The Ritz is excluded from list of top Paris hotels

When the French government announced the names of the eight hotels chosen for the designation of "palace", there was a notable absence from the list.

The Ritz has been overtaken by stiff competition at the top end of the Parisian hotel market. AFP
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When the French government announced the names of the eight hotels chosen for the super exclusive new designation of "palace", there was a notable absence from the list.

Built in the early 18th century, initially as a home for nobility, what is now the Ritz dominates one of Paris's grandest squares, the Place Vendome, set between the Tuileries and the l'Opera.

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Frequented by royalty, film stars, the fabulously wealthy and the "lost generation" of literary Americans between world wars, the hotel is synonymous with high living and style.

"When in Paris, the only reason not to stay at the Ritz is if you can't afford it," one of the best-known of those American writers, Ernest Hemingway, once said.

The Nazi leader Hermann Goering took a similar view, commandeering the building as Paris headquarters of the Luftwaffe during the Second World War.

So why did a panel of judges appointed by the French tourism agency to award the palace rating overlook this stunning hotel, "the quintessence of luxury French-style" according to Mark Watkins, the Franco-American president of the hotel and restaurants analysts Coach Omnium?

The simple answer is that the Ritz has been overtaken by stiff competition at the top end of the Parisian hotel market.

In May, the judges, representing the media, architecture and the hotel trade itself, chose instead, as their four Parisian winners, the Bristol, the Meurice, the Park Hyatt Paris-Vendome and the Plaza-Athenee: the first three situated close to the Ritz; the fourth nearer the renowned George V, another surprising omission from the list.

In an exhaustive review of the problems facing the Ritz and how it might overcome them, the newspaper Le Figaro identified several worrying signs. Even more top-of-the-range hotels - the Royal Monceau Raffles, Shangri-La and Mandarin Oriental - have joined the fray. And criticism of the standards of service and quality at the Ritz have appeared on the internet.

The impression left is that while the Ritz is determined to put its house in order, it may take some time to restore its reputation to the heights commanded in the past.

Like the Savoy in London before its revamp, the Ritz is in need of a hugely expensive makeover. Industry specialists say this is bound to happen sooner rather than later and could, again in common with the Savoy, involve long-term closure during the work. But first, there is the question of ownership to be resolved.

The Ritz family's formal connection with the hotel lasted for 81 years until 1979 when the hotel was bought for US$20 million (Dh73.46m) by the Egyptian businessman Mohamed Al Fayed, later to acquire the top London store Harrods and a Premier League football club Fulham, and his brother, Ali.

The Ritz undoubtedly holds strong emotional ties for Mr Al Fayed, whose eldest son Dodi spent his last evening there, dining with Diana, Princes of Wales, before both were killed in a car crash while being pursued by paparazzi.

But he is now 78 and a question mark has appeared over his appetite for such a monumental project as the hotel's renovation. What is more, there would be a sense of deja vu: Mr Al Fayed ordered work costing €250m (Dh1.32 billion) when he took over the hotel.

Money is unlikely to be an issue. Last year Mr Al Fayed sold Harrods to Qatar Holdings, the sovereign state wealth fund, for £1.5bn (Dh8.82bn); even after bank debits were paid, that left a substantial sum to reinforce his status as a very wealthy man.

British media reports suggest he is now turning his attention to online retail businesses. Would an energetic round of acquisitions in that sector, added to his devotion to Fulham FC, be more than enough to occupy him without taking on the challenge of dragging the Ritz into the new hotel age?

There is no evidence of younger Al Fayed family members wishing to become involved in renovating the Ritz.

And in London, Le Figaro found the businessman in philosophical mood, happy to talk about football - the club has just appointed Martin Jol to succeed Mark Hughes as manager - but not the future of one the world's most famous hotels. "It is premature," he said.

"I will willingly talk about it when I have made my decision."