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For Business, Corporate Travel & Meeting Buyers & Arrangers

Q&A: Francesca Marchetti-Buathier, director of sales and marketing Paris, Starwood

Le Meridien Hotels, part of the Starwood brand, recently re-opened its flagship Paris property following a multi-million euro renovation.

The entire hotel was refurbed including its public spaces, rooms and suites, restaurant and its legendary Jazz Club Etoile.

Located in the 17th district of Paris and close to the iconic Arc de Triomphe and Eiffel Tower, Le Meridien Etoile is the largest hotel in central Paris. The 1,025-room property features 2,500 sq metres of meeting spaces, with capacity in the large ‘Grands Salons’ for 1,200 guests.

It’s a tough time for the hotel industry in Paris with the drop in the value of the pound making the UK appealing to meeting planners, Paris terror attacks and the rise of the sharing economy, so BBT caught up with Starwood’s director of sales and marketing, Francesca Marchetti-Buathier, to talk these points and more...

With Marriott’s recent acquisition of Starwood creating the world’s largest hotel chain, buyers are concerned how increased consolidation in the industry will affect prices and their negotiating power. Can you address these issues?

We are only 60 days into our merger so it’s too early to predict any changes in pricing. But what we are doing is working as two parallel organisations – my team is handling the RFP for the five-star legacy hotels and the equivalent of my team for Marriott. So right now we are addressing those RFPs as two separate entities.

I think even with the merger it will mean more opportunities for our clients rather than the contrary because we are increasing our footprint. In France we are going to have 38 hotels and 20-odd in Paris so a lot of choices for travellers. We do budget to increase our rates every year but we feel that after the year we have had, which has been very hard, we don’t expect major increases in corporate rates for 2017.

There has been a trend over the past few years for hotels to cater to the millennial traveller with different offerings and design-led properties which differ from the traditional. Is this an area Le Meridien is targeting?

It’s one of the largest hotels in Paris and Europe in terms of number of rooms but the hotel has different spaces catering to different businesses. You have several hotels within the hotel for example our LM Club Rooms with the specific club lounge could be privatised for a group.

We can do a lot of things with the hotel - we have a programme called creative meetings where we try to give our guests whatever market segment they are from a way to unlock the destination of Paris which is part of what the Le Meridien brand tries to do in all the cities it operates. It’s aimed at the traveller who could be in the city for a convention but not have the time to properly view it.

We work with partners where we can organise a culinary tour of the area, we also partner with a company that does team-building activities.
The decoration of the hotel can cater to younger traveller, it’s not like Starwood’s Aloft brand but we can accommodate to the younger travellers needs.

Airbnb has grown rapidly in the past few years and is now one of the largest accommodation providers globally. Do you see the sharing economy provider as a threat, and has it affected business?

We look at Airbnb as a new potential competitor globally for the hotel business. But it’s pretty holistic at the moment as we haven’t seen any clients leaving us for Airbnb. It is more availability in the various cities and that is something we should regard as an opportunity.

We see them as a competitor but not totally as one because they are not offering the services that a hotel can give.
It is a little bit of a threat that Airbnb doesn’t have to adhere to the same regulations that hotels do but I’m confident governments are and will address these issues.

The hotel has a large focus on meeting and events. What are planners increasingly looking for?

We have completely refurbished our meeting spaces and that’s something that is popular with the meeting planners, they need the services that go with a modern meeting, they need things to go smoothly, they need everything to be taken care of. They want hassle-free meetings.

How did the creative meeting come about then?

I think to counter some of the competition from other destinations that offer beach/sun and to tell a story. We use activities such as culinary tours of Paris, Illy Coffee tasting and Latte Art creation with the hotel baristas to sell the city. Even if the meeting planner doesn’t use these services it’s something that helps us tell the story.

Brexit: has it hit sales and do you see it having a negative effect in the next 18 months?

Honestly we haven’t although it was a bit of a worry when it was announced. The UK is one of our largest markets for business travel and there is still a lot of interest from British businesses to come to Paris so overall I haven’t seen any major changes.

People will still need to travel. If a British company needs to do a meeting in Paris they will still do it. What we are seeing is some companies travelling from abroad that were planning on coming to Paris are now going to London because of the drop in the pound but otherwise UK coming to Paris no change.

Did the recent terrorist attacks in Paris impact the business?

The impact was great, I have been in the industry for a long time and this is the first crisis I have seen as bad as this. Occupancy across the hotels in Paris has fallen 20 per cent. That’s a huge drop when you think the city runs around 80-85% occupancy so going down to 60% is a bit of a shock and never seen before.

If nothing major happens and we’re hoping nothing will, it will only go up. We have seen over the few weeks things are picking up again, so if things stay quiet on that front it should improve.

We see things returning to normal in 2017-18, it has to come back it can’t stay like this.

Buyers are becoming concerned over suppliers targeting travellers direct with exclusive offers such as free wifi. Is this something Le Meridien does and do you share buyers’ concerns over this?

We value all of our partners and we listen to what the client wants and if they want to deal directly with us we will and if the client wants to source the business with us then give it to a TMC then we can do that as well. We don’t ask our clients one way or the other we just listen to what they want.

So you don’t offer specific incentives for travellers to book direct?

We offer bookers the opportunity to earn points themselves through SPG Pro, which gives the rewards to the person booking the accommodation not the traveller themselves.

Look out for the review of Le Meridien Etoile in the January/February issue of BBT

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