French tourism numbers are down, but the capital's luxury-hotel market is booming. With new hotels opening and legendary hotels closing for multimillion-dollar renovations, achieving "Palace" hotel status is more competitive than ever, writes Rosa Jackson.
In a suite at Le Royal Monceau Raffles Paris, the bed stands in the centre of the room, a wall-sized mirror masks the flat-screen television and framed artworks rest against the wall as though placed there by an absent-minded collector.
This hotel near the Champs-Élysées, designed by Philippe Starck during a two-year renovation finished in 2010, represents a new generation of luxury hotel in Paris. With décor inspired by the Art Deco style of the 1930s, it preserves a sense of the building's history, but also brings a touch of humour and wit to the high-end experience. This year it became the sixth hotel in the city to obtain "Palace" status from the tourist development agency Atout France for exceeding five-star luxury, joining the ranks of Le Meurice, Le Bristol, Four Seasons Hotel George V, the Park Hyatt Paris-Vendôme and L'hôtel Le Plaza Athénée.
Conspicuously missing from that list are the Ritz Paris and Hôtel de Crillon, legendary hotels that have long set the standard for luxury accommodation in Paris. After a 30-year stretch without major renovations, the Ritz closed in August 2012 for a two-year revamp budgeted at $205 million. The Crillon followed suit this year, auctioning off much of its furniture and wine before closing in March for an overhaul estimated at $147 million, due for completion in 2015. Next in line is Plaza Athénée, which is now closed for seven months to add rooms, suites and event spaces in adjoining buildings and to redecorate the dining rooms and bar.
As these traditional hotels prepare to reconquer their clientele, newer arrivals are claiming their share of this shifting market. Open since 2010 and claiming an occupancy rate of 81.6 per cent, the Shangri-La added a garden wing of 20 rooms in June to its hotel near the Trocadéro. The Mandarin Oriental, which opened in 2011, attracts a relatively young clientele that appreciates the proximity of the luxury boutiques along rue St-Honoré, with an occupancy rate of about 70 per cent.
Set to provide even more competition is a new Peninsula hotel, scheduled to open near the Champs-Élysées in a century-old Beaux Arts building by the end of next year. And by 2016 a 72-room luxury hotel is scheduled for completion as part of the overhaul of the Samaritaine department store. The project was stalled for years before the city agreed to the innovative wavy glass façade designed by the Japanese architectural firm Sanaa.
Georges Panayotis, the chairman and founder of the MKG consulting group, a leader in the European hotel industry, says the city's established hotels could not ignore the pressure from newcomers, yet the risks are high when each room or suite can cost three to four million dollars to renovate. "All of the big Palace hotels have either just been renovated or are in the process of renovating," he says. "These are very heavy investments that can't bring in profits within eight to 10 years; it will take 30 years before they start paying for themselves."
In a tough economic climate, these figures are daunting. Holiday bookings fell in France by 4.5 per cent in 2012, following a six per cent decrease in 2011. The chairman of the UMIH, a French union for hotel and restaurant owners, has reported a 10 per cent decrease in takings year-on-year. Panayotis, however, believes the nation's financial woes have little effect on the luxury market, in which room rates start at about $1100 a night.
"Though tourism is stagnating overall, Paris continues to exceed expectations and Palace hotels are doing well," Panayotis says. He believes it will be years before each hotel carves out its place in this changing market. "While the historic palaces are closed, the new ones will reap some of their customers. But these clients will go back to their original favourites, and the newer hotels will find a more international clientele of business people and celebrities. Hotels like the Ritz, the Crillon and the Bristol will never lose their regulars because they consider it a second home. They are loyal to the hotel and become attached to the neighbourhood."
Panayotis says France has its own definition of luxury. "Here it rhymes with history and gastronomy, which means that in a hotel the restaurants are very important." France's most influential chef, Alain Ducasse, became head of the kitchens of the Meurice hotel last month following the departure of Yannick Alléno. In doing so, he could become the first chef to run four three-starred restaurants: at the Hôtel de Paris in Monaco, the Dorchester in London, the Plaza Athénée in Paris and, if it maintains its standing, the Meurice.
Former Ducasse collaborator Laurent André runs the French restaurant La Cuisine at Le Royal Monceau, which was awarded a Michelin star this year despite the casual atmosphere. The hotel's second restaurant, Il Carpaccio, became the only Italian restaurant in Paris to earn a Michelin star this year.
La Cuisine is redefining the French luxury experience by making the meal as convivial as possible. Big metallic domes over the round tables improve the acoustics so that guests don't have to raise their voices, and André's menu includes dishes designed for sharing, which he describes as "French-style mezze". Most importantly, the waiters aim to create an informal rapport with customers in contrast to the sometimes intimidating Michelin-starred experience.
"The Palace for tomorrow should have an element of fun; people should greet you with a smile," André says. "Guests are not our friends, but still we should not be too strict. Some of our guests are stressed all day with work and they don't need the waiter to stress them too."
As part of this more personal service, Le Royal Monceau is offering activities for children and families. These include a museum tour, a painting workshop and a pizza-making class with the chef of
Il Carpaccio. "We choose foods that kids like and the goal is to have fun, not to watch the chef and do as he says," André says.
For a hotel such as Le Royal Monceau, whose name lacks the historical status of the Ritz or the Crillon, the Palace label makes a big difference, says Naoya Sato, a sales manager for the hotel. "We are known in Asia, but not so much in Australia, the United States and Europe. This label helps to make our name recognised."
When the next Palace hotel labels are attributed next year a handful of new contenders will hope to be among their ranks, giving big-budget travellers a wealth of choices in a city that does luxury like no other.
Illustration: Tom Bingham