How Homi Vazifdar founded Utah’s Amangiri Resort
I grew up in India but was always mesmerized by the magic of America―it was God’s country. I remember being glued to the radio every Saturday morning when Voice of America came on with news and rock ‘n roll! My mind was made up.
Most of my family went to England for their advanced education but I broke with the ranks and came to the US. After completing university in India, I arrived in Berkeley, California in 1972 where I walked along Telegraph Avenue watching the hippies dance alongside vendors on the pavement. On the UC Berkeley campus, I heard bongo drums playing and counter-cultural oratory by politicos on soapboxes. The buzz was overwhelming and the atmosphere electric and vibrant. Within a week, I knew that I was never going back to India. America was my new home.
I started my first business after getting my MBA―it was an Indian restaurant in affluent Sausalito in Marin County. A friend from Berkeley and I leased a warehouse and opened the restaurant knowing absolutely nothing about the business. We got a bunch of hippies from Berkeley in painted VW vans to cross the bridge and build it and my parents sent us their chef from India who knew less about restaurants than we did. It was a real comedy of errors―but call it beginner’s luck, that restaurant became the talk of the town.
Thanks to our close proximity to The Plant Studios where The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Starship, Fleetwood Mac, and hundreds of famous artists recorded some of their marquis hits, many rockers swung by the restaurant for dinner after studio sessions. We had articles written about us, we were on radio talk shows, and we received some awesome accolades. Then along came this Chinese man with his family and a literal suitcase full of cash―I had never seen so much cash in my life! So, we sold the restaurant to him. To this day, it still exists as a popular Chinese restaurant in Sausalito.
In 1982 I got married to an absolutely beautiful woman (still am 40 years later!) and then I messed around aimlessly for a couple of years on various start-up ventures before I finally said to myself, “you better get your act together.” That’s when I started my adventures into the wonderful world of hospitality.
In 1984, I met a man named Jim Feiler who ran this little company in the Bay Area called Feiler Bros. He renovated hotel rooms and bathrooms but he needed a business manager because he was growing so I took the job. Over the next 10 or so years, one thing led to another and Feiler Bros. became the preeminent renovation contractor for a myriad of luxury hotels around the US. To mention a few: The Plaza New York, The Westin St. Francis and the Claremont in the Bay Area, The Mayflower in Washington DC, and the Regent Beverly Wilshire in Beverly Hills.
Feiler Bros. is where I first developed my passion for hospitality, and this was my true springboard for just about everything that I’ve accomplished since. I was a darn lucky guy to have been involved in such incredible projects and I learned so much about construction, renovation, architecture, interior design, and the inner workings of the hotel industry.
During that time, many of my colleagues suggested that, between my knowledge of lodging and my “golden Rolodex,” I should become an investment banker. That was the farthest thing from my mind―until a friend introduced me to a boutique investment bank in San Francisco called Montgomery Securities. During the interview, I told them that I knew nothing about investment banking, but they said that wouldn’t be a problem―all I needed to do was leverage my knowledge, my Rolodex, and they’d take care of the rest.
For the first time in the history of Montgomery, a dude from outside the banking industry was elevated to a managing director. Then within six months, the company was sold to Nations Bank and six months later we were acquired by Bank of America and became Banc of America Securities. There was a mass exodus from the old Montgomery platform as key individuals fled the company. So, not because I was the smartest guy on the platform but simply because I was one of the last men standing, the executive committee told me that I was now the global head of lodging at one of the largest investment banks in the country! Who would have thought?
For the next few years, I muddled my way through the industry and was very fortunate to participate in some exciting projects around the world and closer to home as well. In five short years, our platform closed over $6.5 billion in transactions in Greece, the United Kingdom, and the Asia Pacific. Closer to home, we represented a cool group of marquis individuals in the acquisition of Pebble Beach from the Japanese.
Throughout these varying careers, I learned extraordinary lessons and was a constant sponge―absorbing every aspect of the hotel industry. I became a hospitality generalist! A rare breed. Investment banking was exciting, but it was fraught with politics―often dirty politics with folks jockeying for “positions” in order to be noticed. It was always about the fees and not what was best for our clients and I felt like I was selling my soul to the devil. So in 2003, I walked away from the bank and just decided to chill out for a while.
Soon after, my life changed all over again. Almost 20 years ago, while I was still at the bank, Christoph Henkel, a German industrialist, cold-called me. He told me he was extremely passionate about the canyon country in Utah and had just acquired hundreds of acres near Lake Powell. He wanted to know if I would take a look and advise him on what kind of resort to build.
I had never heard of Lake Powell, so I went to this place in the middle of nowhere to look at Henkel’s land. It was jaw-droppingly beautiful. I always had this passion for small ultra-luxury, high-touch resorts but common wisdom told me those types of resorts never made any money and were mostly built by rich folks to stroke their egos. After looking at the land, I told Henkel that there was only one man (and his brand) that could realize this dream: Adrian Zecha, founder of Amanresorts based in Singapore.
Adrian and I had been friends for many, many years―actually, Adrian’s co-founder of Amanresorts, Anil Thadani, was my roommate at Berkeley! Adrian arrived from Singapore a few months later to look at the land. As we stood atop this bluff looking down at the site, Adrian noticed another piece of land to the right that was even more beautiful―that was the property he wanted!
That wonderful piece to the right was federally protected parklands. We looked incredulously at Adrian and told him that it would be virtually impossible to acquire that land. Adrian didn’t take no for an answer and headed back to Singapore. Henkel, to his credit, stopped the project while I left the bank to help him put a compelling development team together.
At that time, Jon Huntsman was the Governor of Utah and boy did he get excited that an Aman resort was being developed in his state. When he was the Ambassador to Singapore under Bush Sr. he visited the Amans in Asia and knew that they were the most luxurious resorts in the world. So with his help, we lobbied the State legislature in Utah and, long story short, we executed the most remarkable land exchange with the feds which had to approved by the US Congress and Senate―President Bush Jr. signed the land swap as a part of a bundled bill. This was quite extraordinary as I believe it was the first time a private resort was developed upon land that was federally protected parkland.
That was the beginning of the Canyon Group of Companies in May 2005. Using Amangiri as a springboard, we got together like-minded investors and a group of employees with deep experience in hospitality, most of whom I had known for a very long time. If there was one thing I learned over the years it was to surround myself with people that were a hell of a lot smarter than I was. They make me look good! We were a vertically integrated well-oiled machine that could take a resort from bare dirt to completion pretty much under one roof. We were a small but nimble company. We became a family.
We quickly acquired Aman Le Melezin in the French Alps, Amangani in Wyoming, The Cousteau Resort in Fiji, started the development of Amangiri in Utah and what is now the Four Seasons Rancho Encantado in New Mexico. Smart guys that we were, we opened Rancho Encantado in October of 2008 and Amangiri in October 2009, in the eye of the economic melt-down hurricane. Lots of very, very smart people on Wall Street told me that I was a complete idiot to open Amangiri in the middle of nowhere in the middle of a horrific recession. Funny enough, it’s some of those same folks that now call and beg for a room since we are pretty much sold out most of the time.
We opened Amangiri in 2009. It quickly gained worldwide acclaim as the must-go-to destination in the US and the world. It’s become a favorite destination for Hollywood celebrities, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, Wall Street tycoons, as well as a myriad of other travelers wanting to experience the ethos of Aman. Not wanting to rest on our laurels, we are constantly reinventing ourselves. Our latest claim to fame is the development of Camp Sarika by Amangiri that we opened in July 2020; a tented camp and a resort within a resort which is adjacent to Amangiri.
These over-the-top 1,700 square foot tent suites have a bedroom, a parlor, and a dipping pool nestled into the rock formations that surround them. Like Amangiri, Camp Sarika was an absolute homerun achieving rates close to $5,000 a night and occupancies in the 90+ percent range. We are now one of the most successful resorts in the US and we accomplished what we set out to.
We are now undertaking the final initiative: We’ve just begun the development of 28 extraordinarily luxurious villas for sale. These villas are situated on roughly six to 12 acres and anywhere from 6,000 square feet to as much as 20,000 square feet. The idea now is to build a residential community at Amangiri where understated people come to get away from their hustle-bustle daily lives and chill out.
As to what’s next: we’ve just commenced development of an ultra-luxury resort in Papagayo, Costa Rica to be branded a Six Senses Resort. Six Senses is another ultra-luxury brand out of Thailand that is considered one of the best luxury brands in the world. This resort is scheduled to open in 2023.
What we have created over the past 16 years is the perfect blend of passion and profit. We have never done anything to satisfy our ego and the Canyon Group is not about me. It’s about incredibly supportive, passionate investors, and most importantly, it’s about a group of employees, friends, and family who have gone beyond the call of duty to collectively create these awesome jewel boxes around the world.
The success of the Canyon Group is an absolute testament to their tenacity and I am eternally grateful and blessed to be surrounded by such wonderful folks.