Continuity Guiding Hôtel Plaza Athénée Renovation


Continuity, both in staffing and styling, has been the guiding principle behind the 10-month, €100 million-plus refurbishment of the famed Hôtel Plaza Athénée in Paris, which is now set for an August reopening.

Closed since October 2013 because of the size and scope of the project, The Dorchester Collection, London, has managed to retain its Plaza Athénée staff by placing many line level workers at its sister Le Meurice hotel. At the same time, the design teams have been guided toward a more traditional scheme to give long-standing guests a recognizable look and feel. Both decisions, according to hotel GM and Dorchester Collection COO Francois Delehaye, were made more in the name of continuity.

“This was a large financial commitment, but the human part of the business is important for us so that we differentiate ourselves from the Asian-based competitors now in Paris,” Delahaye said at a late April media luncheon in New York City. “They will have many employees who are new to the city, while we will have continuity among our staff to deliver authentic French service perfectly.”

Delahaye acknowleged that there were some strong disagreements internally about the overall design direction, noting that some of the group’s leadership team wanted to go more modern throughout the property, while many on the board leaned toward preserving the heritage.

Despite the fact that Dorchester’s recent modern restyling of the Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles has become a rousing success, Delahaye also cited a 1997 failed experiment at the Plaza Athénée, where two floors were renovated to be more modern. “It did not go over very well. The fact is that Americans are our number-one clientele, and they want the heritage. So fabrics and other touches can be flashy, but almost all the styles and designs will remain true to the heritage.”

The Paris renovation that was initially to be completed by June 2014 incorporates three adjacent buildings purchased from a mining company’s pension fund. For further continuity, management chose to create a more seamless integration between the new meeting and banquet rooms, set inside one of the newly purchased buildings, and the lobby and guest rooms, which were refurbished but unaltered in design and furnishings.

The change in guestrooms came mostly with fabric colors. “We stayed away from tope, beige, and maroon and opted for grey, pink, silver, sun, and cherry,” Delahaye said. “Classical in style but different in decoration.”

On the whole, Delahaye said, “We want our guests unable to recognize that these were different buildings—and especially to have our return guests feel like the property is as it always was, yet refreshed. We kept the soul of the hotel through the couture across those main areas.”

In other spaces, however, Delahaye acknowledged that the hotel “must be attractive to the children of our present guests, the next generation who someday will come here on their own.” The hotel’s bar is the centerpiece of that change.

Most of the wall designs remained intact for some historical connection, but designers added hip elements, including a huge glass table directly in the center of the room that is lit from various angles. Chair fabrics are tweed, and “because the younger crowd in bars and lounges now tend to move around more and mingle, we created seating on the perimeter that are more accurately described as ‘leaning stations,’” Delahaye said. “The seat is a little higher, and little less deep.”

Further, the hotel’s Alain Ducasse restaurant has been reimagined. “Alain saw that fish restaurants were closing around Paris because the families of aging owners did not want to run these properties or wanted to change their direction,” Delahaye noted. “So it was the right time for us to have one of the best fish restaurants in the city.”

The focus of the kitchen will be on fish, grains, and vegetables. With a philosophy of “simple ingredients prepared simply” that de-emphasizes visual presentation in lieu of heartiness, plus Ducasse’s legendary obsession for the freshest ingredients and differing atmospheres for lunch and dinner, the restaurant will be a unique offering in central Paris.

Given that many Parisians frequent the Plaza Athénée for breakfast or late-night drinks, the alterations to the property had to appeal to their sensibilities and comfort, too. Despite having several masters to please with this project, Delahaye said Dorchester management is confident it struck the correct balance to satisfy its present and future clientele.