Before long, they expanded throughout the French-speaking Belgium city. Twenty years later, Dardenne, 45, is a convenience store mogul, owning 67 Night & Day shops throughout Belgium. For most people, this type of success would be enough, but not for Dardenne, the child of teacher parents. He noticed something else was lacking from his beloved city’s list of attractions. As a seasoned traveler, Dardenne was always drawn to the more intimate, upscale European boutique hotels. But his hometown had none of these. Although busy with his night shop business, he dreamed of one day owning a small hotel. The more he traveled, the more inspired he became.
“This was something on my mind for a longtime,” says Dardenne. “And if something is on Vincent’s mind, it will one day become a reality," adds Frederic Guilmin, a long time friend and the hotel’s director. That “one day” happened when Dardenne discovered that two houses were for sale. Perched on the Meuse river and within walking distance of the Citadel, the houses were on prime real estate. So Dardenne purchased the property with plans to turn the space into a six-bedroom bed and breakfast. Not exactly a boutique hotel, but a start. However, fate intervened. Almost as soon as the construction began, a few of the neighboring buildings became available. Dardenne purchased them all – four buildings in total.
What happened next was a 30-room boutique hotel featuring a spa, gourmet restaurant, a tiered terrace, gardens and an outdoor pool. This is typical of Dardenne, his friends say. A true visionary, Dardenne always manages to turn his hopes into reality—and then some. “He finally had the opportunity to realize his dream on a small scale, but it kept growing and growing until it was exactly what he had imagined,” Guilmin says.
Instead of sitting on the sidelines, Dardenne was as involved in thebuildings’ transformation as the designers and architects. “He was not at all like a typical client,” says Julie Valette, an architect at BURO5, the Namur-based firm that worked on The Royal Snail. “He was more like a partner in the project, as much part of the team as any of us. Every choice we made, we made it with him. We’d propose ideas and so would he. It was such a collaborative effort. Sometimes we forgot he was the client, because he was such a part of our team.”
The result is a hotel inspired by the history and the myths of its city—Namur—and unlike anything on offer in the region. Dardenne seems to have a knack for filling in the gaps. Will Dardenne be adding additional hotels to his portfolio? “With Vincent you never know. But he’s probably not going to stop with one hotel,” Guilmin admits. After all, Dardenne’s already conquered the night shop business. Could a hotel empire be next?