For nearly a hundred years, the Hôtel le Bristol and five other so-called Parisian palace hotels the Crillon, George V, Meurice, Plaza Athénée and Ritz have seen themselves as the guardians of French tradition and grand service. Their flagship restaurants serve only French haute cuisine, and their historic buildings remain as iconic today as they were in the 18th and 19th centuries (even if the interiors are a bit heavy on the brass and marble). They're also very expensive. Five-star properties in Paris have average room rates of $350 to $700 per night, but rooms at the palaces start at $1,000 and climb all the way to $31,000. Their iconic status kept their rooms filled through most of the recession, even at those prices.
The oligopoly, however, is facing its first significant challenge. Asian hotel groups are investing hundreds of millions of dollars in lavish new properties in historic buildings throughout Paris all with rooms at the palaces' price point. In October, the Singapore-based Raffles Group reopened Le Royal Monceau, which dates from 1928, after spending more than $140 million to gut and refurbish it. In December, Hong Kong-based Shangri-La unveiled its offering inside the former residence of Napoleon's grandnephew. In June, Mandarin Oriental will welcome guests to its 130-room property near the Louvre, built at a cost of more than $1.6 million per room. And in early 2013 the Peninsula Group debuts its first European hotel on the swanky Avenue Kléber. Together they will boost the number of luxury rooms in the city by 40%.
The target clientele is a growing emerging-market elite. The number of millionaire households rose 14% worldwide in 2009 to include 11.2 million people, according to the Boston Consulting Group, and China alone saw a spike of 31%. In addition to these nouveaux riches, the Asian chains hope to lure travelers from around the world, including the U.S. and Europe, who simply want to stay in a less fusty yet still luxurious environment.
Sylvain Ercoli, general manager of Le Royal Monceau, who previously oversaw the Ritz and the Crillon, describes the new hotel as "a celebration of art de vivre that captures Paris and France." Avant-garde designer Philippe Starck dreamed up all the rooms, hung countless chandeliers from the ceilings and filled the grand foyer with Gallic bric-a-brac that includes carefully placed Proust novels. Ercoli believes the hotel's public spaces will seduce locals, giving guests the clichéd sense of place they seek: "Ninety-five percent of our guests are international, but the ground floor is Parisian. The idea is to bring both worlds together."
Le Royal Monceau also hopes to lasso young clients who will eventually inherit their parents' wealth and who scoff at traditional luxury hotels and their dusty floral prints. So it features edgy art installations, including 10 life-size wooden moose at the bottom of a stairwell. The 149 rooms and suites 10 of which are a whopping 400 sq m are designed to feel as if a friend had lent them to guests, so oversize artwork leans against the wall rather than being mounted, and all rooms come with electric guitars and access to a mobile recording studio. Here, the classic French smoking room is a glass chamber filled with white leather couches bathed in red light. "We'll be attractive to a younger clientele," Ercoli says.
Others within the new hotelier guard are going even further. In a move sure to shock palace purists, the Mandarin will offer "French service with an Oriental flair." That means putting yoga mats in the rooms, massage parlors in the suites and dim sum on the room-service menu. Carved from a 1930s Art Deco building with the original facade and a reconstructed spiral staircase, the Mandarin will seek to avoid the practical shortcomings that frequently affect the historic palaces. "Russian and Chinese consumers like old-looking buildings, but if the shower or the wi-fi doesn't work properly, it turns them off completely," says Philippe Leboeuf, general manager of the Mandarin Paris. So there's modern plumbing and state-of-the-art technology like flat-screen TVs flush with the wall. The spa will also feature an all-suite design, meaning everyone has access to their own changing room and personal steam room. And to appeal to corporations and travelers who want luxury with green credentials, the hotel was designed to meet "the highest standards of energy consumption and fuel preservation." The combination of substance and style has Leboeuf sounding giddy. "It's a beautiful adventure, like the launch of a new clothing line," he says. "And 2011 is going to be our runway."
Fashion metaphors are appropriate for hoteliers to use: one day they're in, and the next they're out. New competition means none of the existing palaces can rest on their laurels. "We won't survive by our name alone," says Didier Le Calvez, general manager at the Bristol. "The arrival of these international chains has triggered an accelerated renovation of our hotel to make sure we are in perfect shape to meet the competition." Between last October, when Le Royal Monceau opened, and this April, the Bristol will have spent $28 million on renovations doubling the size of its spa, adding a panoramic rooftop suite and completely redoing 40 rooms on top of the $8.4 million it invests annually in upkeep.
Survival also depends on emphasizing a history that money can't buy. "You can come from China and build outstanding bathrooms," says François Delahaye, the Plaza Athénée's general manager. "But our guests are looking for soul. That isn't in the marble or the gilt." Luxury today needs to have a story, so the Crillon emphasizes that Marie Antoinette took piano lessons in its drawing rooms, and the Ritz honors Coco Chanel's 30-year residency there. At the Bristol, managers recount how during World War II, their predecessors erased a suite from the floor plan and harbored a Jewish architect, who later thanked them by building the hotel's elegant wrought-iron elevator at its center. Whether or not a dramatic historical tale can preserve the allure of these grand old dames of Parisian tourism is up for grabs. But what's clear is this: for luxury travelers headed to Paris this spring and summer, the choice of accommodations just got a whole lot better.
This article originally appeared in the April 4, 2011 issue of TIME Asia.