By Elaine Srnka
A perennial favorite, France has long ranked as the world’s number-one country for tourism, drawing travelers with its renowned food and wine, fashion, art and architecture, and that oh-so-French joie de vivre. Still, 2016 was a difficult year: Tourism, particularly from the United States, declined after terrorist attacks in Paris and Nice; in Paris alone, according to Virtuoso reports, hotel bookings were down 17 percent last year.
Such a slump in such a celebrated destination made the timing of Virtuoso’s recent Chairman’s Event even more meaningful. Bringing nearly 200 travel agency executives and their guests to Paris, Virtuoso’s annual recognition trip for our top travel agencies around the world coincided with the one-year anniversary of the November terrorist attacks there. The somber remembrance bolstered delegates’ resolve to support the city and its people, and served as a reminder of the importance of the travel and tourism industry.
“We believe that boundaries divide, but travel unites,” says Virtuoso CEO Matthew Upchurch. “Paris is known as the City of Love and the City of Light. It’s now our chance to shine a light on a beloved city that has illuminated us all for years.”
Because most in the well-traveled group had visited numerous times in the past, Virtuoso’s partners, including Atout France
, aspired to show these seasoned travelers a side of the city they hadn’t seen. As Houston-based travel agency owner Randy Ney puts it, “Paris has more to offer than any other single city in the world.” Here’s a look at the trip’s highlights – and tips on how to see Paris in style.
Four Seasons Hotel George V
, Le Bristol
, and Hotel Plaza Athénée
, the host hotels, each impressed with five-star service and surroundings. Virtuoso’s hotel portfolio includes 18 properties in Paris, from historic palaces to intimate residential-style boutiques. With occupancy rates down, Parisian hotels are offering promotions, upgrades, and other specials that elicit a chorus of accolades. “There’s never been a better time to visit,” says Morris Chia, a travel agency executive from Winnipeg..
Richard Turen, an agency owner in Naperville, Illinois, agrees: “Paris is now chic, trendy, classy, and, of all things, well priced.”
“Go now and avoid the crowds,” encourages Sydney-based agency executive Claudia Rossi Hudson. “Paris is still the vibrant, beautiful city it always was, but we found Parisians more helpful and cheerful than ever, with a new appreciation for visitors.”
A Wow Welcome
The event kicked off with an over-the-top reception at the Four Seasons Hotel George V
, where famed floral designer Jeff Leatham’s holiday decor added to the gilded glamour as guests sipped Champagne in the courtyard’s ice bar, oohed and aahed over Le Cinq’s three-Michelin-starred menu (don’t miss chef Christian Le Squer’s clever take on onion soup), toured the wine cellar, took in Eiffel Tower views from the rooftop penthouse, watched a cabaret show, then danced the night away in the lounge.
Arts and Culture
After business meetings the first morning, we headed to the new Louis Vuitton Foundation
for a private lunch hosted by LVMH Group
and Cheval Blanc
, complete with Moët Hennessy wines and Dior table settings. Designed by Frank Gehry, the cultural center features changing contemporary art exhibits. (Your travel advisor can secure guided tours and VIP access so you can skip the long admissions queue.)
At the Picasso Museum
, the group enjoyed an after-hours cocktail reception and a personal welcome from the artist’s grandson, Olivier. Other artful highlights filled the week, with exclusive tours of the king’s private apartments and gardens at Versailles, the Musée d’Orsay, the Grand Palais, and the National Galleries, to name a few.
One evening, some took in a ballet at the Palais Garnier
opera house, and at the gala dinner, a trio of opera singers performed in The Intercontinental Paris Le Grand’s newly
renovated opera ballroom – Paris’ biggest and most opulent.
Shopping and Style
The style capital of the world kept fashionistas busy pursuing their own brand of (retail) culture. Shoppers enjoyed behind-the-scenes access at Cartier, Hermès, and Jaeger-LeCoultre; a perfume-making workshop with Guerlain; and a fashion show and personal shopping services at Galeríes Lafayette department store (this Virtuoso partner offers Virtuoso travelers access to a VIP lounge, a separate tax refund desk, refreshments, package delivery, and more).
Wining and Dining
Everyone ate and drank well, bien sur
. Legendary chef Alain Ducasse joined the group, which was abuzz about his newest restaurant, Ore, at Versailles
. By day, it’s a casual café; by night, it transforms into an event space where guests can dine “as in the time of the king,” Ducasse explains, with historical menus served on “re-edited” Marie Antoinette china in restored dining rooms. With 11 restaurants in Paris alone, Ducasse has earned 21 career Michelin stars, including at Le Meurice
(a whimsical setting in Paris’ oldest palace hotel) and Hôtel Plaza Athénée
(perhaps the most opulent breakfast setting you’ll ever see).
Between bistros, boulangeries, brasseries, and Michelin-star meals, attendees enjoyed Champagne tasting with Moët Hennessy, cooking classes (including one with the chef at Gordon Ramsay at the Waldorf Astoria Trianon Palace), and did we mention Champagne tasting? Rossi Hudson says Paris is a perfect walking city – all the better to walk off that overindulgence. (And for a good walk spoiled, a few golfers hit the links at Golf National, site of the 2018 Ryder Cup.)
Paris by Moonlight
On the final night, government dignitaries bid our group farewell at Hôtel de Ville
, Paris’ municipal headquarters since 1357, before we boarded Le Paquebot
for a dinner cruise on the Seine. As we sailed under bridges and past the twinkling Eiffel Tower beneath a full moon, Audrey Hepburn’s sentiment rang truer than ever: Paris is
always a good idea.
PHOTO CREDITS: Eiffel Tower (MAPICS/GETTY IMAGES)