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Joie de Vivre's Chip Conley

The City by the Bay is full of boutique hotels, but none quite like those run by Chip Conley and his company, Joie de Vivre. Who is the man behind S.F.'s hippest hotels?

Chip Conley in the pool, picture
Photo credit
Photo: J. Michael Tucker and Cesar Rubio
Photo caption
Chip Conley, sporting a leather jacket, relaxes in the pool at one of his boutique hotels.

On a sunny afternoon at the Phoenix Hotel in San Francisco, two goateed hipsters are sunbathing on turquoise rubber lounge chairs by the pool. There's a corroding statue of a nude male in the middle of a pond stocked with koi. There's a wacky sculpture of a guitar-playing frog. Eccentric and a bit of a dive, the Phoenix was one of Timothy Leary's favorite hotels. Courtney Love and Keanu Reeves have stayed here. It was the first hotel Chip Conley ever created, and it's very typical of the hotels in his Joie de Vivre chain. Which is to say, there isn't another quite like it.

A 10-minute drive away is another typical Conley hotel—the Laurel Inn, a bourgeois Pacific Heights lodge that has been hosting grandparents from Cleveland for decades. Last year, JDV started managing the property and promptly redid the stodgy rooms with art deco furniture, abstract rugs, and orchids everywhere. It's still utterly respectable but now it feels snappy and urbane, not boring.

And here's another typical Conley property: the opulent Archbishop's Mansion (built in 1904 for the archbishop of San Francisco), set amid ornate Victorians across from Alamo Square. This over-the-top inn is all parquet floors, French antiques, and tapestries. "It's breathtaking," says Lancaster, Pa., computer consultant Linda Rosado, who stayed here with her husband on their 1999 honeymoon; the couple returned this year for their first anniversary. "You feel like you're in another century, like you're back in the Victorian age of elegance. I cried when we left."

For the last 14 years, Conley, clearly a very offbeat Stanford MBA, and his very offbeat company have specialized in creating quirky boutique hotels, each tuned to the tastes of a different traveler. Conley didn't invent the idea of a boutique hotel, of course—entrepreneurs like Bill Kimpton and Ian Schrager were there before him. But he has taken the concept to crazier, funnier—and more affordable—extremes. For someone who started out with no experience, a shoestring budget, and some wildly unconventional ideas, he has been astonishingly successful. In 1999, Joie de Vivre grossed $40 million, and its hotels boast some of the highest occupancy rates in San Francisco. "Hotel companies are often established by people with hotel management degrees and 10 years of experience," says Jay Scott, president of Scott Hospitality Consultants in San Francisco. "Chip's one of a kind."

In 1986, Conley was 26 and working in real estate development. He was helping negotiate a deal with rock promoter Bill Graham when Graham mentioned that someone should open a Bay Area hotel for struggling musicians. Conley had always been fascinated with hotels—his interests were, to put it mildly, eclectic. He had recently finished writing a screenplay and was training to be a massage therapist. He figured a hotel might support these pursuits.

With $1 million borrowed from friends and family, he quit his job and bought a pay-by-the-hour motel in San Francisco's Tenderloin district. The place was a boarded-up mess, but it was all he could afford. He didn't have money to hire painters, so he bought a keg and invited 25 friends to drink beer, swim, and paint the place turquoise and pink. He renamed it the Phoenix and asked everyone from travel agents to nightclub owners to send band members his way. And they did. Musicians—along with a lot of other people—loved the bamboo furniture, the groovy leopard-print chairs, the loud Caribbean-theme art, and the tropical pool area, all right in the vibrant, seedy heart of the city.

"A lot of musicians stay at the Phoenix," says Bruce Solar of Absolute Artists, which represents musicians from the band Cake to Rickie Lee Jones. "It's funky and cool and you don't have to worry about being quiet."

Thirteen years after the Phoenix opened its doors, Conley's screenplay is gathering dust. But his first book, The Rebel Rules: How to Be Yourself in Business, will be published by Simon & Schuster in January, with a foreword by billionaire mogul Richard Branson. At 39, Conley now runs a company with 700 employees and 21 highly original Bay Area properties, including the Kabuki Springs & Spa, the vegan restaurant Millennium, a campground, and a couple of trendy bars. But he is best known for his roster of hotels, which run the spectrum from posh to minimalist to delightfully tacky.

It was in developing the Phoenix that Conley began devising his formula, refined over the years, for creating a hotel with a colorful and unique personality. Conley seems able to tap into a lot of different "psychographics," by which he means people's tastes, values, and aspirations. It helps that he has, at one time or another, been interested in almost everything—writing, massage, art, mountain biking, film, holistic health. And he has developed hotels around his interests.

When Conley comes up with an idea—say, a New Age hotel focused on wellness that has spa services, healthy breakfasts, and hand-sewn mattresses—he and his team find a magazine that can serve as shorthand for what the hotel's about. In the case of the Nob Hill Lambourne, for instance, the magazine was Men's Health.

Then Conley and his team pinpoint five adjectives that will speak to their guests—and these words inform everything from the look of the in-room directories to the staff uniforms. At the Rex, for instance, one of the adjectives is worldly, and it would be fair to say that everything from the old globe collection at the bar to the location (close to downtown and the theaters) to the original drawings of dancer Martha Graham could be described as worldly.

The details, Conley has come to believe, matter deeply, because he wants to do more than give people a pleasant place to spend the night. A native of Long Beach, Calif., Conley comes across as a rare combination of charmingly flaky, extremely smart, and completely sincere, never more so than when he talks about his theory of "identity refreshment."

It's not as kooky as it sounds. If you check into a drab motel, you could leave feeling as drab and ordinary as one of the cheap bedspreads. If you check into a classy hotel, you'll probably feel a little more special. Conley asks, Why not fine-tune that relationship? Say you can't live without your subscription to Islands magazine and you like to think of yourself as creative and a bit campy. The Hotel del Sol is probably the hotel for you. Staying there is going to reinforce that identity.

Rates at JDV hotels range from the moderate Hotel del Sol ($99 a night) to the deluxe Archbishop's Mansion ($189 to $419). This was a conscious decision. Conley is frequently compared to Ian Schrager, the Studio 54 impresario behind creative and fiendishly expensive hotels like the Mondrian in Los Angeles and the Royalton in New York. It's a comparison Conley finds flattering, but feels compelled to qualify. "He's all about exclusivity, about deciding who gets to come in behind the stanchion," Conley says. "This sounds so politically correct and self-glorifying, but I'm all about inclusivity. The idea that only people paying $250 a night can have a good experience feels unfair."

Until last year, most of Conley's projects were urban. But his foray into "cushy campgrounds" may be his most interesting venture yet. The rugged Pacific Coast south of San Francisco is an obvious camping getaway. But, Conley asks, what working parent has time to assemble all the tents and tarps required for a bona fide camping trip?

He's onto something. On a warm spring weekend, Costanoa—JDV's year-old campground south of Half Moon Bay—is bustling with families. Carpeted with poppies and lupines, Costanoa is an easy 20-minute walk through tall grass from a glorious beach. It abuts 30,000 acres of state park threaded with biking and hiking trails. There's a rustic lodge and a handful of cabins, but mostly there are tents scattered among the pines. For $85 a night, a guest can rent an "adventure tent"—a peaked-roof canvas bungalow with beds. Bathrooms are communal, but they're lofty and immaculate, built from smooth concrete and unfinished wood beams.

Then there's the enormous general store. No shelves of overpriced bug spray here. Instead you'll find tins of lemon verbena salve, goat cheese, and great wine. If you forgot the hot dogs, pick up potato pancakes and chocolate ganache cupcakes from the deli.

Do such upscale amenities detract from the camping spirit? Only if you think camping has to mean dirty latrines and pork 'n' beans. Costanoa is an elegant solution to a problem people didn't even know they had. You can still build a fire and gaze at the stars. Nights are cold and you have to watch out for ticks. But in the morning, there's Sumatra Mandehling coffee with real cream. You won't hear many complaints, and you might just find your identity's been refreshed.

Chip's Choices

One of Chip Conley's favorite hotel experiences was checking into his room at Bangkok's luxurious Mandarin Oriental Hotel and finding gold-embossed stationery with his name on it. But he also appreciates humbler accommodations. He first glimpsed what he calls "the nobility of the hospitality industry" when he was a student backpacking around Germany. He caught a bad case of the flu, and the owner of a small-town bed-and-breakfast took him in, tucked him in bed, and fed him chicken soup until he was well. "Twenty years later, that experience is like yesterday for me," Conley says. Here are some of his favorite hotels in the West:

The Inn of the Anasazi, Santa Fe: "It's got all the best things about Santa Fe without the kitsch. And it makes you feel healthy. Sometimes air conditioners can dry you out, but this place feels really fresh." And they put cookies on your pillow every night.

Hotel Oceana, Santa Monica: "Being a beach boy myself, I really enjoy the spirit of the beach that infuses this property. It has the flavor of a New England beach cottage and there's a kick-back, luxurious attitude, if that isn't oxymoronic."

The Inn at the Market, Seattle: "It's right at Pike Place Market, which is perfect because the market is the epitome of everything Seattle—a democratic place where the fishermen are the stars, where it doesn't matter if it's rainy or gray because you can go indoors or outdoors. It feels like a little European hotel, right at the foot of the waterfront, with that salty smell in the air."

Miraval, Tucson: "I enjoy some dry heat since we don't get much of that in San Francisco, plus I like eating plentifully yet losing weight. It's rejuvenating to exercise all day—hiking and biking in the desert—and then come back for pampering at night. While the spa is posh, it has a Buddhist mindfulness. It's not as focused on how you look as on making you feel good."

The Inn at Occidental, Sonoma County: "My friend Jack Bullard runs the best bed-and-breakfast in the West, close to wine tasting and the exotic enzyme baths at Freestone. He's a fanatic for American folk art, so there's a collection of it throughout the house, and there's a long wraparound porch for taking in the Sonoma sunshine. He's the consummate innkeeper."

Find more things to do in Occidental, CA

Joie de Vivre's Bay Area properties

San Francisco

Commodore Hotel (Paris Match)—At Union Square, 825 Sutter St., (415) 923-6800, (800) 338-6848.

Hotel Bijou (Premiere)—At Union Square, 111 Mason St., (415) 771-1200, (800) 771-1022.

Hotel del Sol—(Martha Stewart Living meets Islands), In the Marina, 3100 Webster St., (415) 921-5520, (877) 433-5765.

Phoenix Hotel (Rolling Stone)—Near the Civic Center, 601 Eddy St., (415) 776-1380, (800) 248-9466.

Andrews Hotel—At Union Square, 624 Post St., (415) 563-6877, (800) 926-3739.

Maxwell Hotel—(Saturday Evening Post) At Union Square, 386 Geary St., (415) 986-2000, (888) 734-6299.

Hotel Rex (The New Yorker)—At Union Square, 562 Sutter St., (415) 433-4434, (800) 433-4434.

Savoy Hotel—At Union Square, 580 Geary St., (415) 441-2700, (800) 227-4223.

Laurel Inn—(Life meets House Beautiful) In Pacific Heights, 444 Presidio Ave., (415) 567-8467, (800) 552-8735.

Nob Hill Lambourne (Men's Health)—On Nob Hill, 725 Pine St., (415) 433-0975, (800) 274-8466.

Archbishop's Mansion—(Harlequin romance novels) On Alamo Square, 1000 Fulton St., (415) 563-7872, (800) 543-5820.

Jackson Court—In Pacific Heights, 2198 Jackson St., (415) 929-7670.

Mill Valley (Marin County)

Mill Valley Inn—165 Throckmorton Ave., (415) 389-6608, (800) 595-2100.

Acqua Hotel (Feng Shui)—555 Redwood Hwy., (415) 380-0400, (800) 662-9555.

San Mateo County Coast

Costanoa (Vanity Fair meets Outside)—2001 Rossi Rd., Pescadero, (650) 879-1100, (800) 738-7477.

Other Properties

Kabuki Springs & Spa—traditional Japanese bath and spa in Japantown, 1750 Geary Blvd., (415) 922-6000.

Restaurants and Cocktail Lounges

Backflip—restaurant and nightclub in the Phoenix Hotel, 601 Eddy Street, (415) 771-3547.

Millennium—vegan restaurant in the Abigail Hotel, 246 McAllister St., (415) 487-9800.

Brasserie Savoy—restaurant and bar in the Savoy Hotel, 580 Geary St., (415) 441-8080.

Titanic Café—diner in the Commodore Hotel, 817 Sutter St., (415) 928-8870.

Red Room—cocktail lounge in the Commodore Hotel, 827 Sutter St., (415) 346-7666.

This article was first published in July 2000. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.