20 minutes with: Thierry Teyssier, who is trying to create a new travel experience
A striking fact about 57-year-old Frenchman Thierry Teyssier is not only that he has followed a complicated career path – from theater to corporate life to forward-thinking visionary of the journey of the 21st century – but that there is such a strong line connecting all of these roles.
Its first act in the luxury travel industry, Dar Ahlam (meaning “House of Dreams”), a highly awarded “casbah” hotel on the edge of the Moroccan Sahara, carried its own element of over-the-top theater. It’s a sybaritic place where guests compose their experiences as they go, and 100 staffers tend to just 14 rooms.
Teyssier’s anxiety and sense of drama then led him, in 2018, to create 700,000 Hours, the first “wandering hotel” in the world. Covid notwithstanding, his soulful, communal “micro-hospitality” places have sprung up from Angkor Wat to Brazilian nature to Place Vendôme. 700,000 Hours (named after the number of hours in an average human life) takes social responsibility as seriously as guest comfort. The company is advancing a program run by Teyssier’s non-profit, DAEM, which teaches sustainable skills to locally recruited staff at 700,000 Hours locations, and works to renew local cultures through partnerships with organizations such as the World Heritage Fund.
Teyssier sees himself on an urgent mission to create a new type of travel experience. “It’s too late to talk about ‘sustainability,'” he says. “We have already destroyed too much. We have to rebuild, we have to create “regenerative tourism”. »
SLOPE: You’ve had a whole career evolution from actor and director to sort of luxury travel visionary, I’d like to know how it worked out.
Thierry Teyssier: Let’s say that the first part of my life I worked on stage and around theatres. I created a theater company and organized plays all over the country. We would stage plays in a garden, or just lit by candles in a castle, things like that. So I was already completely out of the box.
But I realized that we needed money from sponsors and companies, so I started to be in between, organizing events for companies in theatres. This has gradually become a corporate events company, a pure player, not just theatre. And it worked very well, because we were 65 in the company, plus 200 freelancers every day. We were number three in France.
It was at this time that I understood something about hotels: they care about my clients – they wanted my clients’ money, but they didn’t want to change their ways for them. Each time it was a fight. The hotel would say, ‘Stop saying yes to your customers!’ These hotels, with all their rules, all their organization, have completely forgotten to focus on their customers.
So when I don’t agree with something, I try to change it. I was not a hotelier, but I decided to create this crazy casbah, Dar Ahlam, in the middle of nowhere in Morocco.
So if I came to Dar Ahlam, what would be so different?
You don’t have a reception, you don’t have a key, you don’t have a restaurant! We prepare your table for you, perhaps on the terrace or outside near the bar, you will never eat twice at the same place or with other guests around you. Want dinner at midnight? Breakfast at 2 p.m.? It will be possible. When will your private tour depart you are ready. On your arrival we explain the rules to you: there are no rules.
From Dar Ahlam, I developed the idea that a hotel is not four walls and a roof. It’s a question of hospitality, a state of mind to make you happy. I realized that we could completely change the idea of a hotel.
Is this where “roaming hotels” come in?
So I created 700,000 Hours, which is the first nomadic hotel on Earth. I decided to move from one country to another every six months. I heard my clients say: “Before, I thought: Thierry is cool, but a little crazy. Now I can see he’s completely mad.’
So how does it work, where have you been?
We first went to Salento south of Puglia [in Italy], to an old palace. I decided to work with communities and non-professionals with a social objective behind each opening. In Italy, we worked with young men and women from the village, and the second half of the team was made up of migrants, West African migrants. The idea was to say “let’s see how we can work and live together”. It worked wonderfully.
Then I went to Cambodia. There is an NGO there that takes care of 1,200 children in a school and they pay for the school with a circus, and we have trained them in the hotel industry to make them earn a little more money.
Then we went to Lençóis, Brazil. A spectacular place. Then we were in Japan, in a small fishing village. We have completely restored a house there and created something amazing. And after that we were on Lake Como.
You have done a lot!
Yes, with our little hands, all in three and a half years. But I realized that what I loved the most during those years was working and living with the communities, supporting them and learning from them.
It’s crazy, but we are 1.4 billion tourists each year, traveling on less than 5% of the planet. If I have an image in front of my eyes, it is that of a mining industry. We extract everything from a place and then: it’s done!
We need to change the scale of our tourism and start talking about micro-hospitality and giving back to the locals, working with them and distributing tourism money to preserve their cultures and traditions. Everywhere villages are dying and young generations are leaving the countryside.
And everyone wants to feel reconnected, I think. You will travel somewhere if it moves you. It may be about your soul, or your brain, or your body, or your story, but if there’s no connection, you won’t travel anymore. We are changing the way we welcome tourists.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.