Group Business & Grace Kelly are Back in Monaco

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Nicole Kidman spent two months at the Hotel de Paris filming “Grace of Monaco.”

At the Torchbearer 2013 Conference this month, I met with Cindy Hoddeson, director of meeting/incentive sales at the Monaco Government Tourist Office, and Cathleen Kelley, director of group sales for the Principality-owned Monte-Carlo SBM group. SMB operates the mesmerizing Casino de Monte-Carlo and many other luxury hotels, restaurants and other venues.

Both said corporate business numbers are getting close to pre Q4 2008 levels, due to a variety of factors. One of the most significant reasons is the value pricing during shoulder seasons in the spring and fall.

“Many people have this perception that Monaco is far more costly than it is, but if you compare product in the UK or Paris, you might find that Monaco is comparable or even less expensive,” says Hoddeson. “And corporate America is no longer concerned about perception issues, and the value of an incentive travel program is well understood.”

Hoddeson adds that even well traveled people who may have not made it to Monaco yet know a little something about the glamorous destination. She mentions the famous Grand Prix, James Bond, the Royal Family, and the many movies based in the Principality.

Opening in theaters this December, Nicole Kidman stars in the biopic “Grace of Monaco,” highlighting the life of Princess Grace Kelly.

The magisterial Casino de Monte-Carlo and two adjacent SBM hotels—Hotel Hermitage Monte-Carlo and Hotel de Paris Monte-Carlo—represent arguably the most glamorous collection of buildings on the planet. The Hotel de Paris is high in demand for its otherworldly elegance and location next to the casino. Others prefer the Hermitage suites next door overlooking the famous Hercule harbour.

Two weeks ago a block away, Karl Lagerfeld unveiled his renovation of the pool at the independently-owned Hotel Metropole Monte-Carlo, where Joël Robuchon helms F&B, including event catering.

For meetings and incentive travel, it doesn’t get much more luxurious or glamorous than this.

“Ideally 20 percent of our corporate group business should come from North America; right now we’re hovering around 17 percent,” says Kelley. “We’re not quite near 2007, but 2013 was the largest increase we’ve seen since then, and 2014 is set to be even larger. So the questions of perception and the hesitation over the strength of the dollar have evaporated. I no longer have that conversation with my clients.”

Kelley explains that most North American groups like to theme their events in Monaco, including themes revolving around James Bond, Hollywood’s Golden Age and Royalty. 2013 marks the 150 year anniversary of Monte Carlo SBM, which is celebrating with a theme of their own: “Be a Part of History.”

“More than 75 films have been produced in our hotels, and the Prince [Albert II] and Princess stayed in the Hermitage the night before their wedding,” says Kelley. “There’s so much history here, but we have a new generation of travelers who are interested in the Riviera from Rihanna to Gypsy Kings making it cool for them. Except they don’t really know the story of Grace Kelly. It’s a fairytale, and it’s time and ripe for it to be retold.”

Casino de Monte Carlo

Casino de Monte-Carlo

The biggest challenge facing many destinations like Monaco, where the past is militantly preserved, is remaining relevant to Millennials entering decision-making roles in business travel planning and procurement departments.

“The number one thing we’ve learned from studies about Millennials from North America, they’re absolutely allergic to pattern and what we consider traditional business travel,” says Kelley. “It’s very interesting to dissect. One thing they say is they don’t want to repeat the same hotel over and over, which is very alarming for us because we’re used to having loyal clients and loyalty programs.”

Monte Carlo SBM and the other area hotels are combating that with things like a “Your Day/Your Way” group travel package created by Lafayette DMC. The customized package provides recreational options ranging from watercolor painting classes to parties at the Gatsby-esque Sea Lounge where Bono and Johnny Depp are regulars.

When asked if the concept of luxury has changed for today’s business traveler, Kelley says even the high rollers are more focused on value.

“I think what’s new is for a person with endless discretionary income, there used to be a social status in ordering the wine on the menu that didn’t have a price,” she explains. “I think there’s now a social awareness and consciousness of money, so people expect value, they want to understand what they’re spending…. But no, what is luxury hasn’t changed.”

I mention to Kelley, though, that you still see a lot of people on the front decks of enormous yachts with champagne and big entourages making a scene.

“That’s not Monaco and I don’t think that’s glamour,” she says. “That’s trendy. We have a very strict policy against paparazzi because we want you to enjoy the Riviera in a more subtle, discreet way. And I think discreet luxury matches glamour. I think ‘Look at me’ does not.”