France promoting its 'palaces'

By Catherine Field

How much would you pay for a hotel room and a spot of pampering for one night?

A couple of thousand dollars? Oh, and that won't include dinner, which will probably cost you several hundred more - your generous tip not included, of course.

If your answer is yes, then clients like you are just what France is seeking, for it is on a campaign to propel its top hotels into the super-luxury bracket where the attention is as lavish as the bill is eye-watering.

Under a directive published by the Tourism Ministry, France is setting up a category of hotels called "palaces" whose offerings go way beyond the humdrum five-star hostelry with the coffee shop and the business centre and into the stellar beyond.

Hotels have until the end of the year to apply for the title - but then have a daunting series of obstacles to overcome before they get the award. "Le happy-few", as the French call a cosy elite, is unlikely ever to comprise more than 20 across the country, and could well be only a dozen.

Those bidding for a "palace" nomination have to meet an exacting range of preliminary standards. They must have been listed already as a five-star hotel for at least two years.

Rooms have to guarantee at least 26sq m per person (32sq m for two).

There has to be a spa, a child-minding service, top-class food available through round-the-clock room service and multilingual personnel. Even the tiny details are enforced: all rooms must have a flat-screen TV, and the switchboard or reception has to answer a phone within five rings.

But that's only the first, bureaucratically tedious hurdle.

Applicants will next be scrutinised by a 10-member jury, headed by Dominique Fernandez, an author who is a member of the French Academy - the inner sanctum of French culture - to see whether their abode meets "subjective" criteria.

Is the hotel in a truly exceptional location? Are its food and wine extraordinary? Does its decor meet aesthetic standards? And does the building have that indefinable thing, a touch of the soul, the mystique of history?

At present, half a dozen hotels in Paris can claim a place in the top tier, and their names are intertwined with the city's history of glamour, revolution, art and eccentricity.

They include the Crillon, just bought by Saudi investors for around €250 million ($443 million) and whose 147 rooms and suites are to be renovated at a cost rumoured to be up to €400,000 apiece.

Located on the Place de la Concorde, the Crillon is where Marie-Antoinette went for her piano lessons - it later served as an excellent spot from which to view her beheading - and where Charlie Chaplin, Churchill, Roosevelt and Emperor Hirohito liked to spend their Paris nights.

Around the corner is the Ritz, on the Place Vendome, from where Princess Diana and her lover Dodi Fayed took their fateful ride.

Fouquet's, on the Champs-Elysees, is the watering hole of movie stars and politicians. It is where President Nicolas Sarkozy notoriously feted his election victory among business chums in May 2007.

The Hotel Meurice, meanwhile, was the favourite stopping place for Salvador Dali. When the frenzy of painting grabbed him, the surrealist artist would have goats and even a horse brought up to his room for inspiration.

To this select group four more "palace" potentials can be added over the next two years. They include investments, each in the hundreds of millions of euros, by Asia's Shangri-La, Peninsula and Mandarin Oriental.

Top designers such as Philippe Starck are being lured for interior decoration, and the best Michelin-starred chefs, such as Thierry Marx, a guru of so-called molecular cooking, are being offered massive salaries.

The Singapore-owned Royal Monceau Raffles, which opened its doors on October 18 after a €100 million makeover, boasts its own in-house cinema and "art concierge" who will guide you around the museums. Accommodation includes 400sq m suites at €10,000 a night, which is a snap compared to the Ritz's €13,650 lodgings.

The look and the food of these newcomers will have an Asian allure to it, in line with the big source of new money in the world these days.

Atout France, which promotes French tourism, came up with the "palace" idea two years ago in the hope of making France stand out from its rivals.

Beneath the jaw-dropping anecdotes of luxury is the hard-nosed commercial question: can a market of 1150 rooms today sustain a 60 per cent increase in supply over the next two years?

"In this sector, it's the supply which creates the demand," says Georges Panayotis, head of top-end hotel consultancy MKG Group, who argues that the rich flock to where they can be pampered.

"There's enough space for everyone," is the suave assurance of Christopher Norton, manager of the hotel George V.

- NZ Herald

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