The Plaza Athenee, Paris, is one of eight French hotels awarded the palace distinction

Hôtel du Palais, in the smart French Atlantic resort of Biarritz, carries the historical endorsement of a man who served as both France's last emperor and its first president - Napoleon III.
Le Bristol was one of eight deluxe French hotels crowned with the rare distinction of 'palace' status.
Le Bristol was one of eight deluxe French hotels crowned with the rare distinction of 'palace' status.

Emperors know a good thing when they see it. Presidents, too, have been known to appreciate the highest standards of luxury.

So it is fitting that the Hotel du Palais, in the smart French Atlantic resort of Biarritz, carries the historical endorsement of a man who served as both France's last emperor and its first president.

A model of elegance and grandeur, the hotel began life as a royal palace, built on the beach by Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III, in honour of fondly remembered childhood holidays, including one during which she was saved from drowning.

More than 150 years later, it is not only part of the success story of French luxury hotels; it is also among an elite group considered even more luxurious than the rest.

With its 123 rooms and 30 suites, the hotel was one of only eight chosen when the tourism ministry introduced the coveted distinction of "palace", effectively giving a five-star hotel an extra star as a reward for what the ministry called excellence a la francaise.

The jury of hotel industry specialists, writers and broadcasters selected four hotels in Paris - the Bristol, the Plaza-Athenee, the Meurice and the Park Hyatt Vendome- and four in the provinces. Along with the winning Biarritz entrant were Les Airelles and the Cheval Blanc at Courchevel, in the Alps, and the Grand Hotel du Cap Ferrat, at St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat.

As a measure of the intentional exclusivity of the awards, renowned hotels such as the Ritz and George V in Paris, and the Negresco in Nice, were not chosen.

Some other notable omissions, for example the Crillon at the Place de la Concorde in the heart of the capital, did not seek palace status on this occasion, but the management of one unsuccessful applicant has admitted privately to some irritation at its exclusion.

Even so, the prestige of the awards has given a further boost to an important sector of the tourism industry, allowing luxury hotels to prosper even when there are mixed signals from other areas.

France's five-star hotels, more than 150 of them with the total expected to rise before long to 200, and those with four stars recorded improved returns in the last published results, in contrast with otherwise disappointing statistics.

The lofty standards attributed by the judging panel to the eight chosen palaces come at a price. Biarritz, a favoured retreat for generations of European royal families, is noted for its choice of top-of-the-range facilities.

A room with a sea view at the Hotel du Palais would cost €550 (Dh2,918) for one night and it is possible to spend €10,000 on a sumptuous suite, though this offers six bedrooms. And as the high season draws to a close, business is good.

"We have been running at 98 per cent of capacity," says Jean-Louis Leimbacher, the director general of the hotel, which is owned by the local council. "Our guests appreciate the quality and friendliness of the service. And of course it is a veritable palace transformed into majestic hotel.

"The palace designation was a great honour and we were delighted for our clients and the owner, the town of Biarritz, who saved it from being converted into a block of flats."

About 40 per cent of visitors are French. American, British, German and Swiss feature among the international clientele. Emiratis and Saudi Arabians also stay there and Mr Leimbacher says they compensate for representing only 1 per cent of the total numbers "by spending five times more".

In Paris, the owners of the Plaza-Athenee - the Brunei-controlled Dorchester Collection, which also has noted hotels in London, Milan and California - had double cause for celebration when the palace distinctions were awarded this year.

Another of the Paris winners, the Meurice, where the Germany military command based itself during Nazi occupation, is also owned by the group.

The capricious July weather that hit the start of the tourism season in such areas as the Cote d'Azur appears to have had little effect on the capital's luxury hotel trade.

"Weather is not such a factor in Paris," says Aude Bourgouin, in charge of media relations for the Plaza-Athenee.

"June and July is a busy time for trade fairs, including the fashion week, and also tourism. It is historically high season for the hotels."

Despite nightly prices starting at €800, typically averaging €1,000 to €1,200 and rising to €22,000 for what is described as the biggest hotel suite in Paris, results have been good throughout the summer, with a "good balance" of business and leisure clients.

If the prices quoted by these palaces are out of reach for most travellers, incidental services in some luxury hotels have, whether intentionally or not, become attractive to people on more modest budgets.

In London, afternoon tea - scones, sandwiches and beverages - can be enjoyed in the Savoy and other hotels without breaking the bank.

In France, as one example among many, Le Club de Cavaliere near St Tropez, or the Byblos in St Tropez itself, serves drinks and amuse-gueules (small savoury appetisers) affordable to the middle-income couple for whom dinner at €200 or more for two would be out of the question.

These factors are significant when it is considered that government analysis provisionally suggests that while summer tourism levels have been "satisfactory" except in mountainous areas, people are generally spending less once they have arrived at their destinations.

In the last available statistics, issued by the finance ministry's directorate for competition, industry and services, French hotels of four stars and above were praised for their "dynamism" in the face of decline in other categories, and especially among customers from such neighbouring countries as Germany, Belgium and Italy. The numbers of Asian and, particularly, Chinese tourists continue to rise sharply.

With dozens of new luxury hotels, or the upgrading of lower-rated establishments, planned for coming months and years, much attention will focus on the performance of existing businesses when comprehensive studies are made of this summer.

And in November, work will begin on selecting which other French hotels have earned palace status.

Some judges may find their duties less than onerous; they include two-night stays in each hotel on the short list.

 

business@thenational.ae

Published: August 31, 2011 04:00 AM

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