Monte Carlo might be known for its traditional luxury offering, but a deeper look shows a hospitality group that's keenly aware of its positioning, the changing market and how it must adapt to ensure a spot of the ultra-wealthy's jet set itineraries.
Luxury travel is changing and nowhere are those changes quite as evident as in the longtime jet set haven of Monaco.
Month-long stays have become week-long trips, couples’ vacations have become family affairs, and the adrenaline high promised by gambling has been replaced with sporting events or a green juice buzz courtesy of Thermes Marin’s reset cleanse.
Monte-Carlo Société des Bains de Mer — in charge of the Monte Carlo brand and four luxury hotels, four casinos, 30 bars and restaurants, and a spa within the less than one square mile principality — is navigating these changes with an eye on the future.
“Luxury is more and more defined by time. You can not buy time so it’s more a question of creating unique moments,” says Axel Hoppenot, Group Director of Sales and Marketing at SBM.
“It’s a question of how you move from offering the best product in the world to offering the best experience?”
One of the destination’s most talked-about changes is the renovation of the famed Hôtel de Paris which is scheduled to complete its billion-dollar renovation in 2018. The intention is to keep the grandeur of the property while refreshing it for a younger and more international crowd.
Monte Carlo’s clientele has shifted over the decades in both of these aspects.
Hoppenot explains how wealthy visitors are making money earlier in their life so they’ve seen an increase in 35- to 45-year old clients who come with their children. This realization led to the 2006 opening of the Monte-Carlo Bay Hotel & Resort with a children’s pool, beachfront sports and atmosphere that is definitively different from the more posh Monte-Carlo Beach or upscale Hôtel Hermitage.
In addition to expanding the physical properties, Monte-Carlo SBM is building an events calendar that aims to encourage multiple visits while diversifying the destination’s offering beyond gambling or a Mediterranean view. The group brought on an artistic director to introduce music festivals, charity galas, and surrealist dinners to a calendar once known solely for Formula One.
The events themselves are tailored to the growing number of visitors coming not from Europe — but Russia, India, or Iran.
“Younger travelers are traveling further around the globe. There is a circuit and we are part of the circuit.”
The hospitality group is cognizant of varying cultural expectations as can be seen by the Asian options available at the breakfast buffet. Monte-Carlo SBM also recently partnered with AliTrip to offer mobile payments via AliPay on their properties.
“It is a way to show the younger and wealthy clientele from China that we are ready to welcome them,” explains Hoppenot who is hoping to position Monte Carlo as a destination more attractive to Chinese visitors.
Monte-Carlo SBM is in a unique position to adapt to the future of luxury consumption because it isn’t constrained by usual limitations of a hospitality company — a characteristic that drew Didier Boidin away from a 36-year career at InterContinental Hotels to SBM earlier this year.
Boidin explains how the royal family’s ownership of SBM changes its priorities in comparison to a publicly traded company. They can spend money in pursuit of excellence and have a longer runway in terms of profit.
“We are lucky because SBM is owned by a family and profit is not their first priority,” explains Boidin.
“Here, we are investing money everywhere and go for excellence in everything we do. The company is facing some big big challenges-slash-opportunities and it’s a perfect time to join.”
The differences between a multinational public company and SBM are many, but perhaps one of the most telling is how often the phone rings. Half of the business comes through the phone at SBM while only five to six percent comes through the phone at IHG, explains Boidin.
Lessons in Luxury
Despite the group’s forward-facing intentions, the bread and butter of the SBM portfolio remains traditional luxury with talk of operas and casinos and a primary 55+ demographic. And maybe that’s okay.
“Tradition is modernity that succeeded,” says Axel quoting a saying. “If you compare these new kids to their parents, they come for the same magic.”
Much of that magic remains in the brand — a lesson that SBM continues to learn from the luxury retailers that line its streets.
“We are learning the power of the Monte Carlo brand. It’s all about branding and branding and branding,” explains Axel who says he’s learned about the pursuit of excellence from luxury fashion brands.
“For example, Rolex is a partner and I was amazed that they chosen voluntarily to go for non-perfect solution which is the mechanical watch instead of the digital watch because it is a challenge. It is going to be an on-going challenge for the whole life of the brand to improve the every imperfect element so it comes closer and closer to perfection,” he says.
“It’s the immaterial aspect of things. The price of a luxury watch does not matter. How much are you willing to pay for a Hermes bag? You want to own something that’s far more than a product. For us, it’s moving from that product aspect to something immaterial.”
Open for Business
One challenge that Monaco as a destination faces which its fashion counterparts do not is a slow season during the perceived winter along the French Riviera.
To increase arrivals during the slow season, the Monaco Convention Bureau recently embarked on an initiative to reposition the destination as an “Intellectual Capital.”
The destination currently hosts 40 associative congresses per year and the convention bureau hopes to increase that number by 10 to 15 annual congresses.
“People think about Monaco and they think first Formula One, casino, deluxe hotels, prince and princesses. The goal today is to put in the front of the window those assets that people might not think of when they think of Monaco, which is we have knowledge hubs,” explains Sandrine Camia, director of the Monaco Convention Bureau.
Safety is another challenge for many destinations today, but Monte Carlo quietly celebrates its reputation as a safe haven for the luxury clients. It does not actively promote this element to avoid shifting the status quo, but in a world where geopolitical conflicts take destinations off the table, Monaco’s small size keeps it off the danger list.
Overall Monte Carlo is taking a diverse approach to adaption taking on new events, new properties and even new branding — but the hospitality group is confident in its core as a brand for a growing demographic of ultra-wealthy from developed and developing economies.
“We don’t want to become Las Vegas so we have to stay in that very exclusive world. If we become average, we are dead.”
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Photo credit: Interior of the Casino de Monte-Carlo. Monte-Carlo Société des Bains de Mer