Zaya Younan: King of the Castles
BY ALIETTE DE CROZET
“Everyone deserves a night in a château!” is the motto of California businessman Zaya Younan. He knows what he’s talking about because he owns seven castles and stately homes in the Loire Valley and the Centre and Poitou regions, converting them into luxury hotels. And he’s only just getting started."
A few months ago, I met with U.S. billionaire Zaya Younan at the Le Meurice hotel on Paris’ Rue de Rivoli to discuss his latest projects. I mentioned in passing that the hotel’s star pastry chef is shy and doesn’t do interviews. So Zaya had a word with the maître d’, and ten minutes later Chef Cédric Grolet came over to introduce himself, bringing with him a plate of spectacular cakes. That’s Zaya Younan in a nutshell: “I’m wealthy, I’m 57 years old, and I love a challenge.” His current challenge involves transforming old châteaux – castles and stately homes – into luxury hotels. But what attracted the California businessman to France in the first place?It all started with a TV mini-series he enjoyed watching as a child in Tehran, called Les Rois maudits (The Accursed Kings). Younan grew up in an Aramaic-speaking Christian family – his father a truck driver, his mother a housekeeper. One day, two Americans asked to use the family’s bathroom. Before leaving, they wrote down their address in Illinois. By the age of twelve, Zaya had earned enough to buy a plane ticket, and left for the United States without telling his parents.
Chasing the American Dream
He became an automotive engineer, then made a fortune in real estate and private equity. In 2002 he founded Younan Properties, Inc. in Los Angeles with two billion dollars in assets. Before developing a passion for French châteaux, he indulged his artistic side collecting jade and Fabergé eggs. France has 30,000 historical residences ranging from imposing fortresses and Renaissance palaces, to fortified feudal castles and manor houses surrounded by lavish gardens. About 1,500 of them are for sale, waiting for someone to fall in love with them, maintain them, and breathe new life into them. “A château is more than just old stones and history,” says Zaya. “It’s a direct link to the past. Each generation has left its mark on it. Even the swankiest hotel can’t offer an experience like that.” In 2015 Zaya told his wife, Sherry, that he was going to buy her a palace in France for each year they had been together: “You’ll be the queen with the most châteaux in the world.” She was astonished, given that they were celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary that year.
The couple drove all over France for ten days, visiting 80 properties. “I give each of them one minute to win me over. I ask myself: ‘Do the moats, and towers, and battlements speak to me?’” Five Luxury Hotels Zaya took a shine to the Loire Valley – which spans 170 miles and is listed as a UNESCO world heritage site – and in particular the Indre, Indreet-Loire, Maine-et-Loire, and Deux-Sèvres départements, which cover what used to be the Anjou, Berry, and Poitou regions. That’s where Château du Petit Chêne, near the town of Niort, rose from the ashes last summer. The 17th-century abode was renamed Alexandra Palace, after Zaya’s daughter, and has since become the top luxury hotel in DeuxSèvres. It’s also the first five-star hotel in the portfolio of Grande Maison Younan Collection, a company founded by Zaya which also manages four other hotels. “Everyone deserves a night in a château” is a phrase that Zaya says again and again. Zaya the Great sports a large diamond ring, but his hotels don’t necessarily target other ultra-high-net-worth individuals. Prices are reasonable, starting at 100 euros (110 dollars) a night, and guests get good bang for their buck.
The Younan Collection’s coat of arms, bearing the motto Patrimoine, Dieu et la Foi, Héritage (“Heritage, God and Faith, Legacy”), hangs over the reception desk at Domaine de Beauvois, an old hunting lodge used by Louis XIII, nestled in a bend of the Loire River. Jewelry designed by Zaya and Sherry sparkles in display cases. Cristal chandeliers light up the entrance hall, whose heavy curtains are fringed with tassles. The shelves in the wine cellar are threaded with gold and filledwith bottles of Château La CroixYounan Grand Cru, a vineyard that Zaya acquired in the Saint-Émilion wine region of Bordeaux. An Experience Steeped in History How do you turn a profit on a property that took millions to refurbish? The three-year renovation of Alexandra Palace, for instance, cost 12 million euros (13.5 million dollars). “Ninety percent of château-hotels aren’t profitable because they are trying to earn a return as soon as they open.” Zaya’s strategy is to build an excellent reputation for Grande Maison Younan Collection’s five hotels and four golf courses, and to diversify by purchasing vineyards. The idea is also to attract foreigners, such as Americans looking to steep themselves in history. Zaya likes staying at Le Prieuré, a four-star hotel whose foundations date back to the Benedictine monks in the tenth century. Room Nine in the turret looks out over the Loire. That’s where Zaya likes to go to be alone with his thoughts, seated in a Louis XIII armchair, “which was made before the United States was even a country.” This was a well-thought-out investment. “France gets twice as many foreign visitors as the entire United States does,” says Zaya. “There were 95 million in 2019! It’s a great country with a rich history.” The Californian raves about France and its cuisine, savoir-faire, and taste for luxury, and says he wants to launch a start-up incubator in an area of the countryside known as Gâtine Tourangelle. Why not? “I like creating the impossible.” Zaya was awarded the Gold Medal for Tourism by the French government in 2019. “Zaya Younan has understood that heritage is France’s hidden treasure, and that more should be made of it,” says Stéphane Bern, an expert in French heritage and host of several popular TV history programs. Our meeting draws to a close. Zaya suggests a little more rosé champagne. He smiles: “My wife always says the champagne in France won’t make you fat.” Isn’t it nice to believe in fairy tales?