The Sultans Of Spa: At the heart of the war of Parisian luxury hotels
PARIS – She looks like the heroine of a Hitchcock movie. Tall and well dressed in her black suit, the young lady enters a suite at the Four Seasons George V hotel with a supple and hushed step. She is not a client, but the head housekeeper of the floor. She came to make sure that the maid did a good job: looking under the furniture, inspecting the drawers, examining the bathroom and finally checking that everything that is left for the guests is in place: champagne, exotic fruits. and strawberries coated with dark chocolate.
“We are expecting a couple,” she explains.
The real owner of the palace-turned-hotel, Prince Al-Waleed, nephew of the King of Saudi Arabia and founder of the Kingdom Holding Company, is elsewhere. And he is also lucky because the George V is the “largest of palaces”, specifies Georges Panayotis, owner of the consulting agency MKG Hospitality, located on avenue of the same name.
The prince is as comfortable in Bedouin outfit as in a double-breasted suit, as comfortable on the back of a camel as on board his private Airbus A380, the “flying palace” model. As a child, Al-Waleed, now 57, stayed at the George V with his grandfather, and the little prince loved these “exotic” vacations in Paris. As an adult, he bought it in 1999 and chose the Canadian group Four Seasons to lead it.
The hotel is one of 13 establishments in France – including six in Paris (George V, Bristol, Plaza Athénée, Meurice, Park Hyatt Vendôme and Royal Monceau Raffles) – to be officially defined as “palaces”. This is a distinction bestowed on high capacity five-star hotels (a minimum of 100 rooms), where perfection and exception are the norm. The price of a room can vary between 700 euros and … 26,000 euros for the “royal” suite at the Plaza Athénée. For that price, customers get 450 square meters with “armored doors” that can withstand assault rifles.
Whether they are heads of state or “the richest inhabitants of the Gulf or emerging markets”, the guests of the royal suite are, as in other palaces, special guests. Rich – extremely rich – they will spend colossal sums during their stay in Paris.
A crucial sector
The tourism industry is crucial in France, but it does not seem to be a priority for the government of President François Hollande. Too bad, especially when a certain Barack Obama looks at it closely. In January 2012, the US president even announced new measures to support him. “The efforts to make America the number one tourist destination in the world give us a huge chance to create jobs and strengthen the American economy,” he said. In other words, Barack Obama wants to strip France of its status as the most visited country in the world, which claimed 83 million international tourists in 2012.
To defend the current French government, the lack of enthusiasm for tourism is not new. “It was the same under former President Nicolas Sarkozy,” said a tourism official. But tourism represents 7% of France’s GDP and 5% of its jobs. And Paris remains the star city of the country, with 29 million visitors in 2012 (including 17 million foreigners), generating 8 billion euros in revenue, 36 million in tourist taxes and 300,000 direct or indirect jobs.
Certainly, with 242 four-star hotels and 46 five-star hotels, luxury hotels are a niche market. But a golden niche. “On average, a room requires 2.5 employees,” explains Gwénola Donet, director of the Paris-based consulting agency Jones Lang LaSalle Hotels. “And these hotels need to be maintained and expanded, which creates jobs in many areas of employment. We can only rejoice to see investments of foreign capital in France. And anyway, we can’t move hotels!
Who could have spent 250 million euros to buy the Crillon in 2010 if not Prince Mitaeb, son of the King of Saudi Arabia and his ninth wife? And that’s without counting the two-year renovation that began last April. The cost of the renovation of this hotel – located at Place de la Concorde – is estimated at around 2 million euros per room. Without forgetting the creation of a spa and a swimming pool, essential if the hotel wants to obtain the famous “palace” label, even in one of the residences of Louis XV.
Just like at Monopoly, buying an expensive hotel also means high room prices. “The main clients of luxury hotels are international visitors,” explains Christian Mantei, Managing Director of Atout France, the government agency for tourism development. On average, this clientele is around 15% Americans, 9% British, 5% Japanese, and the rest of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and, of course, from the Middle -East – the biggest spenders. So big even, that the period of Ramadan has a direct impact on the occupancy rate and the average price of luxury hotel rooms, according to the agency MKG Hospitality. By July 7, three days before the start of the ritual fasting period, the occupancy rate had dropped by 14 points and the room rate by 9. So palaces are probably as eager for Ramadan to end as those who are. fast.
The Ritz, the end of an era
Since the tragic death of Lady Di and her partner Dodi Al-Fayed in 1997 in Paris, almost everyone has known that Mohamed Al-Fayed, Dodi’s father, is the owner of the Ritz on Place Vendôme. The Egyptian billionaire bought it in 1979. Its history, its bars – including the famous “Hemingway” – its sumptuous rooms (including the Coco Chanel suite where an unknown painting by Charles Le Brun was found last year) – all of these could have made the Ritz the most magical hotel there is.
The Ritz Hotel on Place Vendôme in Paris – Photo: ilaria
But on August 1, 2012, that era came to an end. The hotel closed its doors for two years of work and laid off all its staff, unlike the Crillon, which had undertaken to keep everyone. The hotel, where no major works had been carried out since 1979, was gradually losing its prestige. So much so that when the “palace” seal was created in 2010, the Ritz did not make a difference. The ultimate insult was when Woody Allen, who was known to love the Ritz, preferred to shoot Midnight in Paris at Bristol.
The affront becomes even more difficult to swallow when the Bristol, competitor of the Ritz also located on rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, becomes the first Parisian “palace”. Since German billionaire Rudolf Oetker bought the Bristol in 1978, hotel operators have continued to expand and beautify it. It has therefore logically become one of the favorite palaces of the richest people in the world. Last fall, three members of the Rolling Stones stayed there for more than a month during the filming of a video in the Paris suburbs (Mick Jagger was staying in his Parisian pied-à-terre). This is also where the four “rock” n “roll” grandpas ended their evening after a surprise concert in a Parisian club on October 25th. It was an after-party that the Bristol will undoubtedly remember for a long time.
“The servers were a bit overwhelmed,” says a regular who was there, “but what a party! Under the majestic chandeliers, the shots went down faster than the rock riffs. A great opportunity for the new Bristol bar, which opened last September. With DJs and videos on weekends, the palace bar hopes to become a staple of Parisian nightlife, but for 26 euros a cocktail, the place is not cheap.
The place to be
In 2001, the Plaza Athénée was the first to renovate its bar. With its trendy decor, its two huge chests where the hotel keeps the bottles of regulars, its electro-rock evenings every weekend, the Plaza bar is the meeting place for the happy few. All day (and all night), everything is done to captivate the guests. Last December, the courtyard and the garden of the Plaza were even transformed into an ice rink. “To please the children of my guests,” explains François Delahaye, general manager of the Dorchester group.
The Plaza Athénée – Photo: CarSpotter
As for the Royal Monceau Raffles, it officially became a “palace” last June. With its 26-meter-long swimming pool, private cinema room, art library and eclectic but sophisticated (pure Philippe Starck) decor, it has placed the luxury bar very high. Rumor has it that the owners even attempted to buy a supermarket on Hoche Avenue, which somewhat tarnished the hotel’s image.
The Park Hyatt Vendôme has also been described as a “palace”. With its sumptuous location and contemporary decorations, it will appeal to those who are not too keen on shepherdesses and prefer international chains. There are in fact around 500 hotels around the world that bear the Hyatt name. The one on rue de la Paix is luxurious, but also quite far from the palace spirit, which, in essence, should be legendary and unique.
In 2011, the Mandarin Oriental opened rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. It would already be for sale. The banking group Société Foncière Lyonnaise could sell it to Chinese operators or to Katara Hospitality, the large Qatari group that already owns Raffles Royal Monceau. At the end of the year, the group will open the Peninsula hotel on Avenue Kléber – in Asia, Peninsula is the largest chain of luxury hotels. So the small world of Parisian palaces holds its breath. “The opening of these Asian hotels is a very good thing,” says François Delahaye. “They are bringing new guests from Asia.” In short, they bring Chinese billionaires to a golden platter.
At the end of 2014, the Ritz and the Crillon will reopen. “They will settle quickly, predicts Georges Panayotis. In 2015, the Cheval Blanc will also make its appearance. It was originally a palace in Courchevel, in the French Alps, and a property of Bernard Arnault, the richest man in France. In the Samaritaine building on rue de Rivoli, the billionaire intends to open his Parisian twin. “The real battle of the palaces will then begin”, specifies Georges Panayotis.