What began in 1982 as an attraction park where hot air balloons used to take off, the original property at St. James Hotel also entailed a foundation in the memory of a former French President, Adolphe Thiers.
The mansion housed a group of brilliant French students and later on, became a private St. James club initiated by a British entrepreneur. In 2009, with the talents of New York designer, Bambi Sloan; St. James Hotel and its fifty rooms/suites underwent a modern renovation. Today, it is not only the single château-hôtel in the City of Light, it still hubs the exclusive St. James Private Club within a private garden and luxurious facilities.
In the middle of a beautiful library, accompanied by shiny leather couches and glasses of San Pellegrino; Jetset Times sat down with General Manager, Yves Monnin, to candidly discuss the history and future of St. James Hotel. Moreover, what it takes to create and maintain a one-of-a-kind boutique luxury.
Why were there so many hotels that were “sleeping” in Paris? And what does it take for them to…wake up?
If you go back ten to fifteen years ago, many hotels in Paris were beautiful properties but not much were being done with them. It takes money, investors, somebody who’s willing to take the risk of renovation, hiring people, the right management. To get more average room rate, you have to offer more services.
Tell me about St. James Hotel, the history and the story behind this beautiful property.
I came here in 2009, and again, not much was being done here. Remember, this hotel runs as a hotel and a private club and it really has a lot of personalities. There are two sides to it: the building itself, as you can see around you. It has extremely strong Parisian history through these walls.
Before there was even a building here, this was an open field for hot air balloons. This was an attraction park for locals to come on weekends. At the end of 19th century, Mme. Dosne-Thiers, widow of former French President Adolphe Thiers, hosted her foundation here. Today, we’re one of the last hotels in Paris to be owned by a French family (Bertrand.) St. James is also the only château-hôtel in Paris. We believe that people who travel a lot prefer to stay at smaller hotels with high quality of service. And they’re ready to pay for that. We have 50 rooms, mostly suites. We have all the amenities of a larger hotel: spa, concierge, the bar, private service, car parking. But we’re small enough to recognize our guests.
St. James is such a British name, for such a Parisian building. What’s the history behind that?
That’s the other character to this hotel: our British history. In 1986, the founders that were here couldn’t afford renovation of the building, so they sold the property to a British entrepreneur Peter de Savary, who had an idea to build a chain of St. James Club around the world for jetsetters. He founded 4 of them, first in London, then here in Paris, in Antigua, then in Los Angeles (The Argyle Hotel.) It was a great idea with events and networking parties, but it wasn’t well managed, very difficult financially.
Does the private club still exist now?
Yes, we have 800 active members now. They’re all Parisian who work or live around here. In order to use some areas, you have to be members of the club or hotel guests. These areas are not open to the public.
How does managing a club differ from managing a hotel, since you do both?
The hotel is focused on international and abroad audiences. The club is mostly catered to Parisians, who have different needs. They’re looking for exclusivity, great cuisine, evening parties and networking activities and they want privileges. So we provide special rates on certain services, establish arrangements with 225 clubs around the world, where they can stay when they travel, where their members can stay when they visit Paris…etc.
I just love talking to hotel managers, because for you to get to this point in your career, you have traveled extensively. And you understand people so well, you know your customers. When I interviewed the General Manager at Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, it was fantastic because I was learning so much. Now, what do you think are the key ingredients to a building a successful hotel?
There are quite a few. To me, the main and only one is: people of the the service for the guests. You can have the best technology, food, location…etc. But if you don’t have the right staff, it will not work. This has been a problem for me lately, since the recent renovation. We’ve had guests who’ve been staying with us for the last twenty years, and didn’t want anything to change. But hotels must progress. When we changed the decor, these guests were afraid. It was as if their home was being renovated without their consent. One lady actually cried and said, “You’ve destroyed my home, what have you done?” But what has made them stayed throughout this change is: our staff, who have been with us for so long, who has kept the heart of the hotel. And now, guests have gotten used to the new decor and they’re extremely happy.
I personally stay at hotels all the time and there are certain hotels that I keep returning to and these hotels become a home away from home. Although change isn’t easy in life, but it’s true that hotel guests don’t like to see changes. How do you deal with that?
Hotel guests don’t like to see staff changing. Just yesterday, I had a long email from a couple who have been staying at the hotel for 15 years, asked, “why does the concierge staff change all the time?” But for them, it’s about the human relationship. They want people who know their habits, their needs without having to explain every time. But we’re a small hotel, so we can adapt to these changes much faster and make sure our staff immediately meets the needs of our guests, regardless of whether they’re old or new employees.
What do you love about working at a smaller hotel like this?
I like the contact with the guests. If I look at my guest list every morning, I know at least 50%-70% of the names, personally. And this is really rewarding. And I enjoy my staff, I think working with humans is much more interesting than working with machines. More challenging, of course. The best reward for a hotel manager is to promote somebody, because it means that you’ve made the right choice, with the right person, at the right place. This person is growing and doing better, moving further in his or her career. I also love that I’m doing 15 things in one day: marketing, greeting people, sales, looking at financial reports. I’m never bored.
What is the one thing that you learned in your training in Lausanne, Switzerland that you still use today in your management style?
You know, to be extremely serious and professional, and discipline. Because the hotel and restaurant industry is a hard job, you’re always at the service of other people, which isn’t always easy. You never talk about yourself. I know my guests, they don’t have to know me. In the école hôtelière (hotel management schools,) they teach you: discipline, order and regularity. These are lessons you’ll never get anywhere else.
I’ve learned and noticed this about Switzerland, what is it about Lausanne that is so great at brewing the best in the hotel industry?
Because Switzerland was one of the first “touristy” countries in the world. If you go back to 19th century, British used to travel to Switzerland all the time, so there was this tradition of teaching the profession of hotelier. So I think it’s history, especially Lausanne Hotel School (École Hôtelière de Lausanne, or EHL) is more than 100 years old. They’ve always had the best teachers who used to be hoteliers themselves. They’re also very good at moving forward. For example, what they’re teaching today is completely different from what I did twenty years ago. Now they focus on marketing, half of the courses are in English. It’s a sense of modesty, knowing that they can always do better. Don’t be too proud of yourself, there are others who do better than you, so learn from that and be better.
What do you personally like the most about this St. James Hotel?
I like the home feeling, that’s the idea that the designer wanted to keep. We hired New York designer, who is half-American and half-French: Bambi Sloan. The owners said to Bambi, “Renovate this hotel as if you’re re-designing your home.” That’s why every room in this hotel is different. The hotel feels just like someone’s home, with a dining room, there aren’t any signs that say “concierge desk,” everything flows very naturally. We tried to hide some basic elements to a hotel. In the end, we’re really happy we selected Bambi, because she did something completely different from what’s been done in Paris before.
What is your vision for the hotel? Let’s say, in five years, what would you want for St. James?
I’m always trying to push things forward. We want to always push this hotel even higher than where it is now. We know that to make sense of our price range, we need to have better service. I want to push this hotel as the alternative to the Parisian palaces. We want to be the hotel for boutique luxury.