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INTERVIEW - CHRIS NADER, FOUNDER OF ENVI LODGES: " WE HAVE SET OURSELVES THE CHALLENGE OF ENTERING A VERY DIFFICULT REGION IN TERMS OF SUSTAINABILITY"

As he prepares to open his first luxury lodges, Chris Nader talks about his ambitions and the pitfalls faced by those committed to a more virtuous hotel industry.

INTERVIEW - CHRIS NADER, FOUNDER OF ENVI LODGES: " WE HAVE SET OURSELVES THE CHALLENGE OF ENTERING A VERY DIFFICULT REGION IN TERMS OF SUSTAINABILITY"

As he prepares to open his first luxury lodges, Chris Nader talks about his ambitions and the pitfalls faced by those committed to a more virtuous hotel industry.

Category: Worldwide - Industry economy - Hotel opening Hotel projects New brands / Affiliations Sustainability - Interviews
Interview made by Vanessa Guerrier-Buisine on 2024-02-16


Chris Nader, CEO and cofounder of Envi Lodges

Chris Nader, CEO and cofounder of Envi Lodges
Photo credit © ENVI Lodges

Hospitality runs in the blood of the Nader family, and Chris has not escaped this fate, where this is not only about passion, but also an intrinsic value. A taste for others, generosity, commitment to communities and destinations, but also a sense of business and the desire to set up concrete projects. These are the personality traits and sources of motivation that led Chris Nader and his partner Noelle Homsy to co-found Envi Lodges.

Chris got his first taste of the hotel business when he was very young, working in the family business and later in his brother's restaurants and beach clubs. Although his relatives urged him not to go down this route, in favour of more comfortable and lucrative options, Chris knew he wanted to go into the hospitality business. From Canada, where he was living at the time, he hesitated between the Ivy League with Cornell and Europe and the EHL Hospitality Business School. He chose EHL for its excellence and for the cultural openness embodied by the Swiss school.

During his MBA, he stayed in an ecolodge and realized just how interesting the model was, from both the business and experiential angles. It's an authentic and memorable experience, where comfort may be spartan, but emotions are heightened tenfold. He tried his hand at several hotel groups before deciding to establish Envi Lodges. In 2021, Envi was born. Today, he is piloting the launch of his lodges from Dubai, with the first one due to open in Oman next April.

In an interview with Le Journal des Palaces, Chris Nader discusses the challenges of a more virtuous model, the choice of locations and future developments.

What is the genesis and DNA of Envi Lodges?

Envi is all about :
  • Luxury alternative accommodation, combining design and experience,
  • Low-impact thanks to adapted construction method,
  • Immersion in nature, with a thoughtful choice of the site,
  • Connection to local culture and communities, to ensure a positive impact,
  • Operating in a sustainable, sometimes regenerative, manner,
  • Focus on providing experiences, not only accommodation.

How do you define luxury hospitality?

Luxury has a different meaning for different people. It can even take different meanings for the same person, depending on context.
If I go to a luxury hotel in a city, I expect a large bathroom and a freestanding bathtub. If I go to a luxury lodge, luxury for me is to be able to sleep in a beautiful tent in a breathtaking site, knowing that my footprint is minimal, is an encounter with a rare animal, is experiencing a farm to table meal, is having meaningful interactions with the locals.

How do you combine the philosophy of “meaningful nature-centric lodges” with the level of comfort expected by a luxury traveller? Do you refuse certain requests to remain in line with your values?

Comfort for us is an important element of the brand. We are a luxury lodge operator, not a camping company. The basic luxury necessities are there: comfortable bed, hot shower, air conditioning where required, good food, attentive service, personalized experiences. But luxury has to be taken in the context of outdoor hospitality. If you go to a lodge, you should know that a few things you are used to in a classic luxury hotel may not be available.

We need to educate a lot to align expectations and avoid disappointments. Education is a key element of our sustainability mission.

Are you also committed to producing eco-responsible F&B offer?

Our F&B philosophy is to prioritize produce from our farm and surrounding farms. We want half of our ingredients to come from within a kilometre of our lodges. When we're in arid regions, we widen this circle, and won't be able to find all the ingredients.

But in the middle of the desert, some guests also want salmon with their eggs. This raises the question of sourcing. How far are we going to import this salmon? Do we bring in wild salmon from potentially further away? If we want to be luxurious, we have to ask ourselves about these guest requirements and make choices accordingly.

We are going to inform and educate guests when they arrive at our lodges by showing them our garden, our vegetable patch, the approach taken by our chefs and how our menus are prepared, which change every week.

What unique experiences do you offer your guests?

When we conceptualize a lodge, we start by thinking of the anchor experience that the lodge will be known for, the experience that will drive the guest journey, it’s the main purpose of the stay.

It can be either Wellness, Adventure, Agri, Cultural or Regenerative.
Indeed, we want guests to have a full programme of experiences and activities. We want them to be outdoor eventually, as you don’t come to an Envi to stay in your room.
Once we choose the anchor experience, we then develop the guest journey, choose the facilities, and imagine how we can keep our guests engaged in and outside the lodge.

What will the arrival experience be like?

With 40 to 50 keys, we can provide a personalized service. Arriving guests will be escorted to their lodge, where they will be checked in. They are taken there in an electric buggy or tricycle.
We focus on the entire journey from the guest's arrival at the entrance to our property to their lodge. What will they see along the way?

Along the way, we'll show them the chef's garden, introduce them to the yoga deck, the sensory-path, our nurseries, solar farms and so on. A whole range of explanations will be given to immerse the guest in this Envi atmosphere of well-being, food, and sustainability. It's an educational moment for the guest.

Do you aim to offer your guests a transformational experience?

The transformational part of the experience is the ultimate purpose. Obviously, not all experiences are transformational, but we strive to leave a mark on our guests during their stay, and hope it affects them beyond their stay.
I can think particularly of experiences linked to regeneration of nature or engagement with the local community.

We have a project in Oman on a sublime piece of mountain land that has been degraded by someone who has set up a cement factory. We have found it to be a noble mission, and we aim to regenerate this land. Our guests will be taking part in this project, through a range of activities designed to support the revitalization of the site.

We also have a seaside project in Oman, near a fishing village, where a large wasteland is used as a playground by the children. Our owners are making funds available so that we can create a greener, more educational environment for the village children.

Also, we focus on wellbeing in all our lodges, the connection with nature and with self, the mindfulness approach that we have to wellness, to food and activities.

Will you have to make concessions in terms of your environmental impact, depending on the destinations you visit?

We will indeed have to adapt on certain points, particularly within our lodges that will be opening in the hot countries of the Arabian Gulf.
We can't have a luxury product today if the lodges aren't air-conditioned because that would limit our operating season to two or three months. So we have to air-condition our lodges in these destinations for the season that goes from the beginning of October to the end of May, and even our swimming pools when our lodges are equipped with them.
Today, in these climates, it is financially impossible to have a completely renewable energy source powerful enough to air-condition the entire lodge and swimming pools. We have to make choices with our investors, who are not NGOs. They are prepared to have solar farms to provide energy, but it's impossible to power the air conditioning systems.

We have set ourselves the challenge of entering a very difficult region in terms of sustainability, to raise awareness among investors and make an impact. Many projects there are extravagant, without the slightest consideration for the environment. But governments, particularly in Saudi Arabia, are changing, raising investor awareness and putting money into renewable energies, as they are going to do with Red Sea Global. Private investors don't have the same clout.
I prefer to be present in these destinations, developing our lodges in the most virtuous way possible, with less impact on the environment, by tackling the grey areas.

This is a problem we don't face in Costa Rica or Zanzibar, for example.

Our ambition really is to have a portfolio of properties that is neutral in terms of environmental impact within the next five to ten years. But to achieve this goal, we need to develop the company in a geographically balanced way, to compensate for the different impacts that can occur between two regions.

An expert in sustainability will be joining our team in a few weeks' time, to develop meaningful experiences for our guests, and to develop standards that will enable us to measure our impact.

It's very important for us to communicate what we can achieve, but also what we can't, and why. This raises awareness and creates a healthier relationship between the brand and our guests.

You've just announced a strategic expansion in France, and ambitions for growth in Portugal, Spain, Italy, and Greece. Why have you made these choices?

Europe is a strategic focus for the group as we plan our next phase of expansion. We understand the European markets well, as most of our corporate team members have European origins or European ties.

We are focussing right now on the Mediterranean region of Europe, starting with France, where the natural landscape is so diverse: farms, mountains, beaches, forests. It’s an ideal topographical diversity that allows us to create circuits of lodges within markets.

There is also strong support from the EU institutions for impact investments.

Some EU markets can command high ADRs and offer different experiences depending on the season, so I can anticipate rates go easily above the EUR 1000 mark in some destinations.

How do you find sites that meet your requirements in these popular tourist destinations?

We are currently looking at four sites in France, Greece, and Italy. We have a solid network of consultants, developers, and investors that help us find those sites.

Site size matters, and we have low density projects that are positioned in the luxury space, so the size of the plot is important to provide privacy and immersion. We create responsible projects that protect the environment. If it's farmland, we'll continue farming, if it's a forest, we'll protect it and plant, offering activities and experiences in harmony with the environment.

The key is choosing sites with the right permits and zoning, but in Europe, particularly Western Europe, changing land use or getting construction permits can take years. So, we try to go for the low-hanging fruit.

Is there a critical size of site for Envi Lodges?

That's an important question that we're often asked. But it depends on what's around the plot. A small, isolated plot of land, with no buildings or activities around it, will allow us to position the lodges while preserving the immersive experience. If, on the other hand, a plot offers a view over urbanized areas or where the neighbouring land is suitable for building, we need to make sure that the plot is large enough to immerse our guests in an unspoilt environment.
Today, we have sites ranging from 50,000 m² to 250,000 m².

What are your next projects?

We are currently getting ready to open one lodge in Zanzibar and one lodge in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). We are also working actively on finalizing the design of the two tented camps in Oman, which are expected to open next year.
Then, we also hope to start construction soon on our beach lodge on the Saudi Red Sea and our project in Costa Rica.
We will also soon reveal our second lodge in the eastern province of KSA, which will have a super cool experience for our guests. Finally, we are busy finalizing two more farm projects in the Kingdom, as well as a tented camp in Tanzania, which we hope to announce in the next few months.

What advice would you give to a young person looking for a career in the luxury hotel sector?

Luxury has changed, so you need to understand what luxury is for what market, and make sure you bring innovation and disruption. Yes, there will always be opulence and gold and marble that are associated with luxury hotels. But it’s not only that.

The new generation wants a different luxury. You don’t need to work in a “Palace” (in French) to have a career in the luxury hotel sector. There are different avenues in luxury that students in hospitality may not know. They think first of operations or consulting, but there are also many other areas to start a career, like development (on the operator or owner side), design, architecture, engineering, or tech.
You can do this as an employee or as an entrepreneur. It depends on your personality, skill sets, and ambitions. If you aim to be an entrepreneur, read books and biographies of businesspeople, listen to podcasts, get educated and be curious.

Envi Al Sifah Oman

Envi Al Sifah, due to open in Oman in 2025
Photo credit © ENVI Lodges




Envi The Islita to open in Costa Rica in 2025
Photo credit © ENVI Lodges



Envi Al Nakheel to open this year in Saudi Arabia
Photo credit © ENVI Lodges



More about...
ENVI Lodges
Dubai Design District
Dubai
…mirats arabes unis

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About the author

As a journalist and luxury hotel expert inspired by the men and women who embody it, Vanessa aspires to enhance and sublimate the beauty and elegance of palaces through her writing. "In a palace, simplicity serves the quest for excellence" she admires.


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