Laurence is Deputy General Manager of Hotel Plaza Athenee, Paris and one of those rare professionals in the luxury hotel industry. She has been at the hotel for almost 20 years and admits to being a ‘vrai Parisienne’ with no intention of leaving the city of her birth. Having studied economics at University and knowing she was more into the figures than perhaps the arts she wanted to be a stockbroker but as things turned out she started to think about the hotel industry and then went on to do 3 year hotel management degree in Paris. A position as a receptionist followed then housekeeping then off to Chicago to work in banqueting… then a cost controller role back in Paris before meeting Francois Delahaye who wanted Laurence no matter what she wanted to do! He knew she was good so she became his assistant…and the rest is history. At the Park Hotel in Paris – then HR, then rooms division then to the Plaza Athenee.
Brunei owned the hotel but it was not part of the Dorchester Collection back then. Laurence became the bridge between the heads of department and the GM. The hotel was very traditional and had many employees who had been there for years but nobody was let go and the whole team pretty much stayed. This was HR back then and it wasn’t very forgiving so this was a futuristic approach for the time. Budgets were tight but this famous hotel underwent it’s first big renovation and a tough 2 years followed from 1998-2000. The hotel didn’t close but it was one of those renovations that didnt go totally to plan apart from the kitchens and the air con and other back of house investments. So they started again eventually with further renovations. Back then Laurence was Rooms Division Manager before ascending to the number 2 role in 2004.
It was a very challenging time. The Four Seasons George V opened in 2000 and became the biggest competitor in a similar location. As Laurence points out, Paris is the best hotel city in the world with the highest room rates globally [after Courchevel in February!]With so much going on in the city and with the French way of life Paris retains its position amongst the elite of global cities. Among the ‘palaces of Paris’ the Plaza Athenee has always been at the very top of the tree.
Recent investments have been in IT, as it has been for everyone, and improving the knowledge of the guest database along with social media activity as well. But the biggest investment has been in people. An ongoing investment to keep staff and to train them. Competition for good people is fierce, the new generation are looking for something different and the key to a wonderful place is the people. For example the ‘maitre de’ of the Relais Plaza has been there for 50 years. He goes hand in hand with the place itself and in addition to running the restaurant he can be founding singing on jazz nights. He cycled across the USA at age 62 – he’s now 69. And he’s a German guy in one of the great French institutions. So its a good example of the place complementing the person.
So, says Laurence, you have to recruit, train and keep. To make it a better place to be for employees – and to stay longer than average. That’s the big change of the 21st century. It adds to the feel that you get when you enter the hotel. This is not a computer, it’s a philosophy and has always been in the DNA of the hotel. Keep coming back to the people.
For example the GM of the hotel in the 70s was the concierge at the time of the 1968 riots in Paris. He was very responsible for the DNA of the hotel. So now all head of departments retreats are all about how best to keep the teams together. There are 550 employees with 35 head of departments.
The hotel is very human in the way that people are treated. The employee mantra of the Dorchester Collection is “We Care”. The Plaza add its own internal people philosophy : “Once upon a time the talent of tomorrow is to reflect the vision of the Plaza”.
Soon to be launched: if a guest calls the hotel and they have his/her details/past guest history then his/her details will pop up in front of the person receiving the call. Remarkable technology but it will make the telephone conversation even more relevant and human.
5 days a week there is a delightfully chic ‘lady in red’ in the lobby to meet and greet everyone and to reflect the haute couture vibe of the hotel. The Plaza has always been a place that local Parisians come to. The Relais Plaza which opened its doors in 1936 is a good example and has a separate entrance.
The relationship with Alain Ducasse is really very unique. There was a time when no hotels had a Michelin star restaurant [20 years ago]. The hotel has now been 18 years with a 3 star restaurant but the relationship runs deeper than this. The entire F and B operation at the hotel is overseen by Alain Ducasse even though the team are all employees of the hotel. HIs remarkable, world famous restaurant, serves no meat and is based on fish, vegetables and cereal. With no table cloths! Elsewhere the trailblazer and innovator Alain Ducasse now creates his own chocolate and coffee in Paris and has gone on to become world famous. Perhaps its a relationship that couldn’t work as smoothly in any other country apart from France but this has worked well for both sides
Business is good despite the occasional blip but the interesting thing is that more French are staying than ever before. They used to account for 5% but now its 10%. And as for most hotels the percentage of Chinese guests continues to increase rapidly. During the protests in Paris at the end of 2018 the Americans kept coming if the Middle East didn’t but overall the hotel has an excellent balance of discerning travellers from all over the globe.
So Laurence is indeed a different, elegant breed of senior hotel executive that is happy to stay in the same hotel in the same city and her bosses have now accepted this and realise this is indeed a valuable trait. The Dorchester Collection has an excellent mix of men and women in senior positions although Laurence admits it may be tough for some professional female executives to balance raising 2 families; one at home and one at work. In many ways the Plaza Athenee is a family and is led by the excellent professional relationship that Laurence and Francois Delahaye have developed over a quarter of a century. My sense is that they complement each other well with Francois happy to be the global ambassador whilst Laurence minds the ship at home.
The hotel itself sits in the middle of one of the worlds great areas renowned not only for haute couture but great restaurants and sits between the Seine and the Champs Elysees. As Laurence knows better than anyone the area gets better and better with more discreet bars and restaurants popping up all the time. And above all this is perhaps a very feminine lady like hotel compared to others in Paris. The fashion. The chic surroundings and vibe of the property make it an elegant lady that seemingly never ages but just gets better with time.