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Chip Conley, Founder of Joie de Vivre Hotels, Has Built Empire
 by Working to Make People Happy
By Karen Robes Meeks, Press-Telegram, Long Beach, Calif.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

August 3, 2009 - LONG BEACH -- As fellow Poly High School classmates of 1978 drifted into Hotel Maya's Miramar Room, a smiling Chip Conley was at the ready, extending a handshake, a hearty hug or a kiss on the cheek.

"He's the type of person you feel like no time has passed," said classmate Laura Lovekin, who hadn't seen the Joie de Vivre Hotels founder in years.

"He's totally in his environment right now," said Terri Madison, Conley's friend who organized the reunion. "This is how he was in high school."

At 49, the fourth-generation Poly graduate has come full circle. After leaving Long Beach at 17, Conley went on to write several books on business, become a motivational speaker and create a $250 million company that measures its success not by quarterly earnings but by "the joy you create for people."

Nearly 23 years after daring to open his first hotel in the Tenderloin District of San Francisco, Conley now operates 38 hotels in California with plans to expand further into the Southern California market. His latest venture, a Latin-themed waterfront resort called Hotel Maya, just opened in Long Beach.

"In Long Beach, we thought there was a market for creative people, people in the arts, business people who want something a little different," he said. "This city has a lot to offer."

The oldest of three, Conley grew up in Bixby Knolls, on Burlinghall Drive.

"Looking back on it now, it's clear how entrepreneurial he was as a child," said mother Fran Conley, remembering her son running a restaurant out of the family dining room or rallying the neighborhood kids into the "Burlinghall Olympics." "He was a planner and a doer and thinker about events. You could tell he was a leader that people paid attention to."

After graduating from Stanford University's Graduate School of Business, he moved to San Francisco and worked in commercial real estate.

But two years into the job, Conley craved more.

"I wasn't enjoying what I did," he said. "I wanted to be doing something a little bit more creative, more people-oriented. I wanted to have a little more joy in my work."

On his 26th birthday, Conley started Joie de Vivre, which in French translates to "joy of living," a phrase that would serve as the mission statement for his career and his life.

"My metric for success would not be how much money I made but how much joy I created for myself, my employees, my customers," he said.

"But first of all, I had to convince my parents that it was a good idea to quit my job and go become a hotelier with this hotel in a bad neighborhood."

His father, Steve Conley, co-founder of Long Beach real estate and business investment firm Bancap, remembered the phone call from his son, who asked for help in reinventing a motel with the hourly rates behind its front desk.

"He didn't know anything about hotels and that concerned me," the elder Conley said. "But I backed him basically because I had a lot of confidence in him."

With funds from family and investors and sweat equity from friends, Chip turned a "hot sheets" motel into the Phoenix, a rock 'n'roll-themed hotel that has attracted celebrities such as David Bowie, Nirvana and Pearl Jam.

"As far as the new generation of what a boutique hotel is, Chip was clearly on the ground floor of that in the '80s," said Rick Swig, whose San Francisco firm, RSBA & Associates, works to support hotel owners, management companies and chains.

"Chip is an interesting balance between somebody who wants to spread a life gospel while at the same time be in a business that provides a service and a social environment."

Fran Conley recalled the way he spoke to former service employees at a few Long Beach events.

"Chip greeted them as if they were brothers he lost contact with," she said. "He has a real knack with people."

Four years ago, Joie de Vivre began expanding into Southern California, starting with Hotel Angeleno. There are six JDV hotels are in Southern California, said Conley, who plans to open Pacific Edge in Laguna Beach this fall.

Opening a hotel in Long Beach had been a decade in the making, Conley said.

"Long Beach really needed something that sort of said, 'Hey, we've arrived,"' he said. "I mean, compared to when I grew up here, Long Beach used to be a Navy town, Iowa by the Sea, and now it attracts the TED conference, the Grand Prix. There's a lot of things that say, 'You know, Long Beach deserves to be on the map."'

Meanwhile, Ensemble Real Estate was in search of a hotelier to revamp the former Coast hotels in Long Beach and Santa Cruz, which Joie de Vivre turned into the Dream Inn.

"We landed on JDV because of their creativity," said Ed Proenza, senior vice president of asset management and hotel development at Ensemble. "We were prepared to make a significant investment in both hotels, but we wanted to create something special."

The result was a $20 million renovation that turned an old hotel with tired decor into a coastal Latin setting with esplanade, floating cabanas, spaces that showcase city bay views and a new restaurant, Fuego.

"When you're off the beaten path, you better create something here that's compelling enough to get people to come over the bridge," Conley said.

For Conley, the process of bringing a Joie de Vivre hotel to Long Beach has been like renewing an old friendship.

"It's great to be back, and it's great to come back as an adult and experience it in a new way," Conley said. "This has been a welcome back for me."

karen.robes@presstelegram.com, 562-499-1303

Quick facts: Chip Conley

Age: 49

Who: Founder and CEO of Joie de Vivre Hospitality, which Chip founded in 1987 and now boasts 38 hotels in California; author of several business books such as "The Rebel Rules: Daring to be Yourself in Business" and "Peak: How Great Companies Get Their Mojo From Maslow."

Known for: Innovative hotel design and unique business management.

Honors: Joie de Vivre won third Best Place to Work in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2009; Conley was named the Bay Area's Most Innovative CEO in 2007 by the San Francisco Business Times.

Fun fact No. 1: Conley's family roots in Long Beach date back to the late 1880 s when his ancestors first purchased a summer cottage in Willmore City. Conley's great-great-grandfather, Stephen Townsend, who opened Long Beach's first general insurance and real estate sales office on Pine Avenue, was also Long Beach's second mayor, serving two terms from 1902 to 1904.

Fun fact No. 2: Chip's father, Steve Conley, is on Joie de Vivre's Board of Directors. "Maybe I can be a little tougher on him than some people because dads are always tough, but I think it's a very, very good relationship of mutual respect," Steve said. "I feel in our relationship today, I learn more from him than he learns from me."

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To see more of the Press-Telegram, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.press-telegram.com.

Copyright (c) 2009, Press-Telegram, Long Beach, Calif.

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