Monaco is cleaning up its act and staking all its chips on a new golden era of business travel, reports Sarah Maxwell
Monaco, once dubbed by Somerset Maugham as a “sunny place for shady people”, is taking a gamble. To persuade the world it is more than a tax-free playground for rich eccentrics and racing drivers, the principality is pursuing an enthusiastic marketing campaign: from now on, it’s out with the playboy elite and in with high-end business travel,whether for meetings, incentives, conferences or exhibitions. The timing ofMonaco’s identity overhaul is auspicious.After 56 years of rule, Prince Rainier III’s death last year forced a change in leadership and, possibly, direction. Rainier’s son Prince Albert officially acceded the throne in November, and promised to scrub up his homeland’s image to emphasise its social justice and financial transparency. Monaco has always attracted wealthy, image-conscious Europeans, who visited for the glamorous casinos,Grand Prix and exclusive shopping streets. But 9/11 brought a sharp reduction in American visitors keen to glimpse the fairytale home of the late Princess Grace Kelly (Prince Albert’s mother). Their absence is noticeable; visitors in 2004 were 17% lower than in 2000 and overall hotel occupancy stood at 58%.
“They are starting to return,” says Michel Bouquier, president ofMonaco Government Tourist and Convention Authority,“but through business rather than leisure”. This is something Monaco is happy to encourage. Mireille Rebaudo-Martini of Société des Bains de Mer, the hotel and casino operator partowned by the royal family, has clear targets in mind for business travel: “At the moment visitors are 60% leisure and 40% business; by the end of 2006 we hope it will be 50:50.” Several years ago the government invested almost US$3.6 million in a state-of-the-art conference facility, the Grimaldi Forum, which opened in 2000. It has the look of a recently landed space ship and an equally forwardthinking design: the centre is built on reclaimed land under which flows seawater which is pumped out at 500 cubic metres an hour, creating energy to heat and cool the building.With a total area of 35,000sq m, the centre holds 3,000 delegates and has dramatically boosted Monaco’s credentials as a meetings destination. It holds around 100 events each year with 300,000 annual visitors. Following up on this was a flurry of hotel development – or as much of a flurry as you can squeeze into a country of two square kilometres that has already reclaimed as much land from the sea as topographically possible. Société des Bains de Mer, which owns five luxury properties in Monte Carlo, has almost doubled its hotel rooms in the last two years. The elegant Hotel Hermitage on Casino Square has seen two new floors added with 63 extra rooms, while a new hotel, the 334-room Monte Carlo Bay Hotel and Resort, opened in October 2005 on reclaimed land near the Grimaldi Forum.
Le Meridien Beach Plaza has also added 65 rooms in two 12-storey glass towers.A threestar Novotel is planned for 2007 – proof that Monaco no longer has its sights set solely on the top end.
The Monte Carlo Bay is clearly made for business with its 11 hi-tech meeting rooms and two banqueting rooms, though it also has a hugely impressive spa. It feels laid-back and resort-like compared with the old-world glamour of the hotels on Casino Square and its rates are slightly lower than at Hotel de Paris and Hotel Hermitage (it is four-star rather than four-star deluxe), aimed as it is at a trendy, younger crowd.
It can’t, and doesn’t try to, match the same stately allure as the grande dames ofMonte Carlo’s hotel scene, but all of these hotels are looking to capture the MICE market (meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions). The hope is that business visitors attending one of these will stay longer, and so spend more money.
The main stumbling block in promoting Monaco for MICE comes back to its enduring image as a bolthole for billionaires.What could be the ultimate experience for your staff could also be the wrong sort of statement. Sergio Mangini, general manager of the Monte Carlo Bay, acknowledges this: “For companies that maybe have had to lose some staff, it’s difficult to go to Monaco for a meeting – it sends out the wrong message.” But this is what Monaco is working to change.
For this reason, tourism officials have worked hard to create attractive packages for business travellers. While Monaco is not exactly well-equipped for budget stays – 75% of its hotel beds are four-star or four-star deluxe – the hotels offer special rates for groups, especially during low season (November to April), such as US$296 at the Hotel de Paris and US$235.92 at the Monte-Carlo Bay Hotel and Resort. For larger groups, packages can include extras such as free cocktails, casino visits and shows. Something is clearly drawing in business travellers.Over the last year there’s been a 40% rise in MICE business from the UK, which makes the UK the leading origin of business visitors, accounting for 23% of the market. Americans are also returning, but other markets have been slower.Michel Bouquier says: “The French and German markets still see Monaco in clichés; the British public see something extra.”
Monaco is keen to encourage its visitors to stay longer, but here it may struggle. Once you have marvelled at the rows of sparkling yachts in Fontvieille, wandered through the magnificent gaming hall of the Monte Carlo Casino and hung around outside the Royal Palace for the changing of the guard, you’ve seen most of the best bits.Monte Carlo still has a Disneyland-for-the-rich quality about it; so much so that if you stay too long it feels as though you might begin to leak money. Just breathing the air on Casino Square feels expensive.
Perhaps in anticipation of an influx of male business travellers, Le Thermes Marin Monte-Carlo, the Principality’s largest spa, has introduced a men-only programme “Exclusive Homme” to de-stress and energise the body, with a one hour and 45 minutes treatment costing US$211. Le Thermes is connected by a carpeted subway to the Hotel de Paris and Hotel Hermitage, and a steady traffic of guests pad along the underground corridors for their massage appointments. Spas are sprouting up elsewhere in the Principality.As well as the addition of the large Cinq Mondes spa at the Monte Carlo Bay, a 1,000sqm E’spa has opened at the refurbished Hotel Metropole, offering 13 treatment rooms and 13 VIP suites.
Back at Le Thermes Marin, I tried the sea luxury treatment (costing US$266), one of a huge range of marine therapies offered.After a full-body exfoliation I was submerged in a saltwater bath while hot jets of marine extracts pummelled my body. The final stage was a 50-minute massage with Caviar Luxury body cream. Afterwards,my skin was soft and so was my brain: I was so relaxed I almost needed carrying back to my hotel.
Fortunately, nowhere in Monaco is far away. If the Principality achieves its ambition in becoming a byword for luxury but not excess, there could be many more mere mortals like myself being pampered within an inch of our lives in a remarkable setting.
There is no direct air service, except through Paris and then onwards to Nice. A Hongkong-Paris-Monaco return on Air France is US$6,543 plus tax. A Singapore-Paris-Monaco return also on Air France is US$4,291 plus tax. LONDON-NICE British Airways from London Heathrow and Gatwick. Fares start at US$151 return including all taxes, fees and charges. For Club Europe fares start at US$435 return all inclusive. Heli Air Monaco operates a sevenminute helicopter transfer from Nice Airport to Monaco every half an hour and costs US$169 for the return journey. Call Heli Air Monaco (tel 377 92 050 050) or visit heliairmonaco.com. Surface journeys take around 45 minutes.
For further information about the Principality, you can contact the Monaco Government Tourist and Convention Authority or visit www.visitmonaco.com.