El Fenn

When Vanessa Branson came across the ruins of a once-grand house in Marrakech, Morocco, it was love at first sight, but she hardly envisioned she would one day transform it into El Fenn, a hotel possessing a grandeur rivaling — or perhaps even exceeding — that of its original form. An avid collector and patron of the arts, Branson incorporated both the traditional Moroccan aesthetic and contemporary art pieces into El Fenn’s decor. In doing so, she created a unique blend of the traditional and the modern which is present throughout all aspects of the hotel, from its sustainably-sourced traditional cuisine to its beautiful guest rooms. With its seamless blending of past and present, El Fenn is among the best lodgings available to those seeking a relaxing getaway in gorgeous Morocco.

Mood of Living Q&A

Mood of Living: What is your hometown?

Vanessa Branson: London.

MoL: Where did you go to school?

VB: Box Hill, Dorking.

MoL: Where are you currently located?

VB: London, Eilean Shona, and Marrakech.

Vanessa Branson

MoL: Before your current occupation, what did you do?

VB: I’m a chameleon, changing with the times.

MoL: What was your first job?

VB: Dish-washer in a bowling alley.

MoL: Describe your first encounter with the building that would become El Fenn. Did you know immediately that you wanted to make it into a hotel, or did that idea come later?

VB: Walking in at dusk and falling utterly in love. At first we intended to keep it as a private holiday home.

Photos Courtesy of David Loftus

MoL: What is the history of the building that is now El Fenn? In what ways does its current appearance reflect that history?

VB: It was originally a wealthy merchant’s house. The ruin was so elegant we simply ran with what it offered. We have worked with the traditional layout, the thickness of the walls, high ceilings, local materials and design techniques. We then added a touch of the contemporary with good art and light fixtures.

MoL: When did you become interested in hospitality and design? What do you enjoy about this work?

VB: The two go hand in hand. Creating a space that inspires people and makes them happy is very rewarding. I’ve dreamt about creating living spaces since childhood.

MoL: What about Marrakech appeals to you, and to the guests of El Fenn?

VB: Its sensuality.

Photos 1, 3, 5 Courtesy of Kasia Gatkowska, Photos 2, 4, Courtesy of David Loftus

MoL: What was the process of restoring the hotel like? What is the architecture and interior design of the hotel like now? How does it reflect the architectural and design traditions of the Marrakech region?

VB: Restoring El Fenn was the greatest adventure of my life. The local builders and craftsmen were willing and talented. We took their advice and went with the flow. You can feel the joy that went into the project just by standing in the space.

MoL: You are an art collector as well as the founder of El Fenn. Do you incorporate both contemporary and traditional artistic elements into its design?

VB: Good art looks good in well-designed spaces. Sharing my collection with the many guests that walk through the building makes a sense of ownership.

MoL: What relationship does El Fenn have with the local community?

VB: Our immediate connection is employing over 100 staff. We take the responsibility of being employers very seriously and have built a loyal community because of this. It is estimated that each staff member supports at least ten members of their family. One of our core principles is supporting the local economy, not just with our own purchasing but by encouraging our guests to go to the right traders. We have the El Fenn football team too, all important elements. A happy staff is a fundamental pillar for our guests’ enjoyment.

Photo 1 Courtesy of David Loftus. Photos 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, Courtesy of Kasia Gatkowska.

MoL: What do you hope guests take away from their visit to El Fenn?

VB: The feeling of belonging.

MoL: Where do you see El Fenn in the future? Is there anything you would eventually like to add or change about it?

VB: El Fenn is constantly evolving. The concept store is honing its focus, we have pop-up restaurant experiences, three exhibitions per year in the public spaces, etcetera. You can never rest on your success when running a hotel; we are ambitious. Our guests should always feel excited before entering the front door. To achieve this, we have to surprise ourselves, too.

MoL: What is Marrakech Biennale? What motivated you to start this? What impact has it had on the arts scene in Marrakech?

VB: The biennale was initially intended to form a cultural bridge. The arts are a beautiful space in which to discuss ideas and develop relationships. It soon became a more ambitious project and is now recognized as one of the more important international arts events in the world.

Photos 1, 6, Courtesy of David Loftus. Photos 2, 3, 4 Courtesy of Kasia Gatkowska.

MoL: What does social responsibility mean to you?

VB: First and foremost, best practices when employing people: insurance, training, pensions, holidays, etcetera. Then comes the environment and then local engagement.

MoL: What captivates you about art? Do you think art has the power to change the world, and if so, in what ways?

VB: Art drives innovation, innovation drives the economy, art defines our sense of humanity, art hones our critical thinking. I could go on!

MoL: Do you have a favorite artist, or work of art?

VB: No, but color does it for me over and over again.

Photo Courtesy of David Loftus.

MoL: We find that people whose work involves an artistic eye and creative mindset often live artistic lifestyles. Do you spend much time creating a beautiful home? Do you entertain guests? Do you cook?

VB: Yes, yes, yes. And I plant trees, too.

MoL: Do you have any hobbies?

VB: Hiking.

MoL: Where do you go for peace of mind?

VB: I drink dry white wine with friends, hike, and paint watercolors on the beach.

MoL: What do you want your legacy to be?

VB: Joy.

Photo Courtesy of David Loftus.

MoL: What advice would you give someone interested in opening a boutique hotel? Is there anything you wish you had known when you were first starting out?

VB: Ha ha!

MoL: Do you have any words of wisdom?

VB: I was sharing a room with my mother recently and she sat up in bed one morning and said, “You know, Nessie, if you don’t do it, you haven’t done it!” I’ve dedicated my memoirs, hopefully published early next year, to her.

Social Media

Website: el-fenn.com
Instagram: @elfennmarrakech