“The world is so big!” says Arnaud Zannier. “People ask where my favourite place is — but I could never choose!”
This isn’t such a suprise. In fact, you could guess it from the disparate locations of the entrepreneur’s properties alone (if the international accent — part Belgian, part French, part London, part Mid Atlantic — didn’t give it away first).
Zannier Hotels, the group Arnaud founded less than a decade ago, has addresses as far flung as the French Alps, Cambodia, Ghent, and Namibia — and soon, Vietnam. There’s no method, really, to the beautiful madness — simply opportunities met with gung-ho spirit.
“Angelina Jolie told me there was a farm for sale next to her friend’s nature reserve in Namibia” Arnaud says of Omaanda, his Namibian savannah property. “So I went there and discovered a beautiful country, a beautiful culture. And we just decided to go for it.”
Jolie had been staying at another Zannier property when she planted that particular seed — Phum Baitang, a glorious, sprawling string of villas embedded in some of Cambodia’s most beautiful wilderness. When he got there, Arnaud was so taken with Namibia that he realised one property was not enough to do justice to this vast and varied country. He’ll soon open a second location, Sonop, in the Namibian desert next month to that affect. Then comes Bai San ho — a Vietnamese property opening next summer. And after that…
This ambition and tireless work ethic is partly genetic. Arnaud’s father, the self-made fashion baron and industrialist Roger Zannier, taught him the value of passion, of drive, and of relentless attention to detail from a very early age. And you can see it in every square foot of this wildly unique portfolio, not to mention the excitement with which Arnaud speaks about his job.
My father was from quite a poor Italian immigrant family in France. But he went on to create a small empire. You can learn things form a self made man like him. It’s about a lot of hard work, really — you need a lot of passion to succeed. If you want to be good, you have to work hard — harder than anybody else.
I’ve always liked architecture, interior design, good food, restaurants. So hospitality was a coming together of all those things. After living in working in London for five years [with the shoe brand Kickers and then with his own startup, N.D.C Shoes] my father asked me to come back to the family business. I said I was happy to, but that I didn’t want to work in fashion anymore — I wanted to explore another area.
I always had a vision about how high end hospitality should be in the future. I started out in 2009, at the end of the financial crisis. Everyone had come back down to earth, and I think people were realising that going back to simplicity, to authenticity, to real experiences, was important, and that’s what was missing.
A lot of the hotels back then were about bigger, bolder, more expensive, more flamboyant. To me, part of the younger generation, I was seeking to discover the world with more simplicity and more genuineness — to discover the local culture, local food. I wanted to find the comfort that five star hotels can offer, but with a more humble approach. That was what I was looking for as a customer when I was travelling, but it was not so easy to find.
Our Megève property [in the French Alps] was launched in 2011. That was the first one. And we decided quickly that we weren’t going to just do one hotel, but that we were going to see if the concept worked on an international basis. We had some links to Cambodia, because we went to Cambodia many years ago as a family to set up a foundation and finance an orphanage.
Every property has been something of an opportunity that has just popped up. For our Namibia project, Angelina Jolie told me there was a farm for sale next to her friend’s nature reserve. So I went there and discovered a beautiful country, a beautiful culture. And we just decided to go for it. We purchased the reserve, and built a lodge.
As I spent more and more time in Namibia, I began to realise that having just one lodge there was not enough for guests to see everything the country could offer. So I thought it would be good to offer a few addresses in the country — so that visitors could see the desert, the animal reserves, and the north. The one in the desert opens in July
Celebrity endorsement always helps a little bit, but it’s hard to say how much. Really once we opened in Phum Baitang, straight away we were a success. Angelina stayed with us for five months, but before that we were seeing a lot of bookings anyway — it just seemed like the right property in the right place at the right time.
Of course, it’s always rewarding when you have such a high profile star staying at your hotel, especially with a product that’s quite new. For me, it was only the second hotel that I had opened, and it was still quite fresh in terms of product. And for her to stay with us and tell us she loves it and it’s beautiful — that’s cool.
It’s the most beautiful job, working in hospitality. You touch so many areas — you’ve got architecture, the arts, design, all the food aspects, the service side, and then the human side of the business. Sixty per cent of success in hospitality is about working with people who are as passionate as you are. If you can pass that passion to the guest, you’ll be a success. That’s what we try to do every day.
It’s difficult to choose my favourite place to travel. The world is so big. London is my city. My daughter is living there. I lived there for five years, and I learned a lot from British culture. But otherwise, Africa in terms of landscape is beautiful, and its nature is incredible. In Asia you have incredible culture and food. We’re working on a proper Vietnamese concept that’s very traditional — old grandmothers cooking for us, that sort of thing. It will open next summer, and it’s going to be very special. I also just came back from the US, where I was driving motorbikes through Utah and Colorado with a group of friends. It was just amazing — the country is so big and endless. From one day to another, you discover grander and grander scenery as you drive.
To succeed in this business you have to be passionate and believe in your ideas. I’d say that to anyone, whether they were trying to get into hospitality or anything else. I always believed in my ideas and my concept, and I would just go for it. Work hard and it will work out.