From Ghent to Namibia, Cambodia and Vietnam, with Arnaud Zannier
With a current portfolio of five hotels in destinations as far-flung and varied as Cambodia, Namibia and Ghent, we talk to founder and owner Arnaud Zannier, where he reveals what’s next for his Zannier Hotels collection, why he loves a remote hotel in Scotland, and where we should head for dinner in his home town of Ghent.
What’s your ambition for Zannier Hotels?
With the current situation, and when we look at the major changes over the last two months, it’s very hard to say. We’ll aim to pursue our development, keep our values and our own vision of hospitality. That will remain our target. We’ve worked on 10 projects over the past 10 years, so we hope we can work on 10 more…
What does a guest get from staying in one of your hotels, that they can’t find elsewhere?
More than offering beautiful properties with sophisticated service, we aim to offer a genuine cultural and emotional immersion. We’ve developed out-of-the-ordinary hotels with a soul. We want our guests to be amazed by the beauty and simplicity of the place, and to feel the same emotion I felt when I visited for the first time.
How well do you know the locations you choose to open a hotel in, before you commit to a new project?
Until now, most of our openings were a result of fortuitous encounters. It started with a market opportunity in 2011 that led me to acquire the alpine chalet in Megève where I used to come with my family, which is now our hotel, Le Chalet. Most of the time, I don’t know much about the destination before committing to it. I discovered Namibia thanks to the recommendation of a former (and famous) guest, and decided to start a new hotel project there after I flew over the beautiful Namibian landscape.
Of course, we look at traditional key performance indicators and rely on market studies before committing to any project. But first of all, we look at the beauty of the location. I often trust my own instinct. Every opening takes into consideration both the location, the local culture and the experience our guests will be able to live, and the emotion they will retain. I think this ability to adapt to a specific culture, heritage and location is not only a key success factor, but also a fundamental part of our DNA.
What’s been the most surprising thing that’s happened during the creation of one of your properties?
The construction of our most recent project, Zannier Hotels Sonop, which is in the middle of the Namib Desert, has probably been the most challenging of all our projects so far. Not just because of the hotel’s remote location and protected surroundings, but also because of the harsh climate, with temperatures above 40 degrees. Building on top of those enormous boulders was a real challenge – for both construction and design.
In the end, all building materials and furniture were manually transported up the huge rocks. Each piece of furniture, including twelve 30kg handcrafted four-poster beds, had to be carried over the rocks and boulders to avoid the use of disruptive machinery. We also only used a limited number of existing roads to the site, to ensure any impact on the fragile flora was kept to a minimum.
Which of your hotels do you feel most at home in?
Each of our properties has a special atmosphere and I like them all. But Zannier Hotels Le Chalet is probably the one I feel most in connection with, not only because it was the first one I opened, but also because I have many family memories there.
How would you describe your interior design taste and would you say it’s similar to your own home?
I think what characterises Zannier Hotels is the sense of timelessness. I like pure and clean environments. All Zannier Hotels have that in common. Our interiors are often described as stylish and contemporary, but also cozy and with a feeling of being at home.
I’m very involved in the design phase of every new project, and I like bringing elements that please my own taste, so I guess there are some similarities between the interiors of my home and hotels. But the purpose is very different. For every project, we design the architecture and interiors in accordance with the traditions and culture of the destination, so each Zannier Hotels property has its own story to tell.
Now is a difficult time for the travel industry—what’s your hope for the future, when this is over?
It’s a complex and unforeseen situation to handle for sure, which is generating a lot of stress and uncertainty. We want to remain positive and look for the future – when it will will be safe to travel again. We hope that international flights will reopen soon, so that we can welcome back travellers who will certainly be in search of authenticity and calm. We’ve always had high standards and we’ll make sure to elevate them, and anticipate and answer any potential needs of our guests.
We’ll also continue working on the projects we had in the pipeline. Zannier Hotels Bãi San Hô will open on 1st December 2020 in Phu Yen, Vietnam. It’s an audacious project nestled on 98 hectares of land, with a private white sand beach, 71 suites and villas, and privately owned serviced residences.
We’re also working on the opening of two hotels on the Pacific Coast in Mexico, probably due to open towards the end 2022, and we’re considering another project in Menorca.
Under normal circumstances, how often do you travel and what do you love about it?
I’ve always liked travelling. Normally I travel almost every week – mostly for work – and what I like most is discovering new cultures. Travel always teaches you something, no matter what you have in your suitcase.
Where in the world that you haven’t been, would you most like to see?
I would love go to Japan. I’ve actually been three times, but I really want to go back with my children and show them what a wonderful country it is, it’s somewhere that I really admire. I want them to discover its incredible landscape and culture.
Where is the first place you’ll travel to when the restrictions are lifted?
Vietnam, without a doubt, because we’re opening the largest project we’ve worked on so far, and it’s been four months since my last visit. I’m impatient to discover the final mock up of the rooms, and see how the vegetation has grown.
You have a passion for motorbikes, where will you go on your next trip when you’re free to roam again?
I’ve always loved motorbikes. I share this passion with my best friends and with my son, they allow me to create so many great memories. I like both working on my motorbikes (I can empty my mind while doing mechanics on old machines) and of course, riding them. I initiated a US road trip for my 45th birthday with my best friends, and it’s since become a yearly ritual. I’ll without a doubt go back to the vast American plains as soon as I can!
It’s hard to pick just one, but I particularly like Killiehuntly in Scotland. It’s a beautiful place; very isolated. It’s really inspiring and the perfect place to unwind.
Do you have a favourite European city for a few days away?
I would probably say London. That’s not very original but I decided to stay there in March this year with my girlfriend, and it’s a great place both to live in, or for a staycation. I love it, not only for its dynamism, but also for how open minded it is.
If we’re coming to your home city of Ghent for a weekend break, where should we eat?
I would recommend De Stokerij not only for the food – which is simple and traditional but tasty – but also for its architecture. It’s nestled in a very nice building with a history, in the heart of Ghent. There is a great atmosphere and it’s a great place to discover Belgian specialties.
I also like Oak Restaurant, which was recently awarded a Michelin star. It’s an ideal place for fine dining; they serve three to seven fixed courses. The restaurant is slightly hidden but it’s worth the visit, with a friendly team, great service and they always have interesting wines.
What’s the most unusual thing you’ve ever packed in your hand luggage?
Probably electrical switches. A few days before the opening of Zannier Hotels Omaanda, our lodge lying in the Namibian savannah, some furniture was still blocked at customs. So I brought some of the missing light switches with me so that we could open the lodge as originally planned. Every detail matters!
What do you never travel without?
A pair of trainers to do an early morning run, a plain white t-shirt from The Real MCCoy’s and swimming shorts.
What do you look for in your luggage? Do you see it as a practical necessity or are you a bag man?
As I travel quite often, I’m always carrying luggage. More than what it weighs, I pay particular attention to the wheels and handles, as those are often the weakest points. I like beautiful bags, especial old-style handcrafted leather bags. They remind me of my previous life when I was managing n.d.c made by hand, luxury handmade leather shoe company.
Quick fire questions
Podcast or paperback?
Podcast, while travelling. And design/travel magazines.
Train or plane?
Cut it fine or leave plenty of time?
Cut it fine at work, but I try to keep leave plenty of time for my family and my passions.
Sightseeing or sun lounger?
Early start or slowly but surely?
Early start. I’m an early bird, and my days mostly start with some form of sport.
Plan every detail or wing it on arrival?
I am more of a planner. I like analysing all the details before taking a decision.