that altogether cost around $1 million.
Fry said being able to meet and chat with clients staying on his unique rooftop for their birthday, anniversary or other special occasion was something he loved.
“We’re a little niche in the market and people are loving it. It’s a really enjoyable business.”
Accor Hotels did not respond to questions posed by CBD News.
The court ruling is due to be handed down in early October.