MARIE SIBUET, CO-DIRECTOR, MAISONS & HOTELS SIBUET
In 1981, Jocelyn and Jean-Louis Sibuet decided to open a small boutique hotel in Megève—when boutique hotels were still a new entity. As the family business continues to grow, Emma Kennedy discusses the importance of family, the joy of decorating and what’s next with Marie Sibuet.
Nestled between the Italian and Swiss borders and rubbing snow-capped shoulders with neighbouring Chamonix is the ski resort of Megève. Apparently, disenchanted with St.Moritz, the Rothschilds descended upon the slopes in the 1920s, sealing its reputation as one of the more elegant resorts—or so the story goes. French aristocracy and fashionable society soon followed, and the picturesque village—known more for its agricultural offerings than its ski slopes—soon became the chic resort it is today.
Fast forward one hundred years and its reputation for being one of the more affluent ski destinations is still intact. Few reviews pass by without making discreet (or otherwise) references to the not insubstantial costs involved in staying in Megève. Encouraged by the calibre and enthusiasm of guests looking for something a little different, in 1981, husband and wife team at the time, Jocelyn and Jean-Louis Sibuet dipped their snow boots into hospitality and opened a small boutique hotel. Learning the hospitality ropes quickly, success soon followed and by 1989 they had laid the foundations for what was to become one of the resort’s most sought-after hotels, Les Fermes de Marie. With a clear idea of what they wanted to offer and the realisation there wasn’t too much competition, they went on to buy the Hotel Mont-Blanc and Lodge Park, where they stamped the now recognisable Sibuet hallmark of style and quality. More properties followed in quick succession before Maisons & Hotels Sibuet expanded their portfolio and ventured South to Provence, St. Tropez, and most recently the Caribbean.
Today, Maisons & Hotels Sibuet is still a family business, with Jocelyn and Jean-Louis’s daughter, Marie, and son, Nicolas, at the helm. Interested to hear more, I schedule a Zoom with Marie, which for reasons unknown to me is replaced with a good old-fashioned phone call. Any reservations I may have had for this change soon dissipated the minute the call began. Immediately feeling the warmth and joie de vivre in her voice, I think—not for the first time—who needs Zoom?
Deciding to join a family business is often a loaded decision, and I start by asking Marie if it was a foregone conclusion to become a part of Maisons & Hotels Sibuet. “Not at all,” she tells me in her sing-song French accent. “Really it was quite the opposite. Growing up I always thought I would do something else—I had seen how hard my parents had to work to build the business, and when I was little it felt like they were always busy day and night… but now I realise that like so many people who grow up in the business, you can’t do anything else!” she laughs.
Curious to understand what had originally inspired her parents to open Les Fermes de Marie, she considers the question carefully before answering. “Les Fermes was their second hotel. First, they had opened a very small hotel, but I think, as I now also appreciate, once you have started in the industry, you always want to move up to something bigger.”
Unsure of exactly where her own career lay, Marie went to business school and studied marketing and communications, feeling this would give her a transferable skill set. “I still wasn’t sure about going into the hotel side of the business,” she continued. “But, before the hotels, my mother’s background had been in the cosmetics industry. She wanted to have a spa in the hotel, but at the time spas didn’t really exist in France or the Alps, so they went to the States to try and understand more. They wanted to offer something more global, and the spa industry was still an American concept. When they returned, they decided to design it as a total wellbeing experience, and she launched a product brand called Pure Altitude, which I loved.” Since then, the eponymous spas have become an integral part of the business, with one attached to each of their hotels.
Aged 22, Marie took on the role in commercial sales for Pure Altitude. “It was hard, driving through France, often in the middle of nowhere, but it was interesting, and you learn so much in sales.” Taking it further afield proved successful and Pure Altitude still plays an important part in the Sibuet brand, supplying spas and pharmacies across Europe and exporting to Thailand and Japan. “There’s still a lot to do, but it’s growing.’’ She adds.
Over time, Marie inevitably became more involved in the running of the hotels, first turning her attention to marketing. “I was enjoying the marketing side of the business, but when the General Manager left in 2012, we made the decision, as a family, to take back the responsibility. It was a gradual move, but over time my brother and I took on more and more and eventually we became Co-Directors. My leadership style is to be fully involved from the floor up. I am always there at the beginning and the end of the seasons, to open and close the properties. We have clear roles. Nicolas is more involved with the renovation side, I’m more involved with say, creating a menu, and making sure guests feel welcome—as if it were there home. We call our hotels our home, because they are more than just hotels. They are where you come to live for a part of your life. A special moment with family or loved ones,” she adds.
At this juncture, Maisons & Hotels Sibuet had a healthy-sized portfolio of nine hotels, dotted across the Alps. They had ventured south to Provence and St. Tropez with the launch of three more properties, and in 2016 had taken the brand to St. Barts in the Caribbean. Alongside this, their entrepreneurial spirit had inevitably led to other businesses including a host of chalets, restaurants and bars, spas, and even a grocery shop in Megève. However, realising the focus was beginning to feel too scattered—a fact not lost on Marie—in 2019, pre-pandemic, the family got together to discuss their future.
“The question was ‘What next?’ We started to consider the next 15 years and asked ourselves where we wanted to go and who we wanted to be. It was a big question because when you have 12 hotels you have a choice of two different roads. Either you decide to grow—but for this you need the finances and as a family business, we couldn’t continue to grow without investment. So, we took the decision to remain a family business. This was just before Covid hit, so possibly the best decision of our lives! We decided to sell six of the properties, become smaller but invest the money back into the business. We spent a lot of time thinking about our concept with the teams involved and began to renovate and develop existing projects—and of course—introduce some new ones. We wanted to create an entire Sibuet experience for our guests.”
Reading some of the reviews of their hotels, there is a recurring theme. The word ‘emotion’ features a lot, so when I ask Marie what she believes is behind her family’s success, I don’t doubt her response. “We have a true story, that we have built over the years. There is an emotion that our guests feel when they arrive at our hotels. When you stay at Les Fermes de Marie, the story is all around you, because my father created this hotel more than thirty years ago with his own hands. We have a lot of staff who have been working with us for many years—and this is what brings the special emotion that I believe our guests feel. It’s not always perfect, but it’s true. Most places have a story—the difference is ours hasn’t been created in the communications department.’’
Helping to evoke that emotion are undoubtedly the hotel’s interiors. The aesthetic throughout the ski properties is an inviting mix of fur, leather, rough-hewn logs and kilim fabrics, with modern elements dropped in to give it a contemporary vibe. In Provence, undecorated walls of soft plaster and warm stone sit quietly with strong earthy tones and natural linens. Successfully avoiding the predictable Provencal ‘look’ by mixing it up with mid-century furniture, curated gems in rattan and bold seventies lamps, they evoke a timeless feel of being inhabited by lives that have been well lived.
Discussing the interiors Marie explains, “We design our own interiors. We never bring people in. My mother started this, and we continue as a family. We are all involved—sometimes it might be my brother and father, other times, my mother and I… it just depends on the project. That’s what makes it special. We change things around—we adapt to the project. We embrace the spirit and look for the narrative. In St Barts, we have gone for bright and colourful—but still, guests say they recognise it as a Sibuet.”
Given her original reluctance to embrace the family business, I finish the interview by asking Marie how she combines the challenges of a demanding career and those of being a mother to two small children. “Well, I have to be efficient. I try to get home at a proper time each day, so I am there for them. I decided this from the beginning. I love my job and I love my kids, so I make it work. We are working on two new restaurants, a new bar, and a Pure Altitude shop—plus a two-year renovation project about to start. Really the next five years are quite full!”
Without a doubt, Marie has inherited her parent’s entrepreneurial drive and what will be launched next is anyone’s guess. I have a mental image of Marie, speeding down life’s slalom navigating her way around projects like flags—looking for the next run before crossing the finishing line.