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In July hotel veteran Chip Conley launched Fest300, a site devoted to an evolving list of the world’s 300 best events and festivals. The site encourages users to actively see the world, and uses Conley’s personality to create a link between dreaming and doing.
Conley is a newbie to travel content, but he knows travel. As the founder of Joie de Vivre hotels, Conley spent over two decades building the U.S. West Coast’s most unique collection of boutique hotels. He sold the company to a Hyatt heir in 2010 and, after the brand merged with Thomspon Hotels in 2011 to create Commune Hotels & Resorts, stepped away from day-to-day involvement.
Skift spoke with Conley via email.
Skift: Talk to me a bit about the origins of Fest 300.
Chip Conley: Ever since I can remember, I’ve loved “collective effervescence,” that transcendent experience where your own boundaries come down and the communal joy of those around you lifts you up. Festivals are the classic experience where this happens. Since I’ve always been a little bit of a cultural anthropologist, studying festivals seemed like an appropriate path for me, especially in the digital age. The more virtual we get, the more ritual we need.
Skift: The brand is very closely tied to your personality/persona. Why did you take this approach?
Chip Conley: To be honest, I fought it a little at first. But, what became clear is there’s no real voice or authority in the travel space when it comes to festivals. Given my quarter century as the founder and CEO of a boutique hotel company, I certainly was well-acquainted with the travel industry. And, I definitely have lots of opinions. More and more, we’re seeing that online readers are looking for a point of view. That’s what I’ll be giving them.
Skift: Why 300?
Chip Conley: I was giving a speech in New York in February 2012 and someone asked me in the Q&A why I was so fascinated with Bali and why I was on the Board of Burning Man? (She’d done her homework) I riffed for a few minutes in front of 600 people about why festivals are so important for our future as they create cultural curiosity which is essential for the planet as we rocket to 10 billion people and have less elbow room.
And, then, I mentioned that there’s really no great website featuring the best festivals of the world and I said I wanted to check out the 300 best. I have no idea why I picked that number but I will say that, when I did more thorough research, 100 seemed too small a number to capture the diversity of the planet and 500 seemed too daunting.
Furthermore, since this is going to be an annual list, why not have a Fest300 (of the best experiences on the planet) to match the Forbes 400 (richest people) and Fortune 500 (biggest companies)? Of course, we cover many more festivals than what we’ll feature on our list because creating a robust community is part of our mission.
Skift: How are you approaching the challenge of telling people about events when only a small fraction will ever participate?
Chip Conley: Fest300 is meant to both inspire people to travel as well as educate them (in the comfort of their own home) about what’s happening culturally on this planet even if they can’t visit. Plus, we want to help people realize there’s probably a festival in their own backyard (Day of the Dead, Carnival, etc….) that they can easily discover. Later this fall, we’ll be introducing a matchmaking tool that will help our Fest300 tribe find the festival that’s perfect for their personality and interests.
Skift: Can you tell me a little about the Pledge and what it means to your community of readers?
Chip Conley: Given the growth in festival participation around the world, we don’t believe our Pledge is all that daring. We’re suggesting that people make a commitment to go to at least one festival a year as a means of becoming more “culturally curious.” That festival could be in their own town or on the other side of the globe. The reason we created this is we want Fest300 to be more than a visually-attractive brochure that amuses armchair travelers. We want to inspire people to seek out collective effervescence wherever it exists.
Skift: Joie de Vivre helped redefine what a hotel can be. Can you tell me about the journey from 1987 until the creation of Commune?
Chip Conley: I’m proud that Joie de Vivre helped to popularize the boutique hotel trend in the United States and that, over a quarter century, I was able to oversee the creation of management of 52 boutique hotels. But, our focus was very California-centric as I believed that it’s very difficult to be both product line-diverse and geographically-diverse. We chose the former rather than the latter with each hotel being an “original” that defined the location or neighborhood in which it was located.
John Pritzker, whose father started Hyatt, bought a controlling interest in Joie de Vivre in 2010, merged JdV with Thompson Hotels and created an umbrella company, Commune. The company’s goal is to create a global brand with a variety of boutique sub-brands. Given that hotel guests are more experience-driven, design-oriented, and globally nomadic than ever before, it’s a smart strategy.
Skift: What did you learn about guests at JDV that’s helped inform your approach to Fest 300?
Chip Conley: Hospitality is all about understanding people’s needs. It’s probably blasphemous to say this but I would prefer to hire someone with a masters in psychology than someone with a grad degree in hospitality. The most fundamental lesson that sticks with me is that boutique hotel customers are looking for an “identity refreshment.” If you want predictability, choose Marriott.
But, more and more, hotel guests are looking for an experience and a product that’s a mirror for their aspirational self. Our signature approach to creating a boutique hotel was imagining a magazine that defined the personality of the hotel we were creating and five adjectives that personified that magazine. Those adjectives defined our approach to design, services, and even hiring. The miracle was discovering that a hotel that was “modern, urbane, fresh, natural, and nurturing” (like the Hotel Vitale in San Francisco) will attract a customer who is looking for that kind of identity refreshment.
So we’re not just in the business of taking care of people’s lodging needs, we’re helping them self-actualize, to use a Abraham Maslow term, as well. I think that same approach can be taken when we match our Fest300 “guests” with the festivals that will most enchant and inspire them.