The Return of Rendez-vous en France

The magnolia trees put on a pink show in Nantes for Rendez-vous en France. Under cloudless skies, the flowers were bursting into bloom in the spring sunshine. In fact, there’s never been better weather for French tourism’s largest B2B trade show. And after a two-year absence due to the pandemic, the weather matched the giddy mood of attendees, buoyed with optimism about the tourism recovery despite the troubling war in eastern Europe, for which organizers expressed deep solidarity with Ukraine.

France has earmarked a massive recovery plan of nearly €2 billion (about $2.2 billion) to bolster the country as the world’s leading tourist destination while at the same time focusing on sustainability. “France was strongly impacted by the pandemic crisis, though the tourism sector showed more resilience than other European countries,” explained Caroline Leboucher, the CEO of Atout France. The “Destination France” plan will include a big promotional campaign for both European visitors and key long-haul markets, an investment in travel tech and French start-ups, and the launch of a data platform to develop new business models. Notably, the accommodation classification system has been reformed to take into account the major consumer trends accelerated by the health crisis: sustainability, innovation, and digitalization (like contactless check-in and the use of QR codes). This will go into effect on April 1. 

Held on March 22 and 23 at the Parc des Expositions, Rendez-vous en France convened 668 French exhibitors and 587 tour operators from 57 different countries. (The tour operator attendance was lower than previous years because of ongoing pandemic travel restrictions in Asia and the absence of the Russian delegation.) In attendance were 59 American tour operators representing smaller niche companies alongside bigger enterprises, including Avanti, Globus-Avalon Waterways, Eurobound, Tauck, and Uniworld River Cruises. The event was an opportunity to reconnect and strengthen existing relationships, while also making new contacts and finding product inspiration.

“About one-third of my appointments were with suppliers I knew,” said Hazel Boone, the owner of Someday Vacations, a full-service travel agency. “The other appointments were opportunities for me to drill down from regions and departments to specific hotels and activities. My ‘dance card’ was completely booked and it was a fantastic event.”

“It was a joy to be back in France, connecting live with the people who make travel so special for my clients,” said Sasha Charney, a travel advisor with Enlivened Travel, an affiliate of Departure Lounge. “Knowing the future remains uncertain, everyone was so excited to share what they’ve been doing and discuss the treasures you can experience in France… I especially loved an exquisite five-bedroom home called Entre Sel et Sable in Batz-sur-Mer (Brittany), where American clients can really get away from the well-traveled routes and discover something new. I was reminded just how amazing a resource the regional and local tourism boards can be.”

The pre-show familiarization trips spanned the country, highlighting the diverse variety of tourist offerings in France. For example, Boone’s itinerary in the Grand Est introduced her to exciting new finds: “[An immersive venue dedicated to Champagne,] Pressoria is like a "children's touch museum" for adults and worthy of a detour to the village of Aÿ-Champagne. In Alsace, the Maison Rouge Strasbourg Hotel and Spa is a beautifully restored Art Deco property that’s part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection.”

American travelers to France numbered 4.5 million in 2019, and preliminary data for 2022 from Google Destination Insights shows strong demand. “After France reopened its borders to American travelers in summer 2021, we saw a big bump,” explained Anne-Laure Tuncer, director of Atout France USA. “The trend was these American travelers were upgrading their trips—staying longer and spending more—to make up for lost time… There’s a strong desire for France in the American market, the image is good, because of ongoing investment in tourism, whether that be hotels like Le Grand Contrôle in Versailles or museum openings like the Frank Gehry-designed tower in Arles.” Tuncer also noted how hit movies and TV series, such as The Last Duel, Lupin and Emily in Paris, showing off beautiful French settings, have contributed to Americans’ desire for France.

“Major sporting events to be held in 2023-2024 will also showcase France,” added Tuncer. These include the 100th anniversary of the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2023, the FIS Alpine Ski World Championships in Courchevel-Méribel in February 2023, the Rugby World Cup in September-October 2023, and the Paris Olympic Games in summer 2024.

New airline routes facilitate trips for American travelers: Air France now has direct flights from both Denver and Dallas to Paris, and is resuming flights between Paris Orly Airport and New York-JFK. In fact, for summer 2022 Air France is substantially increasing capacity on U.S. routes, with close to 200 weekly flights to 14 U.S. cities which represents 20 percent more than during summer 2019. Other airlines are also increasing flights. La Compagnie, the all-business class airline, connects Paris and New York; Delta has a route from New York JFK to Nice; and French bee, the low-cost, long-haul airline based at Paris Orly Airport, is launching a new route between Los Angeles and Paris in April.

A Destination Showcase

Rendez-vous en France

Nantes was meant to host Rendez-vous en France in 2020 but endured pandemic postponements in 2020 and 2021. So it was with much anticipation and excitement that this historical city in western France finally had its moment in the spotlight. Nantes pulled out all the stops to dazzle its guests, starting with an opening soiree at the Chateau des Ducs de Bretagne, the iconic castle that was once home to the Dukes of Brittany and is now a major museum. As the sun set, traditional musicians led attendees along the cobblestoned pathway over the drawbridge and to the tented sit-down dinner where talented Nantes chefs presented live cooking demos projected on a big screen. (Jean-Yves Guého holds a Michelin star at L’Atlantide 1874, while chocolatier Vincent Guerlais is president of the association Relais Dessert International.)

The second night’s party was held at Nantes’ most famous attraction, Les Machines de l’Île, a mega culture and arts project in the former naval shipyards. And the grande finale was at Puy du Fou, France’s second most popular theme park after Disneyland Paris. “The evening…was amazing,” explained Boone. “[It was partly] a multi-media history lesson with actors, a dinner theater where the wait staff are the performers, and an unforgettable light show on the man-made lake.”

Just two hours from Paris by high-speed train, Nantes is the gateway to both the Atlantic and the Loire Valley. It’s also a thrilling destination in its own right with incredible art installations and cultural projects. Not to mention a growing population as the city attracts new inhabitants charmed by the pleasant, green lifestyle. “Nantes is an outstanding example of how culture is an engine for tourism,” explained Tuncer. “The city was visionary in its approach to revitalizing the destination.” In fact, Le Voyage à Nantes (“A Journey to Nantes”), as the tourism office is called, doubles as a cultural agency.

Back in the 1980s, Nantes was an industrial harbor with empty, derelict dockyards. It was under the leadership of Mayor Jean-Marc Ayrault and artistic director Jean Blaise that a new future was imagined. Starting with the arrival of the Royal de Luxe theater company, known for their giant puppets, the city hosted a remarkable series of art projects and events which triggered its urban renaissance. The anchor is the aforementioned Machines de l’Île, giant machines made of wood and steel inspired by Jules Verne and Leonardo da Vinci. Another not-to-miss experience is the “Estuary” linking Nantes and Saint Nazaire: big-name artists were invited to create large, site-specific works all along the River Loire. And the green line, painted on the pavement in Nantes, is a self-guided itinerary linking art and touristic sites.

“We’re no longer positioning Nantes as a city break destination, because two days is just enough time,” said Xavier Theret, Le Voyage à Nantes’ head of international promotion, at a press event aboard the MS Loire Princesse. Days away from launching the spring cruising season, CroisiEurope welcomed tourism professionals aboard its custom-built vessel, equipped with a paddle wheel in order to navigate the shallow waters of France’s last wild river. Based in Strasbourg, the family-owned French company is the largest river cruise company in Europe with 55 ships welcoming 200,000 passengers every year.

Note: The Rendez-vous en France show rotates its location around the country in three-year cycles and will return to Paris in 2023. France 360, an important U.S.-based event for the travel trade community, will be held in October in Miami.

What’s New in 2022

Rendez-vous en France

One of the biggest announcements of the year is the Vallée de la Gastronomie, a brand new concept that was unveiled in an exclusive preview by Sophie Ollier Daumas, CEO of Bourgogne-Franche-Comté Tourisme, and Lionel Flasseur, CEO of Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes Tourisme. Stretching 385 miles from Burgundy to Marseille, this unique tourist itinerary was developed to respond to traveler demand in a post-pandemic world: To have authentic, convivial encounters with locals and learn about cultural traditions. The idea is that travelers can immerse themselves in the French art de vivre with a choice of gourmet offers and personalized experiences along a route that connects a diversity of terroirs. For example, take part in artisanal gingerbread making in Dijon at Mulot & Petitjean, a maison first founded in 1796, then embark on a chauffeured wine tasting tour along the Burgundy wine route with local winemakers. In Valence, take an exclusive cooking class with Anne-Sophie Pic, the legendary Michelin three-star chef at Maison Pic, then learn about olive oil production in Provence at L’Oliveraie Jeanjean, before concluding with a day at sea with Marseille fishermen. There are a total of 315 gourmet along with 32 remarkable experiences. The route itself has its origins in Antiquity—once an ancient Roman road used for trade—and this history influences the emblematic products and cultural sites found along the way.

Speaking of Dijon: The capital of Burgundy will inaugurate the Cité Internationale de la Gastronomie et Du Vin on May 6. Housed in a former hospital dating back centuries, this gastronomic center will offer a Ferrandi culinary school, museum exhibits, marketplace, wine cellar, and restaurants overseen by chef Eric Pras of Maison Lameloise fame. A four-star Curio by Hilton hotel will open onsite in 2023. In neighboring Champagne country, the medieval town of Troyes is opening the Cité du Vitrail dedicated to the art of stained glass.

The big news out of Marseille is the June opening of the replica of the underwater prehistoric cave called the Grotte Cosquer. An archeological treasure, the original cave is located in the Calanques between Cassis and Marseille— its 500 paintings depicting marvelous marine life like penguins and jellyfish. The replica, located in the Villa Méditerranée near the MUCEM, will show off an identical restitution of this underwater world.

The Louvre-Lens will celebrate its 10th anniversary with festive events and blockbuster exhibits including one dedicated to ancient Rome. And a flurry of buzzy venues that opened in Paris last year—including the Hotel de la Marine and the Bourse de Commerce-Pinault Collection—continue to dazzle visitors. The City of Light is also exhibiting some swank new additions to the hotel scene, including the Kimpton St Honoré, the newly renovated Saint James, Soho House Paris, Bulgari, Cheval Blanc, and Madame Rêve, offering one of the best rooftops in town.

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