Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

One was born in the U.S. and now lives in Panama. 

The other was born in La Reunion and now lives in France.

One is a tour operator who also runs a hotel. The other is a hotelier who also offers tours.

Both stood out to me at the LE Miami conference earlier this month because of their unusual business models, born of inexperience and yet developing in original and exciting ways. Are they the tip of the spear of unidentified trends, or are they more akin to a species that developed in the Galapagos, evolving without tether to the mainstream and likely to remain an isolated phenomenon?

First, the hotel in France. Elsa Manelphe de Wailly is director of Chateau Castigno in Assignan. As the name suggests, there is a chateau involved in this hospitality project, though it would be a mistake for guests to assume they will be staying in it.

I use the word "project" intentionally. Two years ago, a Belgian couple bought the chateau and its attached vineyard where organic wine is made.

The nearby hamlet, Assignan, population 100, was withering. Young people were fleeing as soon as they came of age. The Belgians saw several abandoned buildings.

They had an idea. They began to purchase the abandoned buildings -- a stable, a large house, a cottage for two. They were not thinking about managing Airbnb properties; they were thinking about creating the mother of all authentic hospitality experiences: a hotel completely embedded and integrated into a French village, where guests would become, temporarily, village residents.

They turned one building into a wine bar, another into a restaurant that aspires to a Michelin star. They opened a Thai restaurant and a bistro.

Initially, the local populace did not embrace the newcomers. The road to acceptance was "long and hard," Manelphe de Wailly said. But the owners invested in restoring the environs, and everyone's houses became more valuable. The Belgians provided employment for 15 residents. Now, Manelphe de Wailly said, when you go to the main square, residents mix easily with guests and staff at the wine bar.

The hotel is a five-star, the rooms are well appointed, and fine art hangs on the walls. And the Michelin star is no pipe dream. There are 10 chefs to prepare food for a maximum of 15 guests.

The project attracted an eclectic staff spanning 12 nationalities (Manelphe de Wailly's Uruguayan husband gave up his career as a film director to join his wife at the hotel as a cook). Two of the chefs are former lawyers; another studied fine arts. At 42, Manelphe de Wailly is the oldest employee.

The Belgians have also turned their attention to wine production, and tours of the chateau's winery are among the offerings. All tours are hyperlocal.

One, for example, visits a nearby river that serves as a regional swimming hole. Guests can harvest alongside grape pickers, then have dinner with them. The hotel organizes hikes and picnics as well as offering horses, electric bikes, Vespas and vintage cars to explore the area.

The technology -- or lack thereof -- is hyperlocal, as well. When she first heard there was extremely poor internet connectivity in Assignan, Manelphe de Wailly felt the project might be doomed. But it turned out to be an attractive feature.

"We don't market it as digital detox," she said, "but there is only one room where people can go in an emergency to connect, a small room, and we make it quite uncomfortable."

No WiFi and no TVs in the rooms turned out to be something guests embraced. Now Manelphe de Wailly is worried about the impending reach of 4G into the village in two or three years.

But until then, "you won't see people Instagramming their food. It's so nice!" she said. "Parents can't give their kids phones to keep them quiet. The parents stress about it more than kids do."

Two other old-fashioned touches: No locks on the door, and the hotel pays travel agent commissions. Low season rates are $151 for two people and $441 in high season.

At LE Miami, I also spoke to Panama-based Rob Harper, director of business development for Namu Travel Group, a tour operator offering upscale custom tours in Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Panama, Guatemala and Colombia.

Neither he nor the two founding partners had any previous industry experience; the business morphed from a blog one of them had begun in the 1990s. Never having been exposed to the industry or GDSs, they built their own reservation system, back-office financial software and an itinerary builder.

"We had our own customer relationship management tool, too, but now use third-party CRM," Harper said.

When they needed more inventory in Costa Rica, they built a hotel.

But to me, the most surprising element of their business is that they also built a network of 28 travel agents -- independent contractors who sell nothing but Namu tours. Namu works with other travel agents, but these 28 work only with Namu.

I admire these two companies that do things their own way and make it work. I just can't figure out whether they represent a potentially invasive species or Darwin's finches.


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