Can These Palaces Bring the Nouveau Riche Back to Paris?

The newly reopened Hôtel de Crillon (and luxury hotels like it) are banking on their opulent histories and foreigners’ fantasies about Paris to lure affluent visitors back.

PARIS—Before she was guillotined in the Place de la Concorde just outside, Marie Antoinette took piano lessons at a lavish, private mansion that, 116 years later, would become one of Paris’ most storied luxury hotels: the Hôtel de Crillon.

In addition to the doomed French queen, the landmark Paris property has hosted a plethora of distinguished visitors—everyone from Sir Winston Churchill to Leonard Bernstein to Madonna—and, since its opening in 1909, has been regarded among the City of Light’s most famous high-end accommodations.

And last month, after undergoing a four-year, €200 million ($233 million) revamp, the Hôtel de Crillon opened its doors once again in the hopes that its contemporary incarnation would attract the modern-day elite, namely affluent Americans and Middle Easterners, who have shied away from the French capital after a recent string of terrorist attacks.

“Our objective was to unite modernity with the past while conserving the hotel’s 18th-century spirit,” the hotel’s managing director, Marc Raffray, told Le Parisien, adding that guests will have the impression of having entered a private residence or one of the city’s hotel particulier’s—swank townhouses occupied by the Parisian upper class in the 1700s.

Another motivation behind the Hôtel de Crillon’s lavish renovation was to bump its luxury quotient up a notch by scoring an official “palace” designation. The French government’s tourism authority bestows this coveted status on a select group of ultra high-end properties whose amenities surpass those of five-star hotels.

According to Atout France, the country’s official government tourism agency, to achieve palace status the property must possess “exceptional qualities that embody French standards of excellence and contribute to enhancing the image of France throughout the world.” More specifically, a palace hotel is required to have a pool, a spa, a gym, a garden, 24-hour room service, trilingual personnel, and double rooms that are at least 30 square meters (roughly 325 square feet)—which, incidentally, is the size of a standard studio apartment in Paris.

There are currently 10 such hotels in the French capital, including Hôtel Le Bristol, La Réserve, Four Seasons Hôtel George V, Hôtel Le Meurice, Hôtel Le Park Hyatt Paris Vendôme, Hôtel Le Plaza Athénée, Le Royal Monceau, Shangri-La Hotel, and Mandarin Oriental. The Ritz Paris, which reopened last year after a multimillion-euro refurbishment, is expected to join this exclusive list, as is the Hôtel de Crillon (or “Le Crillon,” as it’s called in the French capital). The history-dense Hôtel Lutetia, which closed for renovations in 2014, is also expected to nab a palace designation when it reopens at the end of this year. Per-night rates for a standard room at a palace hotel typically run around €1000 ($1,147), while signature suites can boast rates in the five-digits. A night in the 2,500-square-foot Suite Bernstein in the Hôtel de Crillon, for instance, costs €25,000 ($28,677).

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect about Paris’ palaces (and soon-to-be-palaces) is how un-Parisian they actually are. They may boast Eiffel Tower panoramas, centuries-old histories, and top-notch French cuisine, but it turns out only one, La Réserve, has a French owner. The Hôtel de Crillon, for instance, was once the domain of the aristocratic Crillon family before being purchased by French company Société du Louvre (a holding of the Taittinger Champagne dynasty) in 1907 and transformed into a hotel. Starwood Capital acquired the property in 2005 before selling it to its current owner, Saudi Prince Mitab bin Abdullah bin Abdelaziz al-Saud, five years later. Rosewood Hotels & Resorts, an international luxury hotel company headquartered in Hong Kong, currently operates the Crillon.

Paris’ nine other palaces are also foreign-owned. Oetker Collection, a German luxury hotel brand, owns Hôtel Le Bristol, while Kingdom Holding Company, an investment company run by another Saudi billionaire prince, owns Four Seasons Hôtel George V. Dorchester Collection, a London-based luxury hotel operator owned by the Brunei Investment Agency, is at the helm of both Le Meurice and Hôtel Le Plaza Athénée. Global Hyatt Corporation bought Hôtel Le Park Hyatt Paris Vendôme in 2006, and Qatar owns both Le Royal Monceau and The Peninsula. Newcomers Shangri-La Hotel and Mandarin Oriental are both the property of Hong Kong-based multinationals.

Moreover, the French themselves (even the affluent) typically avoid these places. Over-the-top displays of opulence are often frowned on here (remember the fate of Marie Antoinette?) so France’s wealthy tend to opt for either discreet, upscale boutique hotels or high-end Airbnb rentals. When the well-heeled French do drop by a palace, it’s usually for a drink and nibbles at the bar. And with cocktails fetching up to €30 ($34.50), this is not a quotidian occurrence either (PDF). Sure, the ambiance is elegant, and some of the exorbitantly priced elixirs feature offbeat ingredients—the “Aranda” at the Crillon’s Bar des Ambassadeurs contains seaweed-infused vodka (PDF)—but a more authentic Parisian night out generally involves a meal at a favorite neighborhood haunt or a good bottle (or two) at a stylish yet unassuming bar à vin.

What’s more, all of Paris’ palace hotels are situated in highly central areas of the 8th, 16th, or 1st arrondissements of the city. These districts are where you’ll find the Tuileries, the Louvre, couture boutiques, and the backdrop for myriad perfume and luxury watch commercials. Highly trafficked and monument dense, the majority of these locations lack a neighborhood feel, which make for less-than-desirable home addresses. So evening drinks at Le Meurice, for instance, usually involve a long metro or cab ride across town—not always appealing after a long day at work, unless your office happens to be in the neighborhood.

But this is of little significance. After all, the city’s palaces don’t make their profits from Parisians popping in for pricey craft cocktails, but from wealthy overseas guests who hole up in their exclusive suites for a few days to indulge their fantasies of la vie parisienne.

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“Ninety percent of palace clientele is composed of foreigners,” Gwenola Donet, who heads the hotels and hospitality department for France, at Jones Long Lasalle, a luxury property specialist, told Le Parisien. “They mainly come (to Paris) from the U.S. and the Middle East for leisure.”

Indeed, as Atout France explains on its website, the palace designation is “also designed to increase the profile of these establishments, especially on the international scene.” According to French radio station RTL, 40 percent of this so-called international scene comprises American guests, followed by visitors from Middle Eastern countries. Surprisingly, Asian travelers only account for 10 percent of palace clientele, but hotels are hoping that will change in the near future as an increasing number of newly wealthy Chinese visit the city every year.

To attract these lucrative overseas visitors, the hotels are banking on their regal histories, ever-evolving perks, and foreigners’ fantasies about the French capital that, incidentally, have little to do with contemporary Parisian life. Think sprawling private terraces with Eiffel Tower views and amenities fit for Versailles-era nobility. Suites at Hôtel de Crillon—two were designed by Karl Lagerfeld—offer butler service, heated bathroom floors, and Rivolta Carmignani sheets. La Réserve boasts a private library, where guests can peruse antique leather volumes over €330-glasses of Hennessy Paradis imperial cognac. Le Meurice offers “family spa days” during which children can indulge in manicures and massages with their parents, as well as welcome gift baskets for pets. The pet-friendly palace also has grooms who will take your pooch for a walk in the adjacent Tuileries garden. And every winter, Hôtel Le Plaza Athénée transforms its interior courtyard into a private ice rink—a popular draw for guests with kids in tow.

Shangri-La housed Napoleon Bonaparte’s grandnephew in its pre-hotel days, and in the 19th century Count Jules de Castellane resided in the elegant building that would become Le Bristol. After its grand opening in 1925, the latter would go on to host luminaries from the art and fashion worlds such as Coco Chanel and Salvador Dalí. The legendary surrealist painter was also a frequent guest at Le Meurice. The Paris Peace Accords, which brought an end to the Vietnam War, were signed at The Peninsula in 1973, which was then the Hotel Majestic.

The glamor of Paris’ past combined with an artificial, macaron-hued version of the city—what postmodern French philosopher Jean Baudrillard called a simulacra—is what these palaces are promoting in their efforts to attract wealthy Americans and others. A Shangri-La brochure (PDF) refers to Bonaparte’s grandnephew, Prince Roland, as well as the Eiffel Tower’s “golden glow,” and a “soft Parisian breeze” that “swirls majestically” around guests’ feet as they sip Champagne on their hotel terrace. On its website, The Peninsula describes “soulful views of the Parisian skyline,” and Hôtel Plaza Athénée lists “magnificent views of the Eiffel Tower” and its location on avenue Montaigne “the heart of haute couture” among its draws.

However, while the Paris that populates the pages of palace hotel brochures is one of pure fantasy, in reality the luxury hotel industry has suffered in recent years. A string of terror attacks since 2015 hit the tourism industry hard, and has particularly affected high-end hotel properties.

“Certain luxury hotels in Paris have lost up to 40 percent of their guests this summer in comparison to last year,” Hervé Becam, the vice president of the French Union of Hoteliers, told the industry magazine Quotidien du Tourisme in September.

A series of high-profile robberies targeting wealthy foreigners—October’s brazen Kim Kardashian heist among them—has further tarnished the city’s glamorous reputation and also made wealthy visitors uneasy. However, security fears are only part of the story. The rise of Airbnb in Paris, especially of ultra-swank pads, threatens to snag the palaces’ would-be clientele, who may be lured by the anonymity and extra space that a luxury apartment can provide.

There are currently more than 300 Paris properties available on Airbnb renting for at least €500 ($583) a night. Of those, more than 90 list nightly rates above €900 ($1,049). So rather than settling for a €1,000 hotel room, Paris vacationers can have access to an entire apartment or townhouse (some of which even offer maid and concierge service) for a similar price. Indeed, vacation rentals have become so ubiquitous in the French capital that the city has made efforts to crack down on apartment owners who rent their properties for more than 120 days each year without special authorization.

Finally, there is also a question of oversupply. The Lutetia’s reopening later this year is set to be followed by the debut of yet another would-be palace, Le Cheval Blanc, which will occupy the former landmark La Samaritaine department store on the banks of the Seine. For a bit of perspective, there were around 1,150 ultra-luxury hotel rooms available in Paris seven years ago. Today, there are 1,800—a staggering 60 percent increase. And with two more extravagant lodgings on the horizon, the number will rise even higher. How many decadent holiday dwellings does the city really need? And given ongoing terror attack jitters combined with the appeal of apartment rentals, will they even be profitable? To make a profit, a hotel requires an average occupancy rate of 67 percent. Occupancy rates at ultra-luxe hotels are currently at around 50 percent, according to French radio station RTL.

“There is currently an impression that there are too many (palaces),” Gwenola Donet told RTL. “There are enough, but not too many.”

Donet said that it was necessary to anticipate the future, which she said was looking up for Parisian palaces.

“In 2018, if there is not another massive shock, I think that clients will come back,” she added.

Whether these coveted clients will fill the city’s palaces remains to be seen, of course, but there were plenty of people at the Hôtel de Crillon on its July 5 opening day. Several of them settled into the Jardin d’Hiver, the spacious lounge redone in shades of muted aubergine and taupe gray complete with mica paneling and the hotel’s original amethyst chandeliers. The grandeur remains, but it is more streamlined. The ornate light fixtures dangle above contemporary sofas and side tables, and the table lamps have chunky pyrite bases. Down the hall, pastries and top-market booze are artfully displayed in glass cases, making for a bemusing effect—a bit like the result of a tryst between Harry Winston and an airport duty-free store. The original restaurant is now Les Ambassadeurs bar, marble-walled with plush modern chairs and pale cocoa carpeting. There is glossy black grand piano in the back, and the original frescoed ceiling has morphed into a stunning cloudscape, which could serve as a pleasant distraction from the slightly unsettling reality of having dropped €42 ($48) on two small cocktails.

Back in the Jardin d’Hiver, guests were enjoying wine, tea, and pastries. The attractive servers sported gauzy navy skirts and lace blouses, and were friendlier and far more accommodating than typical Parisian restaurant staff. The murmur of English mingled with Mandarin, and the menu offered California-esque detox juices in addition to the standard cocktails, coffee, and soda. Since I had a deadline, I opted for a €15 ($17.50) juice concoction called regenerant, which lists chia seeds, probiotics, and coconut water among its ingredients. No go. They were out (really?) so the server brought me something containing beetroot, hemp, and carrot juice in a plastic bottle (ew!) along with an elegant crystal glass to pour it in. Two elderly ladies settled into the table beside mine and started chatting in French. They ordered hot teas and commented on the change of décor since the hotel’s closure, while gesturing around the air-conditioned room (another upgrade). The women seemed pleased with the Crillon’s transformation, but, like the rest of the locals who will drop by this summer to escape the humidity or admire the cloud ceiling, their approval is incidental.

“A true tourism recovery is underway in Paris, which remains a special city and still makes foreigners dream,” Raffray told Reuters.

Embodying the Parisian dreams of elite foreign tourists is what the contemporary version of the Crillon (and other Parisian palaces) are banking on to achieve 21st-century staying power.