The George V in Paris
Reviving an iconic hotel takes more than a fresh coat of paint. With classic décor, a star chef, and a staff that does pirouettes for its guests, the Four Seasons returns the George V in Paris to its rightful place in the sun
A bellhop and a concierge stand back-to-back, a rubber ball wedged between them, in a basement office in Paris's Eighth Arrondissement. The men must keep the ball off the floor as they shuffle around, negotiating obstacles and sinking into deep knee bends. On the sidelines, muffled giggles mask the jitters of a doorman and a dishwasher who are up next.
What's going on here?The George V is a mythic Paris institution that helped set the international standard for hotel grandeur, not a playground. But leave it to the French to turn a game into a metaphor. "The ball exercise teaches teamwork. It's simple—the ball is the guest," says Helène Blin, the hotel's training manager, allowing herself a thin smile. "Drop the ball and you drop the guest."
Established in 1928, the Art Deco landmark closed its doors in October 1997 for exhaustive renovations, and opened in December as the rebranded Four Seasons Hotel George V. The new owner, Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia, spent $167 million to acquire the property from the London-based Granada Group, and $125 million more on rebuilding and design. The project was steered by the construction giant Bouygues, the same firm that refurbished the Louvre; more than 1,100 artisans and workmen were involved in the renovation. With such a cosmic investment, Alwaleed and Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts—which has a 90-year contract to manage the 245-room property—are leaving nothing to chance.
Supplementing the staff training program is a 1 1/2-pound volume of stringent "operating criteria," written with almost absurd precision. The manual covers when a guest may be addressed in the elevator (only if no one else is in the car), how many times a telephone is allowed to ring before it must be answered (four), and what to do when a guest's personal papers litter his night table (never tidy them unless asked). Without a trace of irony, the manual quotes Molière ("The greater the obstacle, the more glory in overcoming it"), John F. Kennedy ("Of those to whom much is given, much is required"), and Confucius ("To see what is right, and not to do it, is want of courage"). Trainees even learn to play a game called Four Seasons Pursuit. (Q: Hi, this is Melanie Griffith. I know it's four a.m., but I'd love an in-room massage. While you're at it, could you change my sheets, too?A: Of course, Ms. Griffith. Housekeeping and massages are available twenty-four hours a day.)
Betting the house on the staff—and, by extension, the service it provides—is business as usual for Four Seasons, according to general manager Didier Le Calvez, who has a commanding Sun King profile and the unforced manners of an Élysées protocol chief. (He previously held the same post at the Pierre in New York, another Four Seasons property.) Even Ritz-Carlton, with its dainty credo of "We are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen," would have to agree that Four Seasons is the most personnel-driven hotel chain in the world. In the slightly scary language used by Helène Blin, the hotel's 450-odd employees are "collaborators," and she does not refuse the word cult.
The airtight four seasons ethos is the company's sharpest weapon as it gears up for the bloodiest hotel battle in Paris history. "Palace" is the French designation for hotels that are grand, historic, and expensive; there's often a whiff of legend about them. (In its new identity, the George V rejects the appellation as dated and exclusive.) Before the Four Seasons Hotel George V opened, Paris had five palaces: the Ritz, Crillon, Bristol, Plaza Athénée, and Meurice, the last of which reappears next month following major renovations. In a fierce internal positioning statement, the Four Seasons declared open war on all of them, boasting that its standard double rooms average 450 square feet. Location is the one advantage it cedes to its main competitor, the Ritz, which sits on Place VendÙme like a queen on her throne. The Four Seasons has a less central and less magical location, on the western boundary of the "golden triangle" formed by the Champs-Élysées, Avenue Montaigne with its concentration of couture houses, and Avenue George V. Is geography destiny?The Paris hotel world is about to find out.
Fanning the fires are the Four Seasons' bold poaching tactics. When he met his girlfriend for drinks at the Hotel Sofitel le Faubourg one night last November, Nicolas Beliard, the Four Seasons rooms division manager, was stopped in his tracks by the elegance of the doorman's greeting. "In the few words we exchanged it came out that the guy has a master's degree in mathematics," says Beliard. "I slipped him my card." (However, despite Beliard's coaxing, the doorman stayed at the Sofitel.) Chef Philippe Legendre abandoned Taillevent, the Paris restaurant that earned three stars under him, to head up the kitchen at the Four Seasons' Le Cinq. A number of the hotel's management jobs were filled by people from the Ritz.
One man who's been there from the beginning of the makeover is Pierre-Yves Rochon, whose cordiality and diplomacy allowed him to survive as the hotel's designer. Rochon discovered that doing such a job meant learning the Four Seasons' intricate mindset as well as Alwaleed's. Often it was a toss-up as to which was more draconian. "It was unusually complicated because Four Seasons and His Royal Highness had to approve me, and obviously I had to please them both," says Rochon, who graduated first in his class of interior design at the École des Beaux-Arts et Arts Appliqués in Paris.
Rochon's reassuring, let-them-eat-cake interpretation of traditional luxury made him a natural fit with Four Seasons. Indeed, those who find truckloads of mirror-finish marble, luscious silk damask, twinkling crystal, and rich trompe l'oeil effects—150 were lavished on walls, ceilings, and furniture— a little over the top may want to consider staying elsewhere. "You like it or you don't," he says of the hotel's gilded aesthetic. "But you can't argue with the quality."
Having in effect two clients obliged Rochon to improve his juggling skills. "On one hand, I had Four Seasons demanding its signature Kohler steeping tubs, which are short but deep by American standards, plus three-square-foot stall showers, which are huge," says the designer, who also decorated New York City's Essex House and the Amstel in Amsterdam. "On the other hand, I had the prince insisting on beige sinks and tubs—white was out of the question. He wanted a tone-on-tone story with the marble." (Q: Monsieur Le Calvez, why isn't there a Jacuzzi in my room?A: We're sorry. Four Seasons doesn't install them in guest rooms because of the noise and maintenance, and because they're so hard to keep clean. However, there is one in the hotel spa.)
The Posturelux mattress, made by Sealy exclusively for the company according to its specifications, was also imposed on Rochon. "The hotel industry standard is around eight hundred coils for a king; the Posturelux has nine hundred and thirty," says Sealy's William Blendick, who handles the Four Seasons account. "It's a sumptuous sleeping experience." Though the Posturelux isn't sold at retail, the Four Seasons does make it available to guests—Demi Moore and Bruce Willis became customers after a stay at the Four Seasons Hotel in Seattle. (Q: Can I get one?A: Of course. The price for a king, including torsion bar foundation, is $999.)
Attention to details like coil count must go straight to Alwaleed's heart. The prince, a stickler for quality, has a reported $14 billion investment portfolio that includes a 25 percent stake in Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts. What are Rochon's memories of reviewing color chips with the man known as the Warren Buffett of the Arab world?"I learned that if you are professional, the prince respects you," the designer says evenly. "It all came down to giving him what he wanted, which was a hotel that said 'France,' pure and classic."
Rochon fulfilled the prince's assignment largely with his own designs, many redolent of one Louis period or another, plus antiques from the hotel's first incarnation: boulle armoires, Empire consoles, and 18th-century marquetry secretaries. Room schemes are beige with green, yellow, or blue accents.
"Selling inventory over the phone, you don't have the benefit of body language," says acting reservations director Monika Moser. "So you have to make your words as seductive as possible. We say rooms are in 'celadon green,' 'buttercup yellow,' and 'lavender blue.' How you say what you say is even more important. I tell my girls they've got to have sun in their voices."
Moser offers a bubbly description of the refurbishment. The George V's original ironwork—its finest decorative asset—was meticulously restored, from the lithe Art Deco balustrades to the feather-motif medallions above the towering glass entrance doors. A handsome 30-by-17-foot blue mosaic pool was added in the basement; massage rooms have side-by-side tables where honeymooners can be pummeled while holding hands. In line with the prince's mandate, Moser paints a fizzy, romantic picture of a hotel as French as a Lido showgirl or a bowl of onion soup.
Not everything from the earlier George V merited saving. "Having been redesigned maybe four or five times over the years, the hotel had become a pastiche," Rochon notes. "We were criticized in the French press for auctioning off so much—there were ten thousand lots—but much of it was beyond repair or simply mauvais got." The designer cites a dressing table in Marlene Dietrich's favorite suite. It was worth $1,985 to a fan, but nothing to Rochon as a decorator. And so it went with a pair of Staffordshire spaniels from Greta Garbo's room, a baby grand piano played by Duke Ellington, and the cane bed on which the Beatles had their 1964 pillow fight, famously recorded by photographer Harry Benson.
Le Calvez says that a handful of "iconic" items, not to mention the name George V, were purposely retained or reproduced to give fans of the original hotel the feeling they are returning home. Awnings are royal blue, just like in the old days. Twelve magnificent magnolias in Versailles planters waited out the reconstruction in a suburban nursery before resuming their places in the courtyard. The 1,300-square-foot Savonnerie carpet in La Galerie, the hotel's tea salon, is a sensational whorl-for-whorl copy of the one that adorned the same space before the closing.
Understood but unspoken among management, chef Legendre, and every one of his 63 cooks is the goal of making Le Cinq the only three-star hotel restaurant in Paris. Michelin inspectors, known for their susceptibility to a pretty table, should find a lot to love in the Limoges porcelain, hand-painted with gay yellow ribbons and red roses; Riedel stemware; and crystal-lined salt and pepper dishes from the aristocratic French silver house Ercuis. Like Legendre, head sommelier Eric Beaumard invests the restaurant with instant authority; he was runner-up for the title of Best Sommelier in the World in an international service competition in 1998.
Life can't be easy for a chef whose name is so easily mistaken for legend. To ease into his job, Legendre is reprising a number of his greatest hits, like chaudfroid of watercress with caviar. Dabs of sevruga on quenelles of lemony whipped cream look like coal on snow. "Pairing watercress and caviar, I'm playing vegetal off mineral, river off sea, mild off aggressive," explains Legendre. Roast Brittany lobster with chestnuts is moistened with an emulsion of chestnut fumet and lobster nage.
To celebrate the hotel's reopening, pastry chef Laurent Jeannin created a tartelette filled with mixed nuts and prunes macerated in mulled wine, all under a soufflé-like dome. It's an intense dessert in line with Jeannin's intense George V training. He completed the training program weeks ago, but the lessons he learned playing Four Seasons Pursuit are still fresh. Q: What do you do when a guest rejects Le Cinq's menu and demands a gluten-free, 3,000-calorie meal with chicken for a main course?A: Assure the guest there is no problem, consult the chef, and present his suggestions to the guest.
Q: Cradling his boa constrictor, Michael Jackson arrives wanting a suite. How do you proceed?A: Explain that since the snake is not a domestic animal, it cannot be admitted to the hotel. Offer to find outside housing for the boa. Without breaking the rules (no exceptions, even for Jacko), do everything you can to sell the suite.
Four Seasons Hotel George V, 31 Ave. George V, Paris; 33-1/49-52-70-00, fax 33-1/49-52-70-10; doubles from $620.