Dispatch from Toulouse: Rendez-vous en France 2024

Opération séduction is how the French press has described previous editions of Rendez-vous en France, French tourism’s largest B2B trade show. This year was no exception.

A humongous hangar filled with authentic aircraft, including a Concorde and a Super Guppy, makes a wow-worthy setting for a party. It was here in the Aeroscopia Museum that travel professionals were welcomed to the show’s 17th edition, held on March 25-26 in Toulouse in the southwest region of Occitanie. Musicians, dancers and circus performers provided the entertainment during a seated multi-course meal. A thrill for aviation nerds, the venue is a celebration of the aeronautics industry that’s central to Toulouse’s economy. Today the city is home to the Airbus headquarters, and historically it’s where pioneering Aéropostale pilots like Antoine de Saint-Exupéry bravely took off in the early 20th century to deliver mail to North Africa and South America.

In a country known for its joie de vivre and champagne-fueled fêtes, the parties at Rendez-vous en France have become something of a legend. After all, the trade show is the opportunity to showcase the riches that make France one of the world’s most popular destinations. Since the event’s launch in 2003, the soirées have been sensational, as each host region looks to outdo its predecessor. Here’s just a sampling of our favorites: a chateau feast in Nantes with demos by top chefs, fire-twirling acrobats inside the Vulcania theme park outside Clermont-Ferrand, and a nocturnal parade through the medieval streets of Rouen. There was even a diamond ring hidden in a champagne flute in Montpellier.

Toulouse upped the game with foodie frolics on the second gala evening. In the heart of the city, the Victor Hugo covered market was completely privatized for the event, each merchant showing off epicurean delights in their stalls. Bands played songs while attendees circulated among the cheesemongers, butchers, bakers and other artisans. After all, what’s a trip to France without tasting its terroir-tinged cuisine?

Rendez-vous en France dinner and dancer

Organized by Atout France, the France Tourism Development Agency, the trade show convened 635 French exhibitors and 813 international tour operators from 62 countries, including Asian delegations who returned after a COVID-induced absence. In attendance were 68 American travel professionals, representing both boutique enterprises and larger companies. To name a few: Eurobound Tours, Protravel International, Uniworld Boutique River Cruises, American Airlines Vacations, Avanti Destinations, Duvine Cycling and Adventure Company, Road Scholar, Tauck and Departure Lounge. These travel pros appreciated the opportunity to meet or reconnect with suppliers and learn about new offerings. A total of more than 26,000 business meetings were scheduled over the two-day event at the MEETT Toulouse Exhibition and Convention Centre.

Equally as valuable were the pre-show FAM trips offered by 13 partner regions, with a focus on Occitanie because it was the host region. The itineraries ran the gamut from wine tourism in the Languedoc vineyards to spirituality in Lourdes, from heritage sites in Cathar country to stargazing and outdoor discovery in the Pyrenees.

Note: The next edition of Rendez-vous en France will take place in Lyon, France’s capital of gastronomy, in 2025, followed by Nice in 2026. Both cities have played host to the event before. Historically, the trade show has operated in cycles, returning to Paris every three years. Going forward, this is not a given in Atout France’s selection of the host city.

A Toulouse Tour

The trade show is a destination showcase for the host city. Awarded the “City of Music” label by UNESCO in 2023, Toulouse thrums with a vibrant ambiance thanks to the lively university population. The metropolis on the banks of the Garonne River is nicknamed “La Ville Rose” (The Pink City) because of its blush-colored brick buildings, some of which date to Gallo-Roman times. This heritage is on magnificent display in monuments, including the Capitole (housing the city hall and a theater), the Jacobins convent (the birthplace of the Dominican order) and the Basilica of Saint-Sernin (listed as a UNESCO site as part of the Way of St. James pilgrimage route).

France’s fourth-largest city is also home to two major tourist sites. In fact, the Cité de l'Espace is the biggest attraction for space exploration in Europe, welcoming 400,000 visitors a year. Complete with two planetariums and an IMAX theater, the theme park unveiled an immersive exhibit called LuneXplorer in November 2023 that replicates the experience of an astronaut on a mission to the Moon (strapped into a capsule, you feel 2Gs of pressure). The only other place in the world you’ll find a similar experience is at Epcot’s “Mission to Mars.”

Occitanie booth at Rendez-vous en France

Another must-see attraction in Toulouse is La Halle de la Machines. The street theater company famous for resurrecting a formerly abandoned industrial area in Nantes has also transformed a once-derelict district next to Toulouse’s Flight of the Pioneers museum. A visit to the hangar is an immersion in steampunk whimsy. A giant minotaur carries people on his back, blinking his eyes and blowing steam from his nostrils. A team of performers operates a mechanical spider with special effects galore. Other machines include an entire orchestra of makeshift instruments made from recycled objects and a dinner table serviced with theatrical devices such as a bread catapult. Sometimes the machines even take to the streets for spectacular public performances, such as the showdown between two giants.

What’s New in France in 2024

France will host a jam-packed calendar of blockbuster events, including the Summer 2024 Olympics and Paralympics in Paris, the 150th anniversary of Impressionism, the 80th anniversary of D-Day in Normandy, and the reopening of Notre Dame Cathedral in December.

“This extraordinary year is an opportunity for France to maintain its position as a leading tourist destination,” said Caroline Leboucher, CEO of Atout France. Indeed, 2023 was a record year, with international tourism receipts totaling €63.5 billion. This sum exceeded the 2019 receipts by 12 percent and can be attributed to the Rugby World Cup and the return of long-haul markets, including Americans, following the pandemic. Anne-Laure Tuncer, director of Atout France USA, notes that nearly 10 percent of this total was spent by Americans (approximately $6.6 billion). Notably, Americans ranked fourth in international visitor receipts in January 2024—something that never usually happens in the low season.

What’s more, the Netflix effect has contributed to the destination’s allure with hit series like “Emily in Paris” and “Lupin” making viewers want to visit France. A recent study by the Basis research institute (polling American, German and Japanese viewers) shows how the broadcast of these movies and series has boosted the cultural and touristic attractiveness of France. In light of this, Atout France has teamed up with Netflix on an advertising campaign and a series of digital travel guides with tips to follow in the footsteps of some of the fictional characters found in Netflix’s 20 original French productions per year.  

Rendez-vous en France

Sustainable tourism is a major goal for Atout France. A strategic plan has been put in place to make France the world’s leading sustainable tourism destination by 2030. The promotion of slow tourism—such as cycling holidays and nature immersion—is a key part of the #ExploreFrance communication campaign, now in its fourth year. Train travel is also a promotional priority, with regions like Occitanie marketing “rail tours” as a delightful and efficient means of exploring the destination. Additionally, the France Connaisseur e-learning program will be launching a new capsule dedicated to sustainable tourism. Perhaps the biggest showcase of sustainability in 2024, however, will be the Paris Olympic Games, which is aiming to cut the carbon footprint in half. A few examples of concrete measures include reusing existing sports venues, utilizing renewable energy sources and composting food waste.

The Olympics is expected to draw 16 million visitors to the Paris region, a majority being French. The foreign nationalities that bought the most tickets are the Americans and the British. But the real boon will be post-Games. Around the world, 3 billion viewers will tune in to watch the world’s best athletes compete. This media exposure is a means of encouraging people to visit France after seeing the stunning settings: the Eiffel Tower as a backdrop for beach volleyball, the Palace of Versailles gardens for equestrian events and the Seine River for the opening ceremony. 

Running through September 22, the Normandy Impressionist Festival, which takes place every four years, is going all out for the art movement’s 150th anniversary by hosting 150 events across the region. Contemporary artist Robert Wilson will create a light spectacle on the Rouen Cathedral facade, while an exhibit on David Hockney will illustrate why the great artist chose to retire to Normandy for the last chapter of his life. The whole region is also prepping to welcome World War II veterans for the 80th anniversary of D-Day, what Michael Dodds, the CEO of Normandy Tourism, says will be a very emotional occasion. Though the actual date of June 6 will be complicated for the general public to visit, the entire month is marked by ceremonies, fireworks shows and parades.

Come December, the Notre Dame Cathedral will reopen its doors on the Île de la Cité in Paris. Following a devastating fire, the much-loved landmark has been meticulously restored by 1,000 artisans in just five years. Normal visiting hours of 7:45 am to 7:45 pm will resume on December 16. Olivier Josse, the cathedral’s secretary general, notes that Notre Dame expects to receive 15 million annual visitors after its reopening—making it one of the world’s most visited monuments.

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