Atout France

 

 

Jean-Philipp e Pérol at Benoit, an Alain Ducasse restaurant, in New York.

 

At the Atout France reception desk on the 29th floor of 825 Third Avenue in Manhattan, two men are poring over a map of Paris. The man behind the desk is circling the highlights on the map—pointing out Metro stops and local landmarks. This goes on for a few minutes. When finished, the guest says he has just one more question.

“How do I get from the airport to the center of the city? What’s the easiest way?” The Atout France employee expertly relays bus and metro info and writes it all down on a piece of paper for him. The visitor, now fully armed with all the directions he needs to navigate Paris, gathers his map and notes, puts them in his briefcase, flashes me a smile, and is on his way. I’ve enjoyed the exchange because I’ve gathered an awful lot of vital information for traveling to Paris, a trip that’s always on my radar, no matter how many times I’ve been there. Moreover, I’m reminded that the basic mission of any national tourism office is to facilitate travel to its country, starting with advice on how to get from point A to point B.

I break from my reverie, however, for I’m here to see Jean-Philippe Pérol, director of the Americas for Atout France (Advantage France), the entity formed earlier this year when Maison de la France, the French promotional tourism agency, was merged with ODIT France, the tourism engineering and investment agency.

Prior to the merger, Maison de la France marketed the country through its field offices in 30 countries while ODIT handled “touristical engineering,” market research and the export of French tourism know-how worldwide. A 21-year veteran of the French tourism agency, Pérol now oversees all of Atout France’s efforts in the north, central and south Americas. A lifetime spent throughout the regions, particularly in Brazil, working for Air France (where his father was formerly the CEO) as a tour operator, has prepared him for this role. Morever, he founded his own agency, Safari Turismo, in Paris in 1979 and later sold it to Wagon-Lits.

Pérol’s office is impressive. Out through his window, helicopters and planes buzz over the East River. It’s such a unique view that I freeze and stare, only to be roused by the aroma of the espresso Pérol is preparing in his in-office machine. It bounces me back to reality and my interview with the affable directeur, who comments that the tempo of office-life is picking up, now that August is over and everyone is returning from summer vacations. He appears to be delighted with this change and from his high level of energy, I doubt he ever used the summer as an excuse to slow down. In fact, he’s already deep into drawing up the strategic plan for France tourism for 2010 through 2015.

Being headquartered in Manhattan is a tremendous benefit, he tells Luxury Travel Advisor. “When you’re in New York you’re in a very strategic point because you’re seeing things happen here that are going to happen elsewhere in the future. The new consumer trends you see in this new economy have already begun here in New York.” Pérol is referring, of course, to the new “deals” mentality that consumers are getting hooked on to, but also to niche marketing, some of which, he notes, is a little bit shocking for the French mentality.

“Now everybody is marketing specifically for women, for blacks, for gays, for the Jewish markets. This is something that is completely new for us. We began doing it in the U.S. and now it’s been integrated into our worldwide marketing,” he says.

Pérol’s group has, since April, been tracking an increase in leisure travel to France, albeit at a lower price point. Business travel, on the other hand, he says, is “horribly down.”

He elaborates on the state of the luxury market, saying: “You have two problems for luxury today. The first, of course, is that you have fewer rich people than before. But tomorrow that will be over as people get their money back. The bigger problem is that people don’t want to be seen in a luxury setting. Luxury has become more discreet.”  Case in point: His office recently arranged a fam trip to France for the MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conventions and Exhibitions) market to visit “a city known for its glamour.” One invited participant said he couldn’t go because his company wouldn’t allow it. He couldn’t be seen in a city like that “because it wasn’t the right moment.”

“For luxury, the time of bling-bling is over,” says Pérol. “And it will probably be a while before it comes back. It’s the same thing with the airlines. Some people are going from first class to business class or from business to coach. Some, because they don’t have money, but also because they don’t want to be seen.”  This trend will most certainly have an impact on tourism revenue for France, he adds.

New Five-Star Ranking

Atout France is also tackling a very different luxury-related issue—the new star-rating system recently launched by the French Ministry of Tourism. The program is an audit of hotels based on 240 criteria related to guest expectations of comfort and hygiene, as well as a ranking of hotel services, their initiatives on sustainable development and new technologies.

The new categorization completely overhauls the fortysomething-year-old system that classified the country’s hotels from zero to four stars. Luxury hotels, which, in the old system, received the “palace”
designation, now vie for a five-star rating. By the end of the year, it’s estimated that 100 to 150 hotels will receive the five-star status, bringing an end to the palace category. Currently, 26 hotels in France have the five-star rating.

 

Saint-Émilion, Bordeaux,
Saint-Émilion, Bordeaux, is a rich destination that is still being discovered by the U.S. market.

 

“We are trying to give the consumer a clear picture of what the French offer, so you know better what you are buying, especially if it’s your first time there,” says Pérol. “For some reason, when the first classification was created, we didn’t have a five-star rating, and it was strange to be the only country in the world without any five-star hotels.”
He adds that the program is voluntary; hotels have to request that they be visited.

This apart, France has seen a wealth of luxury hotel openings this year, including La Réserve Ramatuelle near St. Tropez and the newly renovated Palais Stephanie in Cannes. In Paris, Hotel Le Mathurin has just completed a two-year renovation and Hotel Le Bristol has opened its new wing. The Royal Monceau will reopen in Paris early 2010 as a Raffles hotel, after a nearly two-year-long refurbishment and redesign by Philippe Starck.

Pérol notes the trend of boutique-style hotels opening in the south of France as well as in Paris, “They are smaller, so they are more discreet. You have less chance to meet with people you don’t want to meet. If you go to a smaller hotel where you have 10 rooms instead of 200, your chance of meeting someone is 20 times less,” he says with a smile. Another trend is that of major hotels aligning with branded spas, such as Dior and L’Occitane. “There’s really a tendency for people wanting to take care of themselves much more than before,” he says.

Where Next

It’s no secret Americans are madly in love with Paris and Provence, but there still is much more of France to be discovered.

“The Bordeaux area, for example, for the American traveler is fabulous because the city of Bordeaux in the last year made a fantastic renovation and it is now classified as a UNESCO site,” says Pérol. “If you go there, you can just stay in the area; all around, you have vineyards, which means you can go to a different place [daily]. You can go to Saint-Émilion. You can go to taste all the red wines of the region and they have very good food. In the city itself you have a lot of things to see, such as exhibitions. So it really is a fabulous place.”

Another untapped region? Auvergne, in the center of France, where Pérol is from. If you’ve tasted Volvic mineral water, then you’ve sampled one of Auvergne’s top exports. Pérol grew up in a small village 250 miles south of Paris, and, though he recommends his town in particular, he believes it’s always good to extend one’s travel experience to the outside of a large city. “It’s very interesting for foreigners to go to small places because then you can feel the difference much more between the countries.
Many of the big cities have a lot in common. If you go to Paris, New York, London or São Paulo, a lot of things, especially the way people live, are very similar. But if you go 500 kilometers outside of any of these cities, you will see the difference from one country to another, and it’s easier to speak with the people because they are so happy to see you. [In Auvergne] if you’re a foreigner, you’re a god, because they never see anybody. They will say, ‘I’m so happy to see you,’ to open the door and to offer you a drink.”

Other regions that have potential are Marseille, Burgundy, Alsace and Champagne. The region of Biarritz, south of Bordeaux, is already catching the eye of the U.S. traveler. “We have a wonderful hotel in Biarritz, Hotel du Palais. If you visit Biarritz, you [must] go to the Hotel du Palais. If you cannot stay there because it’s full or because you don’t think you can afford it, don’t go to Biarritz, wait for next time. It’s very traditional and it’s on the beach and it’s a very pleasant place. It’s a kind of palace. When you go there, you want to dress up a little bit. You have to play the game.”

Demographic of the U.S. Visitor

Now that Atout France oversees both the development of the tourism product as well as its marketing, Pérol expects the group to have an influence on what visitors will experience. For example, knowing what the American market wants in a hotel may impact the type of hotels that are developed. Along those lines, for instance, a new convention center could be carbon neutral.

“I am involved in some projects where we are giving [advice] to people who are trying to develop activities. And we have already said, ‘Okay, if you want to have our clients, it has to work like this,’” he says, noting that his organization has a tremendous amount of knowledge about visitors to France. They tend to be urban, middle-aged, rich, big on culture, between 45 and 60 years old, and female, to be more precise.

“More importantly, they are highly educated and open-minded,” says Pérol, noting that they are mostly from the West Coast and East Coast, Chicago and Colorado. They are also FIT travelers, which falls in line with the fact that France is not a country of large hotels that can host large tour groups.

Statistics also show that two-thirds of the visitors to France are repeat visitors and one of the key reasons they return is for the food and wine experience. One pleasant surprise repeat travelers will find is the hefty decrease in restaurant tax, which has reduced from 20.6 percent to 5.5 percent. Pérol says it has already had a positive impact on business.

Culture, of course, is the prime reason for visiting France, particularly for U.S. travelers. “People are always imagining that the American traveler is a guy who doesn’t know anything. The fact, however, is that they have quite a high cultural level; they know good wine and good food.
They know who the big painters are and so on,” says Pérol.

2010: Impressionism Bonanza

France, in 2010, will not disappoint American travelers, especially those who love Impressionist art. The key event is the “Renoir in the 20th Century” exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris (which runs until January 4, 2010. A Monet show begins mid-October 2010); others will follow in Normandy (Festival Normandie Impressioniste from June to September 2010), which already had a stellar 2009 due to the 50th annual D-Day commemoration. There is also the new Musée des Impressionnismes Giverny, which opened in May. Flying to France will also be a treat when Air France launches new A380 JFK-Paris flight starting this November.

Luxury travel advisors with clients who love jazz should take note: Next year marks the 50th anniversary of the Jazz à Juan Festival in Antibes (think of the Fitzgeralds and the Murphys living the high life in the south of France). While dates and performance details have not yet been released, we do know the event will be held in mid-July, with a series of celebrations leading up to it.

Juan-les-Pins welcomed the first European Jazz Festival in 1960. Since then, concerts have been held in an open-air theater in the pinède, or pine grove, with the Mediterranean as a backdrop. From April through August, a series of jazz events in Juan-les-Pins will commemorate the 50th anniversary of this world-famous festival.

Perhaps, best of all will be the launch this December of Atout France’s luxury travel website, www.franceguide.com/prestige, to complement the annual print publication of FranceGuide Prestige, which highlights luxury travel activities in the country. For now, details on the events above can be found at www.franceguide.com.

Luxury Travel Advisors First

In all of his endeavors to meld marketing and product, Pérol will never forget the many years he spent in the trade through his jobs at Jet Tours, Air France and for Maison de la France. Then there are those years as a travel agency owner in France. All of this places him in a strong position to know what the luxury travel advisor community needs to promote France.

Atout France will continue to make significant investments with those who sell France as a destination. In addition to online training programs, seminars, webinars, fam trips and e-newsletters, it will hone its destination specialist program in partnership with the Travel Institute. Plans are also underway to unveil a new agent specialist program.

“We will, of course, roll out [our activities] with the trade first,”

Pérol says. “Being a former travel agent, you never forget.”

Beyond France

Atout France also oversees tourism for Martinique, Guadeloupe, St. Martin and St. Barthélémy in the Caribbean; French Guiana in northwest South America between Suriname and Brazil; St. Pierre et Miquelon, an archipelago neighbor of Newfoundland; Reunion Island and Mayotte in the Indian Ocean; and New Caledonia, Wallis and Futuna Islands in the Pacific, as well as French Polynesia-Tahiti.

Pérol sees the Caribbean locations in particular growing in interest for the U.S. traveler because they’re so different from their other island counterparts. The beauty of these destinations?

“They’re French,” he says. “You can really feel the country there.”

Mary Winston Nicklin contributed to this story

 

Paris
Paris will always be one of France’s major draws.

 

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