Meet Meryanne Loum-Martin, A Parisian lawyer turned entrepreneur and founder of Jnane Tamsna, The only Black woman-owned boutique hotel located in Marrakech, Morocco.
We had a chat with her to talk about her inspiring journey from France to Marrakech, lessons she learned from the challenges and the triumphs along the way, the importance of Black female hotel ownership and how she created one of Morocco’s most beloved retreats, and the incredible plans she has for creating a space where African artists and creatives of the diaspora are celebrated!
Could you tell us a bit about yourself?
My name is Meryanne Loum-Martin. My father is Senegalese, my mother was French West Indian. Paris was home until I discovered Marrakech. I always travelled a lot either as a child with my parents and as a teenager and young adult alone. I am fascinated by the world and the diversity of its cultures.
What led to your path of being a Hotelier?
By pure coincidence… Since I was a child, I was fascinated by architecture and design. As soon as I could I would always travel to explore famous architects work. I went to architecture school at 17 yrs old, after my Baccalauréat, ( French A Levels) . I was totally at ease with creative subjects but was too bad in Maths to become an architect. Unfortunately it is part of the architecture studies in France. So I went to law school and became a lawyer, like everyone in my family. On my mother’s side I am 4 th generation, on my father”s 2nd generation.
But I always kept as a hobby a foot into design, advising friends on their house, etc..
In the mid-eighties my parents wanted to build a holiday house abroad but close to Europe. As the self-taught designer of the family, I asked to be in charge. This is how I came to Marrakech for the first time in December 1985 to scout for land.
Immediately I fell in love with the country, dark blue skies, the regal Atlas Mountains covered with snow, the palm groves and the rose gardens . I built and designed a house for them, convinced them to do a bigger place than what our family needed so I would turn it into a business. It opened in 1989 as the 1st boutique hospitality concept in Marrakech. It had unbelievable press coverage worldwide and the most discerning and famous clients.
As Marrakech, only had big hotels before, my first property, which opened in 1989, happens to be chronologically the one which put Marrakech on the map of boutique hospitality. Our clientele was: Giorgio Armani, Mick Jagger, Brad Pitt, Princess Caroline of Monaco, European royals, David Bowie and Iman, Sade, top models, European and American socialites, fashion stars, and all Parisian CEOs. The place reputation took off as very connected people started the word of mouth. We also had amazing features in all major magazines in the US, in Europe, and worldwide.
I had carefully listened to the complaints about the holidays on offer and made a marketing study based on well-travelled friends whose expectations I trusted.
I created a “private home” experience with the excellence of a hotel service. In 1996, – I had by then resigned from Paris Bar and my law career – I moved to Marrakech and went on to do new projects. The hotel I have now www.jnanetamsna.com I built in 2001. My husband, who is passionate about plants, designed the gardens, and I did the architecture and the interiors. We broke grounds on January 6th 2001 and opened on Dec 27th the same year with a full house. I believe building a place in 11 months and 3 weeks is a record.
What were some of the highlights and challenges that came with growing Jnane Tamsna to the point where it is?
Highlights: We are blessed that our hotel attracts wonderful people. And word of mouth has been very good. I have also been able to design and host cultural events which I love doing. Literary salons, creative writing workshops or celebrating the creativity of our diaspora, through the “ Afreeculture forum” that we launched this year. Our diaspora creativity in literature, cinema and entrepreneurship were celebrated for 4 days as Jnane Tamsna hosted conversations brilliantly moderated by authors, film screening with their directors and festive events in the evening. Among our Nigerian guests, we had the authors Taiye Sélasi, Enuma Okoro, Chika Unigwe, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim and the phenomenal photographer Misan Harriman who shot the front cover of British Vogue September issue.
I am particularly happy to have now a real diversity of guests. In the last 3 years, after having been published for the 1st time in the African-American press, our clientele started to be much more diverse. And now it looks often like our own family !
For me the world of today is for example when a Norwegian family befriends around our pool an African-American family and both the adults and the children keep in touch. I love that our hotel has been such a connector for so many and for so many years. It is wonderful to know that people who met here, who all came to my own house on site for drinks, have become friends and have kept in touch, meeting abroad, sometimes travelling together.
One of the highlight I will always remember was having a famous French musician and jazz pianist on holidays with his family and discovering that a New-Yorker guest was singing at the Carlysle hotel in NY which had the most amazing jazz scene. As I have a piano in my house, I introduced them and asked them if they wanted to do a jam session. On that night I invited all the guests and my house was rocking with the best old standards.. When I am able to live this kind of moments I forget about the challenges of building, marketing and running a hotel !
Challenges: There have been many but I am the type to move forward. In the late eighties when my law career was very promising, (I had won a national competition and was representing France in international lawyers debates, the path to a bright legal career was visible) I focused on to design which was my passion and my call. People thought I was totally out of my mind ! To focus as a Black woman, on a country which was not mine, where I did not speak the language ( Arabic) and in a field notoriously for men ( construction) was certainly a challenge. I took it as an opportunity to do what I was passionate about.
I went on, taking on very tough challenges for two years, until we opened, but never being that discouraged that it would make me change ideas or drop the ball.
I was paid back beyond my wildest dreams as my design and our family property was published worldwide from Architectural Digest, to NYTimes, Vogue and within a few years, it was featured in 62 publications. My work had significant features, including a front cover. In 2001 “Harper’s and Queen” gave me the award of the best private estate in the world at an award ceremony in London.
There are challenges in every field, every job, every life, it is the way one faces it, which will make it bearable or impossible, which will make it a hurdle or an opportunity. I choose to never give up. But don’t get me wrong, there are some very difficult moments.
My constant challenge is to take into account that it is not every one who has my energy: -) … or intuition. Right now I am sitting on a fantastic new project which could really be a trailblazer for the continent. Will I find the finance for it .. ? I hope so as this would be a game changer and after this world crisis we live, we do need to create a lot of jobs.
Today’s challenge : In terms of challenges, it is not particular to our hotel, but to the tourism trade and to the world economy now. The virus has put everything on hold.
The challenge is planetary and goes way beyond my little hotel or bigger projects.
What is very important is that mankind never forget the lesson. We can live differently, we don ‘t need to waste. We need to open our eyes and be grateful for what we have. Be ambitious to grow, but not be greedy and inconsiderate. Be thoughtful about our choices. As today we are the victims of the wrong choices’ consequences .
Why Morocco? What brought you here?
Just this fact : it is 3 hours flight from Paris which was home. When my parents decided to buy a holiday home they were not interested in France or Europe. Their countries of origin were too far from Paris to go there on weekends. So what attracted us was the proximity of the most delightful exotic city.
The importance of Black female hotel ownership?
I am a Black female with a foot in very diverse circles, African American, White European, White American, English Speaking African and French Speaking African. This has given me a very diverse approach to all things. Being at a crossroads of influences has boosted my creativity. Even if other Black females have a different path as mine, I believe that females are very good with hospitality. Especially now that hospitality excellence is not necessarily attached to a corporate brand but can be carried by independently owned hotels.
As females in general and as Black females in particular, we have to constantly be better, work harder to reach executive levels in the corporate world. This constant “ having to prove ourselves” (instead of being only exhausting) has created a natural excellence for many females.
I am in absolute awe and admiration of African businesswomen. From the Nana Benz of Togo who ruled the economy 100 years ago, while being sometimes illiterate but knowing how to count, to the many African females graduating from the best Universities in the world. I am proud, happy, and elated to be a Black Female. I believe that many of us have a unique strength, we understand how both worlds work, the white world where we have gone to the best schools and our own African world. This is a very unique richness brought to us by diversity.
In the late eighties when I could feel that very individual and stylish boutique hotel would be the obvious future, I was living in a Parisian world where being a Black Female was not the conversation. I had always been the only Black in school, the only Black in law competitions, the only Black at the National School of Beaux-Arts where I went for 3 years before going to law school. I was very happy to carry the flag of Blackness as well as I could but I would be lying if I was saying that I suffered from violent prejudice. Never in my own circles. Sometimes with people I did not know like in a shop or in a post office…but these were really rare and totally minor. Today I am very happy to see that Black Female ownership is a statement. It makes me realize that indeed there were many challenges that I had to face while deciding to ignore them.
What are some of the biggest business lessons “you’ve learned along the way that serve as your ‘secrets to success “in running a company?
I believe that there might not be a universal lesson as each destination must have different challenges and hospitality is so much rooted into the essence and D.N.A of a destination. I think that the most important is to know your sphere of competence and to stick to it. I am good at creative stuff, I am bad at management and accounting. These are fields that specialists and competent persons are running for me. But when I started my business I was multitasking like a lot of new businesses have to. Then one takes the habit to control all, and to forget that this is not one’s competence. As it grows, you must let go and focus on what you know best. I am very happy now that even though I follow with a distance all aspects of the business, it is run by the best people and I can focus on creativity, intuition, vision and projection.
What is a typical day like for you?
I am working on a new project which should be a breakthrough in hospitality. The same way that my first pioneering property here, led to 1800 ones directly inspired by it in the city of Marrakech, (the N°1 tourist destination of Morocco, voted among the 1st 5 of the world 3 years ago), I do hope that my concept will be pioneering a very successful type of hospitality which will inspire others on the continent.
Right now I am working on raising finance for this new project. So my day, is a mix of working on the new project, and of running the present business. Since the lockdown, I have very often been invited to speak to conferences on zoom. I am also developing selling on line some of my porcelain collection, home accessories and luminaries. As I said I focus on creative matters. The borders are closed, so we do not expect business for a while. However, I am working on creating theme stays with future partners. My book “ Inside Marrakech” published by Rizzoli is coming out late September and I am very busy organizing virtual launches and zoom events in Black owned bookstores in the US.
How would you define good hospitality?
You have very different travelers. The business traveler needs are not the same as the millennial digital nomad’s, or the family on holidays, I would say that good hospitality is the one which understands the needs of the clients before they even formulate it. It is an attention to details which will enchant the client. It is about generosity and kindness, about flexibility and warmth. In Africa, I think it is about the visitor understanding that our gorgeous continent has a content of many layers. For generations, tourists would come to Africa for beaches or safaris. Our culture was denied its value. People thought that a cultural trip was about old churches and museums in Europe.
The rest of the world was only about outdoors. Grand Canyon in the US, Safaris in Africa or beaches..
It is time for the foreign tourist to explore and discover our modern culture, urban vibes, music, art, and the vibrant creativity of the modern African capitals.
What advice would you share with women who are the start of their hospitality careers?
I think that my strength is to have direct access to my clientele. Since my first project, I have only done projects to satisfy specific needs that I knew existed. I understand that this is a unique position that I am in. So I cannot say “do like me”. I am an accidental hotelier who never went to hospitality school… If you have gone to hospitality school, have found a job in the industry, and plan to open your own hotel or guest house one day…
To invest you need to minimize the risk. To minimize the risk you need to be sure to have the right product for the right client.
So I would carefully formulate my unique selling points. Then I would create my style, and go totally virtual on social media. Why not have an Instagram account of a virtual hotel, which would be full of ideas, events, mood boards of what you plan to do… and then when you have a lot of followers, and have established your virtual brand, then do the hotel.
Maybe there are great old buildings that are available to restore if you plan to be in a city.. and if you need an interior designer I would love to advise ! or take a new project..
What role will the diaspora play in the future of Africa travel?
The diaspora has a foot in Africa and a foot elsewhere. Most of the diaspora does not travel back home to do safaris, or stay on the beach all the time. The diaspora is often urban and will support the art , music and cultural scenes, new restaurants, city hotels, guest houses with a vibe should be supported by the diaspora when traveling back home. I also know brilliant elements of the diaspora who have gone back and started a creative business. I am thinking about studio Lani in Lagos for example. This is a perfect example of the diaspora return and impact on the creative scene.
Hotels and tourism are inseparable. In your opinion, how has the pandemic affected Morocco’s tourism sector?
Like for the whole world, the economy is on halt. It is particularly hard for a city like Marrakech which economy is based on tourism. The government has done a lot to support the population but it is getting harder and harder as we are entering the 6th month of economic paralysis. It is not only the hotels and the staff, but all that gravitates around tourists spending, the markets, the antique shops, the taxis, the local tours, really everything. It is the hardest time ever. We pray that the recovery one day will create a new trail for prosperity and health.
Website : Jnane Tamsna