Industry Insiders: Baron Jean van Gysel de Meise, Noble & Global

Baron Jean van Gysel de Meise is in fact his real name, and he owns the international V boutique hotel brand. He escapes the drudgery of Wall Street and clears his mind in white Spanish sand before building a budding Middle East empire. Being born with a silver spoon in his mouth never stopped the Baron from actually working for a living; he owns and operates his hotels from his native Belgium, and an experimental Greek “World” island he created in Dubai.

Point of Origin: My mother is French; I was born and raised in Paris, but my father is Belgian and lives in Brussels, and it’s his name (and title) I carry. I came to the US to study and have an MBA from Columbia University.

Occupations: I worked in finance for ten years on Wall Street. My passion was always interior design and architecture, and I was bored to tears on Wall Street; it was way too materialistic and abstract and senseless. I’m a brick-and-mortar guy. When the dotcom bust happened, I was involved in that. But I realized that it was all paper games. I had to build something I could see and touch. I started smaller, doing high-end residential houses, and I flipped them, decorated and sold them myself until 2005, when I decided to get into the hotel business full time.

Hotelier History: The Hotel has 192 rooms and is a huge structure. Refurbishing it prompted me to gain knowledge of the hotel business and, later, to start my own luxurious V chain in southernmost Spain and now in Dubai. I opened the V — for Vejer — as the company’s first boutique, chic resort in February of 2008. When the travel editor of Vogue came in (he wrote about it in the September issue), he loved it! He called friends in the fashion and movie worlds, and it became the new place. I’m proud of it; I remodeled it myself, conceptualized everything, decorated. I wanted to sell a home within a hotel, but with hotel services. People feel comfortable there, at peace, at this little hotel in the South of Spain, near Tarifa, just a short hop to Tangiers, across the water from Morocco. While I was remodeling that project, I was seriously considering developing a brand of chic retreats — but was answered by Dubai that turned into something bigger than the 12 or 25 rooms I had envisioned to 18 luxury villas at $12 to $15 million with private pools, saunas, and maids’ quarters. Eleven of them are suspended over the water on stilts with ocean views through floor-to-ceiling glass entrances, and seven of the ocean villas have private moorings for boats sized twenty meters and under. There’re also one or two-bedroom suites at about 1,400 square feet.

Why Dubai? Dubai is much better than Vegas-by-the Sea. Instead of building up, I built small and horizontal on the island of “Greece” in “the World,” a group of islands created by Dubai’s premier developer, Nakheel, in the warm waters of the Arabian Gulf. Dubai is a trade and financial platform, a business hub — which Vegas is not. It’s a tourist hub that’s also associated with the business hub, but it lacks a place promoting intimate elegance in the hotel business, and ours will be the first. There are no small, chic hotels in Dubai, so I am building another V there.

What’s the future of V? We hope to create a brand in the Middle East, the fastest growing, stable area in the world. Few would say that because so many put the Middle East in a lump, but I would like to have three or four more boutique hotels on the coasts, and three or four urban boutique hotels in cities … smaller buildings of interesting design. The next will be in Qatar.

Any non-industry projects in the works? I have a wonderful girlfriend who travels with me and is an interior designer. She went to Stanford and is very, very intelligent. In terms of charities, I don’t have any in the States, but there is one very charitable person I respect here: Nicolas Hulot. He travels the world and has a television program on cable for conservation of the planet, and he takes his platform from the rainforest to the depths of the Pacific Ocean. My idea was to put the profits of V resorts, the holding company, to his organization because he talks to presidents (as he did in his on-camera ecological debate with French President, Nikolas Sarkozy) to make sure they have a clear plan for the environment. It’s very interesting to have a debate with an active go-getter.

Favorite Hangouts: One of my favorite hangouts is a little beach (off-season) in the Bay of Bologna in southern Spain — a huge stretch of white sand with a gigantic dune at the end. You can see the mountains of Morocco only eight miles across the water. Next to this little village is a Roman settlement, an old fishing town called Baelo Claudio from the second century; this is a place that has so much history, and although it’s almost 21 centuries later, it’s almost completely intact. It’s a place I love to go and find myself again before I make business decisions.

Industry Icons: In architecture, I really believe Richard Meier is amazing, but I also like Spartaco Vignoli, an Argentinean architect. In terms of gurus in the hotel business, it’s really difficult to say, because there are so many new concepts popping up everywhere. But if I had to say: Roberto Wirth. One thing I hate in business is hypocrisy. If someone can be successful and stay true to oneself, that’s a great accomplishment. Few are able to do it. I’m meeting with Peter Wirth — Roberto Wirth’s brother — in Dubai next week; it’s a family I tremendously respect, the way they’ve been able to keep a sense of tradition in the hotel industry.

Who are you likely to be seen with? Besides my girlfriend, I’m afraid to say I’m not very social. For instance, the kind of event at the Core Club to introduce the new V project here is a little painful for me. Even if I had time, I wouldn’t go, but business is business. I like real conversations with real people. I love to make new contacts all over the globe from different horizons, different cultures, different social histories. I believe that if you go with the same supposedly elite circles around the globe, you don’t learn anything.

Projections: The boutique hotels and resorts: long, long-term plans are difficult for anyone — the universe makes them change. If I tell you that my medium-term plans are growing the brand in the Middle East … those are my plans for now, and if I accomplish those plans, I’ll be happy with myself.

What are you doing tonight? I’ll be sleeping on a plane to Paris to see my mother — whom I seldom see — then I fly on to Dubai.

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