Welcoming friends, family, clients, partners—all of these form occasions for an exchange of sensual and intellectual pleasures that, in France, bring out the best in standards, beauty, refinement, rituals, and sophistication, not to mention lightheartedness, excellence, and courtesy.
This page is aimed at sharing the various codes, customs, signs, symbols, and distinctly French principles that abound in the hotel industry. We have come to inherit an expertise and a way of living that we continue to adapt—while blurring lines between tradition and modernity—in the pursuit of bringing pleasure to our guests in the setting of an event, be it for a party of 2 or a party of 500!
What remains important above all is the ability to bring pleasure, surprise one’s guest, and provide him with the very best by drawing on a wealth of small and careful attentions. Nothing can be left to chance if you want to assure that your event is at once lively, ‘efficient,’ and meaningful—and thus worthy of a lasting memory.
Beyond our borders, the French art of welcoming is something that is celebrated, sought after, and even envied. Is it our culture, our heritage, our gastronomy, our climate…? The truth is, it’s a little bit of everything at once.
The French art of welcoming is a tradition we owe to Louis XIV. It was his hope to bring an element of prestige to France, so each event was carefully organized according to a very formal etiquette. Thanks to this ceremony, French-style service became integrated into a system in which the art of living truly emerged as a major art form. Tableware gradually developed into an art, and the beauty of gestures in service developed in complexity. The quest for excellence, which accompanied the evolution of tableware, allowed for the evolution of common household objects such as pottery, table covers, and glasses, to name a few. The so-called “modern” cuisine of the time appeared around the same time as the first champagnes, and each of these were elaborated with a sense of ceremony and decorum that cemented the supremacy of French taste in Europe for several centuries thereafter.
Thus was born the French art of welcoming.
1. What does French luxury mean for high-end hotels? Is there such a thing as a distinctly French style of hospitality?
It was around the 19th century that the first Palaces appeared. In Paris, Hotel Meurice ranks among the oldest (it was established in 1835). In the 19th century, it was the only hotel available for welcoming wealthy travelers in Paris until the opening of the Ritz in 1898. It was these first hotels that defined the level of excellence. They took inspirations from castles and fine bourgeois estates in a careful attempt to define the service roles they wanted to offer their first clients. While some professions have disappeared, others have been modernized. During this period, the hotelier’s expertise was developed on the job, passed down from generation to generation, and further reinterpreted upon the arrival of subsequent generations—and this remains true even today. It is this alchemy that ensures the client the experience of excellent service.
French luxury in the hotel industry brings together at once tradition and the ability to constantly reinvent ways for welcoming one’s guest. Welcoming one’s guests provides a source for the exchange of sensual and intellectual pleasures that, in France, bring out the best in standards, beauty, refinement, bygone and new rituals, and sophistication, not to mention lightheartedness, excellence, and courtesy.
French luxury hotels also bring together the best providers of products for their clients. For instance, a luxury hotel has to be able to offer the highest quality bedding by working with the best brands, such as Dumas, a company that has crafted luxury pillows and duvets for over 100 years. This expertise also becomes passed down from generation to generation, and it is this transmission of expertise that characterizes all the providers of our finest hotels, whether it be in the setting of the room or the restaurant.
The Plaza Athénée, for instance, continues this tradition of hospitality while reinventing it. In terms of decoration, if you look at the work that has taken place in the bar and the restaurant under Alain Ducasse, architects Patrick Jouin and Sanjit Manku have understood how to preserve the spirit of these historic places while bringing to them a touch of modernity. As far as service is concerned, the team continues to respect traditions while remaining open to innovating tableware, such as doing away with napkins. Yet excellence continues to reign! In these kinds of establishments, there are always a handful of collaborators who claim more than thirty years of experience within the establishment. They represent the memory of the establishment, and they are the ones who can recall the hotel’s most memorable stories and finest moments. Within their respective departments, they pass down knowledge they have learned from those who came before them.
2. What place do French luxury hotels hold abroad?
Numerous international brands go looking in search of French expertise in the luxury hotel world. A considerable number of hotel managers around the world are French. They thus pass down their expertise to their teams on a daily basis and see to the excellence of their service. This goes the same for chefs. The finest hotels always make it a point of honor to name a French chef at the head of their kitchen. A restaurant boasting French cuisine is always a sign of excellence for a Palace. In the world of luxury hotels, France and French products are signs of quality and excellence. Again, we possess a wide range of ancestral expertise that continues to be passed down, and we possess an immense richness of terroir that summons envy from the rest of the world.
Take the brand Sofitel! It brings to life the French art of living around the world and cultivates the “French touch” as a way of differentiating itself from its competitors. Sofitel thus delivers a French vision of luxury hotels based primarily on the use of French brands in its hotels and by highlighting the best expertise in gastronomy, design, and culture, all while welcoming the best of what is being done in the local area.
3. The notion of service is an integral one in the French luxury hotel industry; does it still exist in France? And in your opinion, what type of service remains to be invented?
The digital age and the Internet have vastly transformed our modes of living as well as our modes of consumption since the time they’ve been introduced, as tends to happen with such progress. This is the way it is, and it’s only inevitable. Luxury hotels simply can’t afford to bury their heads in the sand to avoid digital innovation or the importance of smartphones in their clients’ lives. They have to integrate it into their service. Too few hotels are actively conscious of it, and they often just wait around to see what their competitors do. The digital dimension can improve their clients’ all-around experience within the hotel, from their arrival in the hotel all the way to checkout.
New consumer behaviors, related in part to emerging forms of social media, have arrived in the hotel industry and have consequently shifted toward holding a different rapport with luxury hotels. The mode of ‘consuming’ luxury hotels has evolved—just look at Dubai or China. This new clientele has grown accustomed to luxury hotels, which are developing more and more of a presence in Paris and Provence, and they have also come to expect an evolution in the range of offers of hotels in France.
There might come about a gap between the generations, and some of the older directors might not be conscious of the stakes involved in integrating digital technology into their hotels. And this is not just a matter that is just important to Paris, according to what I hear from certain hotels in Province.
They have to be able to ask the right questions because digital technology will impose new stakes in terms of the level of experience that the client lives out during his stay. Is it necessary to create reception desks the way they were 100 years ago, or should we completely revise our way of welcoming clients?
Once the client reaches her room, should she still be encouraged to take her time to understand the way the hotel works by reading the hotel guide, or might it be better to develop a completely customizable app so that the client can take possession of her room even before her arrival and convey her specific desires for its method of preparation? Should she still use the telephone on her nightstand to communicate with the hotel staff, or wouldn’t it be better for her to communicate via an application on her smartphone in real time, so that she can share an easier exchange with the hotel’s services?
The smartphone is a tool that can allow hotels to develop the client experience and prolong this experience beyond the walls of the hotel. There, too, everything is up to the hotel because that is where the technique exists and functions.
In my opinion, there will probably be a caesura in the luxury hotel industry that will turn out to be a positive force at the end of the day. It will allow clients to be able to differentiate between their experiences at various hotels. This is what the clients say, at least; it’s becoming increasingly important for them to know what experience they will be able to benefit from when visiting such and such hotel. The more differences there are, the more clients will be able to better choose the hotel that best corresponds to them. There will thus be digitized hotels and there will be those hotels that stay stuck in the past. These latter hotels may be able to keep their clientele in the first years, but they will have trouble over the course of the years in renewing their clientele.
About the author
Laurent Delporte, expert of French luxury hotels and the art of welcoming. He runs the site “Decoding the Luxury Hotel Industry” (www.laurentdelporte.com/en), which he designed to share his views and experiences with high-end (4-star) and luxury (5-star and Palace) hotels around the world. The site serves as a laboratory of ideas, expertise, and inspirations. It acts as a “hub” network aimed at connecting the various agents involved in this sector in France and abroad.
Laurent was Executive Project Manager ACCOR / Director of Rooms Division and Member of the Management Board for Sofitel Paris Porte de Sevres and also Senior International Brand Manager for Sofitel. He currently still teaches at the Université Paris-Dauphine, HEC, Sup de Luxe on various subjects relevant to the luxury hotel industry.