The Master of Joie de Vivre

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Just what is the value of a Stanford education amounting to these days? Ask Chip Conley his opinion, and it may have prospective MBA students flooding Stanford’s admissions office with application requests.

Today Chip Conley is a successful entrepreneur who has taken the skills he learned at the prestigious West Coast school, combined them with his innate enthusiasm for uncovering the true joys of life, and created an empire that umbrellas everything from his luxury boutique hospitality chain to a collection of business motivational materials aimed to inspire other innovative entrepreneurs to experience a similar level of success.

Joie de Vivre Hospitality is the second largest independent boutique hotel chain in the U.S and the largest independent hospitality company in the State of California. Headquartered in San Francisco, Conley’s luxury lodging kingdom includes more than 40 hotels, day spas, and restaurants throughout the state. And while many hotels are facing financial difficulties in 2009, Conley’s Joie de Vivre is succeeding and expanding during a time when retraction is the fiscal tactic that many employ.

Ask Conley, the founder and CEO of Joie de Vivre and the author of PEAK: How Great Companies Get Their Mojo, to describe the business model of Joie de Vivre and he will tell you that the purpose behind each of his lifestyle companies is to introduce a venue “full of soul and personality.”

What started in 1987 as just one hotel, inspired by and designed after Rolling Stone magazine, today is a collection of landmark destinations that attract the hippest trendsetters from Hollywood and beyond. Drawing upon his Stanford education, Conley, a Long Beach native, unlocked a secret to building a brand based on connecting with his guests on an emotional level. Instead of employing the standard business approach of pinpointing the demographic profile of his guests, he has created a psychographic method for catering to their wants and needs. He has clearly tapped into a winning formula, as he was named one of four finalists in 2008 for the “Corporate Hotelier of the World” award by Hotels magazine.

At a mere 26 years old, Conley first ventured into the hospitality industry after determining that a career in massage therapy was not the best use of his educational background. Without the safety net of a trust fund or inheritance assets, he took a leap of faith and, with no industry experience, opened the doors to the legendary Phoenix Hotel, and thus thrust open the doors to a whole new life. “I reached a point where I was very unsatisfied with the ‘business as usual’ approach to the corporate world. My options were to be a massage therapist with an MBA, be a screenwriter, or start a hotel. It was just a strange turning point and I had a monumental life decision to make,” explains Conley. “The Phoenix was in foreclosure and fortunately I was able to take the skills that I learned at Stanford, solicit investors, and buy it out of bankruptcy. I took quite a chance because that location is where lots of seedy things were going on. But I decided to go for it, knowing that I had other skills to fall back on if it failed.” Fortunately failure was not an option in the life and career of Chip Conley, and he was able to transform a sleazy hotel in a sordid neighborhood into one of the hottest hotels in San Francisco, catering to some of the biggest names in the music industry.

The Phoenix redefined the way that celebrities and the elitist of trendsetters spend their evenings away from home. Reminiscent of a retro hotel in Palm Springs, the focal point is the small, heated pool in the center of the courtyard, with mural art from Francis Forlenza and a modern sculpture garden. The self-proclaimed rock ‘n’ roll hotel employs Conley’s model for all of his design motifs, which is to fashion each one after a specific magazine. But Conley warns that The Phoenix isn’t for everyone. “It is certainly funky, bold, and eclectic,” he says, “but it’s at the edge of the Tenderloin neighborhood, which is a bit too edgy for some.” But it is undoubtedly a good fit for the subjects profiled in the pages of its print inspiration. Some of the music industry’s greatest avant-garde legends have rested their weary heads on The Phoenix’s beds. From David Bowie, Joan Jett, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Psychedelic Furs, to sizzling up-and-comers like The Killers and Bloc Party, to urbanite hipsters like Moby, Franz Ferdinand, and Interpol, The Phoenix has reigned as one of the cooler-than-thou crashing pads for pop culture icons visiting the City by the Bay.

While Hotel Avante in Silicon Valley is a Wired-inspired masterpiece and Hotel Rex in Union Square aims to embody the New York Times, it is Hotel Vitale, the upscale venue located across from the historic Ferry Building Marketplace in the Embarcadero waterfront region that is the flagship of the prospering Joie de Vivre brand. Following a Dwell-meets-Real Simple design motif, the circular suites tout infinity views of the San Francisco Bay. “Hotel Vitale is one of my favorites in the Joie de Vivre collection,” explains Conley. “I see it as the perfect fit for that guest who is ready to graduate from what the W has to offer, but still wants something less stuffy than the Four Seasons.”

At a time when small businesses and large corporations alike are scaling back, cutting corners, and saving expansions for the second decade of the 21st century, Conley is taking Joie de Vivre Hospitality to new heights through the unique restaurants and innovative day spas that grace the interiors of his boutique hotels. In June, the company announced the completion of the extensive 18-month-long renovations to the Dream Inn, the only beachfront hotel located in Santa Cruz. The multimillion-dollar upgrades converted the property into a four-star oceanfront hotel, which also included the new 2,900-square-foot Aquarius restaurant, a sophisticated version of the American bistro designed by DPS Interiors, which opened this summer. Conley explained that the inspiration behind Aquarius was to incorporate California’s culture of embracing sustainably harvested seafood, organic produce, and the appreciation of fine wines. “I wanted to create a soft and inviting destination restaurant for any guests coming to the area, whether staying at Dream Inn or not. It is a restaurant for anyone with a palate for the finer things in life, from the ambiance to the menu ingredients.”

Another restaurant to open under Joie de Vivre’s California umbrella in 2009 was midi, a French-style brasserie situated at what San Franciscans identify as the “mid-district,” the crossroads of Union Square and the financial district. Former “Rising Star Chef” Michelle Mah is serving up old-world classic dinner entrées that incorporate her 21st century twist, such as braised lamb shoulder with eggplant caviar, roasted toybox squash, roasted peppers, and olive tapenade butter.

In addition to the restaurant openings, Conley’s innovative day spas are the newest integration in the Joie de Vivre brand. Currently there are four: Allegria Spa at Ventana Inn & Spa, in Big Sur; Kabuki Springs & Spa, in San Francisco’s Japantown; Spa Elia, in Hotel Los Gatos; and Hotel Vitale’s luxe Spa Vitale.

Other bold expansion plans along the West Coast that have recently been completed include his newest hotel property in Venice Beach, Hotel Erwin, which celebrated a grand opening in the summer of 2009. The location of the hotel, overlooking Muscle Beach and the famous Jim Morrison mural, is reflected in the design with pop-inspired furnishings and graffiti-style art lining the halls and guestroom doors. And Joie de Vivre spent nearly $20 million on renovations to Hotel Maya, the 11-acre waterfront property that is sure to become Long Beach’s most exquisite four-star hotel.

The last year has proven to be quite the successful one for Conley and Joie de Vivre. In addition to his freedom of expansion, he also celebrated the success of San Francisco’s Hotel Carlton, which won the “2009 Innovation Award” from the Hotel Hero Awards.

With nearly $250 million in revenues, more than 3,000 employees, and an advertising budget that is often less than $50,000 annually, Conley’s award-winning formula for enjoying life and business has earned his company the title of the “Second Best Place to Work in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2008” and multiple mentions in well-respected national publications such as TIME, Fortune, and the Wall Street Journal. “It is not by accident that the mission statement of Joie de Vivre, ‘Creating opportunities to celebrate the joy of life’ was created by the staff members,” says Conley. “They embody my philosophies on the best methods and tactics for succeeding in business and embracing everything spectacular that life has to offer. At Joie de Vivre, we want to create more joy in the lives of our guests, knowing that when they leave one of our venues with more joy in their own hearts, they can’t help but pass it on. It’s what we like to think of as ‘karmic capitalism.’”

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