Interview met Ruud Belmans from WeWantMore and Steven Verrept from Château de Vignée on the transformation of a 400-year-old castle into a unique guest experience in the top segment of the Belgian Ardennes.
Independent Hotel Show Amsterdam
Ruud and Steven will be speaking on the Innovation Stage, powered by HotelPartner Yield Management, designed by Edward van Vliet, on Tuesday 18 March about keeping balance in the design process between the commercial front-of-house and operational back-of-house.
"It is an ode to nature in which concept, interior design and guest experience blend together into one, exceptional narrative."
The office of WeWantMore exudes a sense of dynamism. In this creative, beating heart in Antwerp we are talking to Ruud Belmans, creative director and founder of the "design studio for graphic and interior design" and Steven Verrept, general manager of the recently opened Château de Vignée, located in the Belgian Ardennes. They take us with them in their narrative about the transformation of a 400-year-old castle into a luxury boutique hotel in the middle of the Belgian Ardennes. It's a story in which practical thinking was essential, but it also kept us awake at night with the seemingly unending list of completion items that is involved in this kind of process.
Creating a place where the client himself would like to stay...
The current owner of Château de Vignée loves spending time in the Ardennes. Years ago, his path to this unique natural environment in Belgium brought him to the very place that now possesses his soul. He had been a regular guest for more than 15 years in the hotel when one day it became clear that the (then) owners were ready to enjoy their well-earned retirement. "He didn't have any second thoughts about taking over the property and hotel operation. But, continuing as before didn't feel right," says Steven, who had already been working with the new owner for years. "Château de Vignée had to become a unique experience in the Ardennes. A distinctive offering in the region that would appeal to the needs of travellers in the luxury segment. A sumptuous home in a natural surrounding to escape to from fast-paced lives." Together with Steven he discussed the options, and after getting to know WeWantMore a bit better the client took a radical decision: the history of the listed chateau deserved a new and strong narrative. Design studio for graphic and interior design WeWantMore got the commission to develop it.
At dawn, a misty landscape emerges. Nature slowly and silently lifts its veil, revealing colours just as they must have once appeared to hunters long ago, when this estate was the royal hunting ground of Villers-Sur-Lesse. With their gaze firmly fixed on the natural surroundings, they observe the marvellous textures, experience the peace and silence and smell the leafy splendour of the ancient forest. The further the sun rises into the sky, the more the elements change and the unique natural textures become more and more visible.
The veiled scene makes way for a rich palette of colours and scents. WeWantMore summarises this - universal, recognisable sensation as an "ode to nature".
This abstract thinking about 'peace and texture' was developed by WeWantMore in to a subtle, detailed narrative about who and what Château de Vignée should be. With a clear 'sense of place' in the back of their minds, knowledge about the expectations of the future guests and the luxury segment, as well as its associated price category, WeWantMore transformed Château de Vignée into a distinctive, one-of-a-kind product. Natural comfort in hospitality joins with the capricious beauty of the Ardennes to become the château's new canvas.
The creative vision of WeWantMore matches seamlessly with the future that the owner envisioned for Château de Vignée. In addition to the mutual trust built up from previous collaborations, an additional advantage was that the owner is both an independent hotelier and at the same time also a member of the hotel's target group - meaning that the decisions required to translate the 'ode to nature concept' into a tangible and operational business model were easier to make.
Ruud: "Continuing to understand each other in this creative process from idea all the way to realisation, is the biggest challenge of them all. Since we do concept development and interior design as a studio, we have all the disciplines under just one roof, so lines of communication are short and we can control things fast when choices have to be made. Obviously, in complex, lengthy conversion projects, nothing goes completely smoothly, and we did have some sleepless nights with it. And of course, keeping the energy up during the pre-opening phase is not always that easy. Our motto? Stay focussed, keep communicating with each another and take time to enjoy the installation of the first decorative elements together, as a team."
Creating added value for guests
If your ambition is to be a top hotel for travellers in the luxury segment in the region, seeking close ties with a quality brand is essential. Preferably, a distribution network that helps you achieve brand recognition and achieve the desired status as a luxury hotel. For Steven, Relais & Châteaux is the ideal partner for this. "R&C's brand values, their approach to HRM and MICE, their focus on the kitchen, ingredients and terroir are a seamless match for the identity and the direction that we see Château de Vignée going in," says Steven. "With Relais & Châteaux we are truly creating added value in quality and distinctive assets for our guests."
Everything under 1 roof = beneficial for the client
Steven believes that having all the design disciplines under one roof at WeWantMore provided an enormous advantage during the realisation of the current Château de Vignée. "Their true involvement in the development of a narrative on location at the château, creating the identity, interior design and activation on the ground, all had a massive impact. Through co-creation we arrived at an end result in which the commercial square metres were designed through the eyes of the guests, as well as from a hospitality perspective."
WeWantMore will remain involved in the identity of the Château in order to bring it to maturity. They will provide content from branding through to guest experience design, so that the narrative continues to yield unique experiences for guests. "One great example of this is the number of art installations and objects here, which will change with the seasons. We will be exhibiting new items that characterise the changes in nature, four times per year. Regular guests will be pleasantly surprised by the changes. It is an usual approach that feels, to me, as crucial as it is logical," says Steven. "Nature beguiles the guest."
Ruud: "WeWantMore is a studio that listens with attentive interest to its clients and through co-creation arrives at an end result. Through shared enthusiasm and belief in the project, we are able to make clear agreements with each other about the choices made. What do we do well and above all: what do we not do?"
Together Ruud and Steven were able to conclude that making (and establishing) choices prevents concepts becoming cheap, watered-down versions, or concepts losing out to conservative thinking during the operational process. Showing daring, keeping the balance between design and operation, and ensuring that all the people in the team are aligned. These are a few of the enlightening criteria that facilitate efficiency and speed in delivering a unique and distinct hospitality concept.
SEVERS+JANSEN, The Hospitality Studio
Mark Severs and Kim Jansen
12 February 2020