Housed within a spectacular heritage building that lends both grandeur and sophistication, LUTETIA is one Paris’ most iconic hotels, the only ‘grand dame’ on the Left Bank of the city, at the heart of the bohemian neighbourhood of Saint Germain, LUTETIA Hotel used to be THE preferred hang-out of fame artists, actors, musicians, designers etc. – among them: Pablo Picasso, Charles de Gaulle, Marianne Oswald, André Gide, Peggy Guggenheim and Josephine Baker. James Joyce. The hotel also played an important part during the Second World War.
The war began in September 1939, and numerous refugees fled to Paris from conflict areas and places occupied by German forces. The Lutetia attempted to accommodate as many as possible. Because of its reputation, it was filled with a number of displaced artists and musicians. However, the French government evacuated Paris beginning June 14, 1940 and the Germans entered and occupied the city. A number of the Lutetia’s residents escaped; others were captured by the Germans. The hotel itself was requisitioned by the Abwehr (counter-espionage), and used to house, feed, and entertain the officers in command of the occupation, such as Alfred Toepfer and the French collaborator Rudy de Mérode.
When Paris was liberated in August 1944, the hotel was abandoned by German troops, and taken over by French and American forces. From then until after the end of the war, it was used as a repatriation center for prisoners of war, displaced persons, and returnees from the German concentration camps.
As Paris returned to normality, the Lutetia was restored to its previous state as a luxury hotel, however, mention must be made that its official ranking was never above 4 stars. It was acquired by the Taittinger family in 1955. In the late 1980s, designer Sonia Rykiel opened a boutique in the building, and supervised a major redesign intended to recreate the Art Deco style of earlier decades. (last month, the legendary Rykiel fashion house closed its doors).
Starwood Capital sold the Hôtel Lutetia to the Israeli Alrov Group in 2010 for 150 Million Euros, the purchase being a symbolic one considering LUTETIA had been a shelter to hundreds of fleeing Jews – on the lateral side of the hotel, there is even a memorial plaque remembering this. Alrov closed the hotel in April 2014 for what was planned as a 100-million Euro renovation. The building’s contents were sold at auction in May 2014.
LUTETIA reopened in July 2018, following a $234 million restoration, managed by The Set Hotels Group, which also includes luxury hotels Hotel Cafe Royal London and Conservatorium Hotel in Amsterdam – a sensible decision, to separate all Israeli based hotels under a different entity / brand. But the biggest dilemma remains why not to opt for the safest option, which is to engage a major international luxury brand to operate the hotel?
Subsequently, it was probably obvious for the owners of the hotel that they would have to shift their targeting towards other wealthy nationalities such as Russians, Asians, South / Latin America and the U.S. – all of which nationalities have provided weak sources 2018-19 mostly due to the major political instability and what seemed as a never-ending stage of large scale violent demonstrations that saw stores vandalised and many people injured.
Much like Cafe Royal and Conservatorium, Alrov invested incredible amounts in not only simply renovating and restoring the properties resorting to world class architects (Jean Michel Wilmotte in the case of Lutetia or Piero Lissoni for Cafe Royal in London). Considering the scale of investment, using the finest luxury materials, including custom made pieces by major Italian luxury furniture brands, this may well be regarded as an impeccable reputation. No expense has been spared in the finishes, not to mention technology, with great attention to details and quality of finishes – beautiful all-marble bathrooms, finest beds and satin high thread linen.
Shortly after opening, each of The Set Hotels failed to impress beyond the product – customer service proving to be inconsistent. In less than four years from opening, The Set Hotels appointed the fourth General Manager (ex. Melia Hotels) at Cafe Royal London and registered higher staff turnover, a certain percentage is ‘normal’ given the highly competitive luxury hotel sector in London.
Unlike Cafe Royal and Conservatorium, LUTETIA has presented yet another challenge – its once outdoor pool is now occupied by Hermes which operates a gigantic store. Given the structure of the building, many floors have low ceilings and there were limitations in terms of joining together rooms and suites to create larger accommodations. Still, the hotel has 180 units and even its Signature Suites are small. This poses a major challenge as the owners have probably considered applying for the highest luxury ranking in France, the Palace ranking which is above five stars.
Exuding from its origins, the ‘boat’ symbol of the hotel has been maintained, with many cues hinting at sailing and the boat – including the predominant colour palette based on shades of blue. However, through this ‘predictable’ creative approach most rooms and entry level accommodations can be anywhere in any branded corporate hotel. Because of the building structure, AC could not be integrated into the walls of the hotel, most rooms having large individual AC, concealed behind a wardrobe looking wooden panel.
Which leads to the biggest problem of the hotel – cooling. Most of the day, the greatest part of the hotel facade is abundant in natural light. For instance, unless guests will be informed to draw the shades during the day or unless the hotel foils all the windows, they will come back to boiling rooms and AC units pumping uselessly at the highest speed. Rooms only cool down in the evening.
The hotel boasts an impressive set of F&B outlets – a stunning Bar Josephine (the largest I have seen among any luxury Parisian hotels), a Brasserie with an opening patio and terrace on the street, a Lounge, a smaller Bar / Cigar bar and a gigantic soulless ‘room’ (despite size, I cannot call a restaurant) purely dedicated to breakfast – with a frugal (‘selective’) buffet and ‘coherent’ robotic service, each guest being asked ‘room number’. By contrast, the Front Office, Concierge and Guest Relations provide a very high service standard – I was being addressed effortlessly by my name. Service in the main Josephine Bar is predominantly robotic, staff focusing on ‘house guests’ – in the Brasserie, service was excellent.
The Spa presented, like in London at Cafe Royal in London, was a major disappointment with 4 star standard beauty products with no organic offering. I had one of the worst massages ever, with a therapist that would feel completely disconnected and with abrupt and interrupted moves – I do hope she was actually a therapist and not staff from another department. There is an indoor pool which, again, similarly to London seems as being conceived and executed by a different team.
Most disturbing was the fact that none of the staff cared about my experiences – I even met in person the hotel General Manager, who has been with the property for more than 15 years interrupted only during the renovations, with a tenure at a 4 star Le Meridien Paris. During our 20 minute meeting he did not ask for ANY feedback, i.e. how I slept etc. I also saw him on departure – same total lack of experience.
The only way for the hotel to be turned around would be a major boost:
- allow for major F&B brands / concepts to create pop-ups in any of the venues
- redesign concept of Orangerie – ”Breakfast room” – and improve Buffet offering (presently it barely features a ‘Continental Breafast)
- provide ALL guests with clear instructions on how to actually achieve a desired temperature (how to set up temperature, draw curtains etc)
- eliminate the Hermes in-room bathroom amenities – of the lowest quality – full of chemicals and preservative
- fix or change all Tv sets – the existing B&O even turn on during the night – mentioned even by the hotel in reply comments on Tripadvisor
- it is good to know the hotel is pet friendly but guests in nearby rooms must be alerted and offered alternative accommodations – I woke up early with dogs barking from the room across my hallway within less than 4 meters
- the ‘Courtesy Car’ should be available all day, not just from 19.00 to 22.00
- notify Tripadvisor legally to potentially remove a review by a guest who has experienced a very grave security issue – a break-in, comments ending in ‘zero security’
- most of the staff across F&B are almost all the times stressed to very quickly verify bills signed by hotel guests – some are running (I asked informally and they said that there were a few ‘fake’ bills which staff needed to pay for themselves
While the hotel is very tempted to apply for a Palace ranking, not only does it not meet the criteria but, at least for the time being, such a ranking would indeed probably result in higher rates but would also raise expectations of the guests, hence struggling in its incoherent service standards.
Oliver Petcu in Paris
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