LISBON It’s all in the Conversation: The Art of Community

As part of our Hospitality Series, we talk to developer-hotelier Matt Dickinson from Nicaragua’s Maderas Village about the secret to fostering a global community and why Lisbon’s got his attention.


It’s all in the Conversation: The Art of Community

As part of our Hospitality Series, we talk to developer-hotelier Matt Dickinson from Nicaragua’s Maderas Village about the secret to fostering a global community and why Lisbon’s got his attention.

‘”You never love anyone more than those who help you fulfil your dreams”

Set on a Nicaraguan surf beach, Maderas Village was opened by Canadian hospitality entrepreneur and former commercial realtor Matt Dickinson in 2010 along with partners Dave Grossman from New York City & Anthony Hermans from Belgium..  A project rooted in passion, Maderas Village soon became a mecca for Millennial beatniks to disconnect from the relentless tide of modern times and recharge their creative juices while forming friendships with like-minded people. With a strong social media brand and rave word-of-mouth reviews, Maderas quickly evolved from standard hotel to an extended family of guests. As the Maderas team sets their sights on expanding across Europe, we catch up with Matt, or Dickie as he is more commonly known, in the hip co-working hub of Second Home in Lisbon, about what lies at the heart of Maderas´s success, the art of building community and why Lisbon is likely to be their first port of call.

So you are just coming to the end of 3 weeks scouting new sites in Europe for Madera Village’s expansion, has this always been on the cards?

From the very beginning, I saw this as a multi-destination project. Paradise made the most sense to do first and I was looking for a place I could surf, that was beautiful twelve months of the year, and where we could create the sort of place to use as a platform to launch the next 8-10 properties.

What drew you to launch Maderas Village in Nicaragua?

Nicaragua satisfied that idea of paradise that I had in my head. I got away from the regular world and had the chance to actually think, read a fictional book for 2-3 hours and not feel like I wasn’t achieving something. Nicaragua was at the right timing for it. I was talking to friends about options and decided to give myself 4 months there to scope it out, and everything felt right, it just came together in a very fluid way and I trusted that instinct; it wasn’t much of a decision as the opportunity just presented itself. In early days of the project I aligned with great partners with complimentary skill sets and we all came together, shared in the vision and pushed forward with execution.t. It was amazing, because from the beginning, it had this momentum behind it that was constantly pushing things forward and it was more like we were participating in it rather than creating it.

Maderas is famous for the strength of community is has fostered over the past 7 years. What sits at the heart of that?

Maderas is about facilitating conversations – that’s all that really matters. Whether it’s with guests or each other, it’s about a seamless moment of time, Maderas is constantly evolving and growing and, more than anything, it represents a place that allows and enables people to be themselves and think about what they really want to think about.  There is no set formula for that.  The secret to it is about being reactive and adaptive and continually trying to inspire and facilitate whoever comes through our doors to be whoever they really want to be and doing what they really want to do.

How does that work in practice?

Most people come to stay for 5-7 days with the intention to really work on an idea they have been dying to get started, or to spend time with their girlfriend, or old friends who they haven’t had the chance to have those long, life-defining conversations with, so here they sit up till 2 am and can just ramble on with each other.  It’s about surrendering to letting them be who they really are, about creating a space where you don’t feel you have to say the right things or behave a certain way.  Everyone has a sense of being home at Maderas, of being comfortable and feeling like themselves.  We have people who live there full time, such as artists in residence who stay for 2 months at a time, or a producer who came for 6 months to make music, screenwriters who come for 5 months, so we have various characters who come in and out and they set the tone for the type of atmosphere the hotel guests connect with.  This creates an authentic experience for people just arriving as no-one is telling them, ‘Hey, you should do this activity tomorrow’, but instead, they have organic conversations that spur real recommendations.  Someone sits down at the communal breakfast table and they start a great conversation, and then as they get up, one will say, ‘hey, I´m going to this super cool local lobster place for lunch, do you want to join?’ That’s one of those magical activities that comes out of nowhere and is not a revenue generator but an experience that allows you to step out of the scheduled events in your head and live something that is totally local and authentic. Delicious food and a Nicaraguan vibe that you would never find yourself – it’s one of those secret spots loved by the people who live there.  That’s how these amazing friendships get formed too, people have lobster, some drinks, come back for sunset, and have become the best of friends as they realise they have met someone totally new yet shares core values, which becomes harder and harder as we get into our 30´s and have our set circles and spend less and less time stepping outside that comfort zone.

To what extent have you cultivated the Maderas community outside the village? Is this something that evolved organically?

In terms of the growth we have seen, it’s been very organic, we let it happen naturally and don’t try to force it. We do spend a lot of time fostering it, hanging out with our guests and becoming friends. This isn´t a lifestyle brand it’s a life brand. We all live it and sit down every night together for dinner and drinks, not because it’s our job but because the conversation is genuinely so interesting and inspiring that you want to hear what everyone is saying, and through that, we forge incredibly strong bonds with people.  What we do see that is very exciting is watching people go back after Maderas and run into each other on a subway or airport and reconnect. Friendships that have been created through that community are so inspiring to see and it’s not something we can take credit for, but that we all share a lot of pride in helping to facilitate.

What lies at the heart of the Madera approach to service and experience culture?

Really just listen to people, allow them to feel they can do what they want.  Of course there has to be some rules in place and guidance around etiquette, but for the most part, we really focus on creating a space where people can interact with it however they want.  So if people are talking late and the bar is closed, they can help themselves to drinks and write it down.  We would rather that than be 1am and they can’t get another drink because the bar is closed.  If they are having this incredible conversation that they want to continue pursuing ideas, we aren’t going to interrupt their flow by turning the lights on and music off, there’s no need to do that, so we really just let people live exactly how they want. And we don’t judge anyone for anything; you can surf 5 hours a day and go to sleep at 8 pm, or sleep 14 hours and smoke weed the whole time, both are accepted. Everyone is on their own journey and when people are confident with that and feel supported, that’s when you get the best results as you get the truest ideas coming out of people.  Conversations that are least influenced by insecurities, agendas or selfish intentions. True thoughts and real opinions, that’s what really kicks of the community side. When people can challenge themselves without worrying about posting to Instagram or where to go next, but just allow themselves to be and go deeper in their connections.

There is the sense that you and your team are key personalities to this process and your daily interaction with guests has been a crucial factor to the success of the project and community building. Now, as you look to expand to multiple destinations, what’s your plan when it comes to replicating that personal touch?

It goes back to that same idea that Maderas Village is a conversation, it’s not something that runs off standard operating procedures. I´ll never find a replacement for myself, or any of the team who have lived there and are so vital to the way it feels. Sure, there are a lot of personal touches as we have been there for 7.5 years, but every job I have done in the past, I have found someone significantly better than me to take it over, and when it comes to vibe and being charming and engaging people in conversation, there are a lot of amazing people who do that as well, if not much better than I do. So it’s about having a culture that is open enough and an operating platform to support that person who we find for each location to make Maderas their own.  Each new property we open will be another conversation and I want to pull in different voices so that it runs with or without me, and that is how you create something that will last forever.  I’m not standing at the front of a room saying, ‘this is the vision, this is the direction, instead it’s a conversation about the feeling we are creating while collaboratively combining forces. The ideas I see the operations team coming up with are so inspiring as they are fresh ideas that I had never thought of, and they are ideas that will make Maderas better than it has ever been, not in a forced way, but in a next step way. Think about kids when they go to high-school and University, and they are constantly being changed by the people who they surround themselves with; I see hotels a lot like people, they are always defined by the people who surround those spaces and as long as the tone setting is about putting amazing people in that space and engaging with them in new ways, Maderas will continue to evolve.

So with the expansion, is the idea that the Maderas Community can hop around the world using each of them as a base?

Each will be unique in its way, but at the heart, this freedom of expression. I think a lot of places pontificate about community.  Creating a space for the exchange of ideas is great and I’m fully in support of it, but there is a commercialised element that has crept into it with the desire to inspire guests rather than be inspired.  We never set out with Maderas to try and inspire people. I set out to be inspired and I always want to be inspired by what others do with that, which includes guests, partners, investors and the operations team coming together to collaboratively create this place that allows everyone to feel like themselves and feel at home.  That’s the major differentiator. Everyone who has been part of the development of this project has come with the goal of being inspired, because that is the greatest incentive for all your work, efforts and passion, not compensation through monetary exchange and putting a job on your resume, but sitting in a garden with 30 amazing characters every night who are sharing different things and getting excited about ideas. As long as that’s always present, the community will grow stronger because it’s not based on selfish intentions. Sure, we focus on optimising value, profitability is part of sustainability, but the value from having a strong community that is loyal and feels like part of the family is significantly better than having greater monetary success with a vibe that feels more forced and less engaged.

You come from a commercial real estate background – how influential was this in your original land purchase of Maderas?

It was part of it, but more simply, I didn’t have a ton of money and I knew the pressure on the business for the first project wouldn’t be as great as it would be in a more developed area. So between the cost of construction materials, labour, food, land and just the general level of regulation, it allowed us to really play around with the idea and really be able to explore new concepts and try things out without the impending fear of failure and that constant, ‘if I don’t hit this number this month we will fail and miss our payment and have to close’,  and that was really important from the beginning.  So from a commercial real estate perspective, I definitely saw the potential with Nicaragua, but I think my experience in that field helped mostly with execution, bringing the right people together and structuring the deal. I knew the dream I wanted to create, and so took the tools from my old job to combine them to create a model that  would compensate investors for the risk they assumed and allow us to continue replicating these great places that foster so many amazing experiences for people across the world.

So would you class yourself as a developer?

Ha, I’m just a dreamer. I always like being in a position where I do a job that’s difficult to describe. I don’t know exactly what I do, but I know that the sort of environment and conversation I want to facilitate and then I just hustle till I get there. In what we create, there will always be elements of real estate development, of hotelier and hospitality management, of architecture and design, marketing and PR and straight up hosting.  So I prefer to keep that role undefined. More than anything, I’m a producer of vibe. I’m very sensitive to the feeling of spaces, so when I enter into a room I have a strong sense of how people are experiencing it and and how it could be made to feel more comfortable, how it could allow people to go ‘Ah, that’s what I was waiting for’, and I just try to do that as much as possible. That translates into looking at a building in a rough state and going, ‘ah, this is what this place needs’, or looking at a neighbourhood and saying ‘ok, this is what would contribute to this community.’

What projects do you see around the world that inspire you?

I’m so inspired by so many projects and so many peers.  It’s a really exciting time for hotels as you are seeing this huge shift happening with regard to how people view hospitality. The Summit series guys broke the mould on what a global community looks like and how powerfully that can be put together; I think the Habitas guys are doing incredible work in Tulum and soon opening in New York as part of the global community they are building.  I think Urban Cowboys is doing an amazing job. I love Lyon like a brother, and his work in New York and Nashville is exemplary, with really cool boutique hotels in residential locations, including a townhouse in Brooklyn and a beautiful old mansion in Nashville. The space is unbelievable and he designed it himself and worked with different people to fit it out, and has this incredible ability to create space like no-one I know.  I am always inspired by Nick Jones and the Soho House team. I think what they have created on a global basis is so impressive – to deliver the consistency of experience that they do at that scale always blows me away.  Everyone of us faces our challenges and different cycles through the business, where it sways a little on the pretentious side, or a little on the Cool-kids side, or on the high-design side, but these are all conversations that we are working on managing. What’s inspiring for me is that all the people I admire, know what’s at their core, and no matter how far you see them being pushed by their investors or financiers or the community, they still tend to always cycle back to the core. So you know the real passion and why a place will work is because of that core vision and I highly respect the integrity to stick to that no matter what.

So now as you approach this expansion, why do you see Lisbon as such an exciting place for investment?

The people, hands down. In the last month we have been to Paris, London, Rome, Amsterdam, Florence, Nice, Marseilles and Barcelona.  Nothing compares to the energy of the people you find in Lisbon right now and it’s really exciting.  What’s really inspiring about it is that it’s a combination of international people and locals connecting over  the question ‘How do we make Lisbon the new model for a global, modern city?’

So why would you go for it over, say, Barcelona?

I like to get involved with places where we can still contribute to the conversation, and it’s not about saying what Lisbon is, or trying to define it, but about about adding those Maderas accents wherever we can.  It’s a bit of a microcosm or portal for the LA and New Yorkers who want something new. Here you have a torrent of fascinating people and beautiful places to explore.

Are you seeing that interest from the US?

In the past I’d heard Lisbon mentioned here and there, but now it’s all the time. A lot of my friends doing the the grind in London are talking about it as though its their next move.

Are there any other business indicators from an investment perspective that sets your bells ringing?

Real estate value is still interesting here.  I sat down at a local Portuguese cafe the other day and had a glass of wine for 70 cents.  You just don’t get that anywhere in the world.  That aspect is really interesting as it creates a sense of value.  It takes the pressure off flaunting money and focuses on simpler things, like friendship.  But it goes far beyond real estate values and cost of living.  They all have to be there for it to work, but it’s the intangibles, the feeling like you are in a place that’s new, then look at lifestyle elements, 20 minutes from surf, 300 days plus of sunshine, a 2 hour flight from everywhere interesting in Europe, everyone speaks English, you have this warm, welcoming local population.  I haven’t seen hospitality this good in our whole month of travels, even the Uber drivers that you talk to are so intrigued and encouraging of you being here.  They are welcome to new people being in their City contributing to the conversation, and that’s really exciting.  And I’ve been very impressed with how fluent everyone is here in not just English, but a variety of European languages. In many ways I think Lisbon is becoming the lifestyle city of Europe.