Dominic Bradbury, Journalist & Writer


There is a timeless quality to hotelier Arnaud Zannier’s Belgian home. An elegant rural villa not far from Aalter, sitting among extensive grounds and woodland, it is hard to tell at first glance when the house might have been built. With its thatched roof and refined but relaxed interiors, full of texture and character, the house seems beyond fashion and trend making. It feels rooted to its setting, with a wealth of organic materials lending it depth and warmth.

The house was built, Arnaud Zannier explains, in the 1970s and then extended. When he and his wife Julie bought the house in 2007 they stripped it back to the bones and everything was redone. Rooms were reconfigured, new windows and doors introduced, the terrace redesigned. It was a complete transformation, creating a welcoming family home for the Zanniers and their three children, Zoe, Jules and Alexandre. It also marked the first of a number of collaborations with architect Johan de Groote, who has been working with Arnaud on a series of hotel projects ever since.

‘I have always been interested in architecture and design and I have learnt a lot living in Belgium,’ says Arnaud. ‘I have discovered different styles and ideas about ways of living that have really emerged from Belgium and are particularly Flemish, in a way. It helped me in finding a new idea for the hotels with these timeless interiors and a philosophy of design. It is something that is very personal to us, because this is the way that I live at home and the way that I see things.’

Arnaud Zannier grew up not far from Lyon, in France, but has been based in Belgium for many years. His father is the businessman Roger Zannier, who built a family empire initially focused on textiles and fashion brands, but which now also includes vineyards in France and Portugal, real estate and hotels.

Julie and Arnaud met at boarding school in Switzerland when they were just seventeen, before both moving to Paris to go to business school. There was a brief internship for Arnaud with the family company back in Lyon before moving to London, where he worked with the shoe brand Kickers. Julie and Arnaud’s first child was born in London, as well as Arnaud’s own shoe label, NDC, which is short for ‘Nom de Code’. With flagship stores now in Brussels and Paris, NDC specializes in handmade leather shoes made by artisans in Italy, Portugal and Spain.

Back in 2001, Arnaud and his wife and young daughter moved from London to Belgium, where Julie’s family come from and have based themselves here ever since. Arnaud’s office is in the nearby city of Ghent, a place of great charm with a strong creative community at its heart, and Brussels is around an hour away from home.

‘I knew that I would be travelling a lot for work, so it’s easier for us to be here
and to have Julie’s family nearby,’ says Arnaud. ‘The house is a wonderful place for the children and the gardens are a great playground. We had some strong ideas for the house and knew what style we wanted for the interiors, but we needed some assistance from an expert and that’s how we first met Johan de Groote.’

Five years ago [2011[, Arnaud launched Zannier Hotels by opening his first hotel in Megève, in the French Alps, with a design approach based upon his own love of simple but sophisticated spaces with a timeless sense of character and an informal, down to earth atmosphere combined with luxury services. Chalet Zannier was created in the form of a micro village, with a new building holding the principal lounge and bar, looking out over the mountains and the town, plus a restaurant and spa on the lower levels, while two existing chalet buildings were updated to a five star standard, complemented by smaller cabins dotted upon the hillside. Johan de Groote looked after the architecture, while Zannier Hotels’ Head of Design, Geraldine Dohogne, created the interiors, mixing bespoke elements such as sink-in sofas, period pieces and rustic elements, including ceramics and other local treasures, arranged around open fireplaces.

‘A lot of big luxury brands use the same interior designers and architects all over the world and the hotels look the same wherever they are,’ says Arnaud. ‘We want Zannier to be recognized for these unpretentious, five star hotels that are low key but refined, with a quality experience and unique interiors. The idea is that over time the interiors of the hotels will get even better as they gain added character, unlike very modern hotels. Here, the place will just get stronger and stronger over the years and it’s a similar thing with my own house.’

Another old friend, chef Julien Burlat, was added to the small team at the heart of Zannier Hotels. Arnaud and Julien Burlat have known one another since they were children, growing up in France, and Burlat also found his way to Belgium, opening the Michelin-starred Le Dôme restaurant in Antwerp, as well as a brasserie and bakery. Burlat runs La Ferme de mon Père, the restaurant at Chalet Zannier, where the menu – once again – combines simplicity and refinement while being grounded in the region and sense of place.

‘Julien has the talent of a Michelin starred chef but for us it’s more about top quality and freshness and working with the local artisans and farmers, while cooking in this pure and simple way,’ says Arnaud. ‘Julien’s food is spot on and its key to have all these elements working together: the architecture, the interiors, the food and the approach to the guests.’

Another chalet next to the winter hotel remains private, for the use of Arnaud’s parents, who are now based in nearby Geneva. Megève is a place where the whole family can gather at Christmas and special holidays; Arnaud’s children love to ski so the winter resort, with its wide choice of pistes, has a big attraction.

But for Arnaud the work also goes on to expand his hotel business, with the ambition of creating a portfolio of highly individual retreats. A second hotel, Phum Baitang, opened last year in Cambodia close to Siem Reao and Angkor Wat. With 45 timber villas plus two restaurants and a spa, it’s a more ambitious project, designed by De Groote and Dehogne with the help of architects AW2. There are also plans for a finca in Minorca and work is getting underway upon the biggest project to date: a 90 room resort arranged around a private bay in Vietnam, created in collaboration with Studio KO, designers of London’s Chiltern Firehouse.

‘We have a small team and the concept is ours and very unique,’ says Arnaud. ‘But we also like to work with different architects on different projects and learn from them as well, bringing in fresh ideas. In Vietnam, I think we can push it up to 90 rooms and still keep the same kind of atmosphere that makes the hotels unique to us. It is a perfect setting – very green and wild. We want to keep it very pure and protect the surroundings. The atmosphere and the feeling of the country is so important to us; you don’t want to sit in a bar in Vietnam that feels exactly the same as a bar in London. For me, emotion is always the most important part of it all.’

Zannier Hotels –