12 December 2022, etc.venues Monument, London
Business Travel Show Europe, presented by The BTN
21 November, London Hilton Metropole
After three years of major renovation work Le Bristol in Paris has an entire new wing, and a new general manager. ABTN speaks to Didier Le Calvez to find out more...
You just recently joined the hotel, in March, from Four Seasons. How does it feel to be in your new position?
It's very exciting. Le Bristol is one of the great landmark hotels in Paris. The hotel has only been owned by two families. It's a family business for the last 100 years. First a French family, Jamais, then the Oetker family, for the last 34 years. It really brings something very special to the hotel. It is a family business. The location of the Bristol is really in the middle of where business is happening in Paris. It's next to the Elysee, so you're really in the middle, where every business meeting is taking place.
How has business been in Paris?
It's tremendous since April. In the first quarter it was a bit soft, but really since April it is booming. We are running with occupancy at close to 90 to 95%. Business is very good.
But not the first quarter. The first quarter was relatively ok, a little bit better than last year, but I would say only marginally. Since April we are seeing a huge difference.
Have you been able to increase rates?
We're not increasing rates, it's just a better yield. It's really the mix of the hotel. The Bristol has an incredible amount of suites, very large suites, so of course the rate may increase according to the suites occupancy. But we will not increase rate. We think the market is still recovering, it's still relatively soft, even though I'm saying it is booming.
We need to consolidate. We need to have clients rediscovering the Bristol, because the hotel was under major renovation for five years. We opened an entire wing. Our regular clients have been a bit disturbed for the past five years, and I think right now I want to make sure that this year we win back their loyalty so they can experience the hotel without hammering noise. It's more about getting back to our clients.
It has taken five years. It's very complex in France, whenever you're dealing with a new building. Everything has to be classified. As lengthy as it is, this is also why Paris is Paris. There is a harmony in the design and architecture of Paris. The end result for the city is very very positive.
The original hotel was built as a hotel. The extension was an apartment building adjacent to it. This is why the facade of the hotel is much bigger. It's an older building that was converted into a hotel, so to do the junction between an older building and a new building, it's as complicated to do 25 rooms as 200. We also redid the entire facade, so it all matches. It's very pretty.
We have added 26 more keys - 21 rooms and five suites. And we have added a new restaurant on the street level, a more casual restaurant. The existing restaurant at the hotel was three Michelin Stars, so we wanted a more informal one, especially for business travellers, where people can have a very quick breakfast, a quick lunch, also with set pricing. We have a menu at €46, which can fit within an expense account.
We felt that it was good for us to have a more casual restaurant, primarily for business travellers, but also for people in the neighbourhood. It's more of a brasserie. It has French cuisine, and it also has fish and chips. The best in Paris.
Has it been well received?
People have been very excited. It was a lengthy, laborious sort of work, and that did affect the hotel. There is no question. But the end result today is quite stunning. It's given a different dimension to the hotel.
In addition to that, we have a beautiful garden room overlooking the garden. In addition to restoring the bulding, that wing, we redid entirely the wing overlooking the garden. That's an additional 40 keys. A lot of those rooms have balconies overlooking the courtyard, in a very peaceful environment.
So, the hotel has had extensive work. For the last 10 years, the owners, besides the extension, have been spending €5 to €6 million a year on the property. In 2007 we closed the hotel for six months, and redid all the back of house. All the kitchens. So between 2007 and 2009, it's the end of a cycle. We redid the back of house, we had extensive work for three years, and then reopened in September 2009.
Coming from an international chain, what is it like to work for a family owned hotel?
It's a pleasure. I really mean that. It has a very long term view. The Oetkerfamily has been in business for 140 years, and still owns the entire business, which includes shipping, drinks, foods, and many other entities besides the hotel. The hotel was purchased by Dr [Rudolf] Oetker in 1978. There was a very strong personal affiliation between him and the hotel. He passed away three years ago, but his wife is still involved with the renovations.
It really provides the hotel with a very long term view. It is not their major business, their main business is shipping, and the food industry. Even if you are in a poor cycle, such as last year, when business was not very good, there is no panic button being pushed and the standard of the hotel remains the same. We do not cut down on standards, even if the economy is down.
Did the hotel have to make any redundancies?
No, not at all. Not a single employee was laid off last year, across the entire group.
Does the family own any other hotels?
Chateau Du Domaine St. Martin in Vence, France, Hotel Du Cap - Eden-Roc, Cap d'Antibe, and the Brenner's Park-Hotel & Spa in Baden-Baden, Germany. They own the buildings outright. It is not a management contract. For example, in the case of the Bristol, it is totally paid for. There is no loan on the hotel. That gives us an incredible edge, compared to competitors. We do not have the financial pressure of huge mortgages.
Le Bristol has just become a five star hotel...
We have had our fifth star for just a few months. It's a new classification for France. Before, four-star was the highest classification in the country, until June last year.
It was felt that France was at a disadvantage. Most commonly acccepted standards had five stars, and we in France had four stars. It really came down to when the major cities were bidding for conventions, we didn't have five stars to offer. We had the equivalent, we just didn't have the rating. Now we do.
And in the past, in France, once you had your rating, you would have it for 20 or 30 years. This has changed. Ratings, now, are only good for five years. So it's going to put a lot of pressure on the hotel industry in France to keep the standard up. It includes anonimous spotters, it's very extensive. It's going to be very good for France. It's very positive. The evidence is not going to be so obvious in major hotels such as the Bristol, but as you travel through France, to three and four-star, there will be a huge improvement over the years in what we offer as a destination.
For example, under the old rating of four stars, you only needed one person who was English speaking in the hotel. It could have been a chambermaid or steward. Under the new rating, all four and five star hotels must have people on the front desk who speak English.
Do you think luxury hotels suffered in the recession?
Yes, some brands who placed themselves as the ultimate in luxury travel did suffer. But when you're dealing with independent hotels such as the Bristol, repeat guests are in the region of 60% to 70%, so the impact is less. If you are a brand that has done a good job as being perceived as very luxurious, they have suffered because of that image. People not wanting to be seen to stay in a high, high end luxury hotel. A hotel like the Bristol doesn't have the same connotation as a major brand.
Is Paris as a whole mirroring the improvements you have seen in recent months?
I wish I could say it was just the Bristol, but Paris as a whole is very vibrant in these days. You have a group of hotels that have their own market and clientele and they are doing well. Some are slightly behind, but not in a poor fashion. In May the occupancy was in the mid 80s, in June the mid 90s, so that is a pretty healthy market. Summer looks very good. And we sense the business travellers are back. It's obvious.
What does the future hold for Paris and Le Bristol?
For us, it's an interesting positioning, from the standpoint that we have competition coming. Mondrian is coming, Peninsular, Raffles, Shangri La. They're all foreign brands, and each one of them has their own market and their own clientele, and they're all going to do very well. All the other palaces are owned by people in the middle east. The Bristol is the only one with European ownership and financially a very secure base.
We like to feel that we will epitomise French culture, French style. It will highlight our culture. I think we will be a good representation of the French type of hotel. For us, food is very important. The restaurant has three Michelin Stars, which is very special for the hotel. I always like to say that if you go to New York you go to Broadway to see a show, in Paris you want to go a great restaurant. It's one of the best cities in the world for food, so to have the three stars is very important to us.
We are also expanding the spa. We have an Anne Semonin spa that has done very well for us, so well that we are going to triple its size, hopefully this winter. We can at least double the number of treatment rooms, from five to 10, and completely redo the exercise room, which we know is important for business travellers.
With hotels, you can never stand still. As you work with a hotel, you naturally see things that can be improved. For example, tecnology changes. What is the right television size one year, five years later is no longer the right size.
What is it about the hotel industry that you enjoy?
I think there's a lot that I enjoy. Obviously there is the contact with clients, with people, but also the contact with employees. It's an industry where you serve and produce a product. There is production, servicing, human resources, marketing. It's being a small seal, that's quite pleasant. You touch upon everything. Every hour is different. You can go from a union negotiation to welcoming a VIP and greeting guests. It's all the interesting people you meet, and the relationships you build in that business.