I arrived in Paris a day before the one-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks and just four days after our presidential election.
Unlike some of the attacks elsewhere, it is widely conceded that the Paris ones have had a major impact on the number of Americans who are willing to visit France.
I passed through several security checks to pay my respects at the Bataclan concert hall on Boulevard Voltaire, a chinoiserie building whose name translates to "all that jazz" and "a little bit of this and that."
The Bataclan had been closed since the attacks, but that night it would reopen with a concert by Sting. I couldn't get close to the building, but I was shoulder to shoulder with the mourners commemorating the victims of the largest terrorist attack on French soil.
Ironically, I was there to report on a celebration. In the days following the attacks, the Virtuoso consortium announced that its annual Chairman's Event, feting its top-producing owners and their spouses, would be moved to Paris in a demonstration of support for Virtuoso's many French hotel and on-site suppliers.
The event was fully booked within 72 hours. So while others were pulling out, Virtuoso decided to pull in. It was a chance to both report on the festivities and to mingle with some of the most successful travel sellers.
But before the event officially began, I allowed myself a few days to wander the streets of Paris in a deep chill with occasional light rain and a brooding sky.
The Left Bank seemed even more perfect than I had remembered. The Right Bank was lit up like a gorgeous Christmas ornament. The Arc de Triomphe at one end of the Champs-Elysees faced a giant, illuminated Ferris wheel at the other end of the avenue.
By the second day, I'd seen enough to know that Paris in the cold and damp of November still manages to outshine any other city on the planet, including those still bathed in sunlight.
Sure, there are differences. There is a large, new store coming to the Champs-Elysees: a Five Guys hamburger outlet smack in the middle of everything. On the sidewalk in front of each of the major banks along the boulevard, a solitary woman, certainly a refugee, sat stoically, a simple paper cup by her feet. At one point it started raining hard, and I paused to see if the woman closest to me would move. She didn't. I watched as hundreds of people passed her on the sidewalk without so much as a glance.
Leaving the U.S. just after the election proved to be cathartic. I needed space and time to absorb what had happened. The French, like many other Europeans, were barely hiding their concerns. Gerard Araud, the French ambassador to the U.S., had been quoted as saying that the world is "collapsing before our eyes."
I was watching the reaction from the comfort of my room at the Four Seasons George V.
Paris has a way of teaching you life's complexities and one can, I think, gauge a great deal about the life fully realized by measuring the number of times one is able to return to the city.
This time, I was embedded with the top-producing Virtuoso agency owners, a complimentary trip for all, including guests. Accommodations, meals and events were included. When I went to settle my bill after a week at Paris' most expensive hotel I was assured, "There is no balance at all, Mr. Turen."
On Sunday, arrival day, the hotel launched its Christmas decorations by well-known floral designer Jeff Leatham and provided an evening cocktail event that surpassed any I had ever attended. A Roaring '20s theme was in effect, and agents were welcomed to virtually every public area of the hotel.
Le George restaurant was turned into a vibrant cabaret with Mediterranean-fusion tasting stations. The Galerie Lounge featured modern French jazz with cuisine provided by chef David Bizet. But that was just the beginning: Virtuoso guests entered a subzero ice lounge in the external courtyard with furniture carved out of the ice for the occasion, and clothing was provided by alpine clothing specialist Fusalp. Nordic-inspired food was provided, too.
I wandered into the bar, where three-star Michelin chef Christian Le Squer provided a three-course dinner for 12 guests at a time. Then I ventured up to the Penthouse suite and the rooftop where authentic Parisian street foods were offered and a photographer took pictures of guests with the illuminated Eiffel Tower as a backdrop.
There was something special about an owners' meeting the next morning attended by the managers of the very top-tier hotels in Paris, both grande dames and family-owned, Left Bank intimates. Several of the hoteliers addressed the group with a candor I can't recall ever seeing. The takeaways were:
- Business from the U.S. is down 35% to 40% since the attacks, and the American market simply can't be replaced.
- Europeans generally, and the French specifically, are concerned about president-elect Trump's impact on the desire of Americans to travel abroad. They see a time of great uncertainty, and in those times, people tend to stay close to home.
- They were profoundly grateful that Virtuoso had moved its Chairman's Event to Paris.
It seemed they were saying that they really needed the Americans, something that has not been easy for the French to articulate. Judging from the genuine warmth of the hotel staff members I encountered, the city is prepared to lead the world in hospitality as it does in matters of taste and culture.
Following the business portion of the event, Virtuoso had to do something with its French partners that was close to impossible: Show their city to this group of seasoned professionals in some new ways, creating lifelong memories and individual experiences -- no easy task for a group quite used to rock-star treatment.
At this point, let me pause. I debated whether or not I should tackle this experience and report it to an audience that does most of its traveling in the form of fam trips and supplier-sanctioned short trips offered at special industry rates.
I decided to proceed because I think it is important for aspiring travel consultants and those new to our profession to know that the top tier of consultants don't generally go on fams. They are, instead, invited to attend some remarkable events designed to impress and share with both colleagues and clients.
The top agencies within the top tier consortia are both known and valued by the properties they book. This is particularly true in the luxury sector, where much of the staff travel that occurs is offered on a direct and personal basis, almost always for free.
The over-the-topness of it all began two weeks before the trip, when I received an invitation to a Champagne tasting. No big deal, except for the fact that the invitation included a private jet whisking seven or eight Virtuoso owners off to the vineyards near Reims, home of Krug Champagne, to meet privately with members of the Krug family. Krug is, along with Bollinger and Salon, considered among the top three Champagne houses in the world. It does not advertise, exports 90% of its production and holds a certain cult status among serious Champagne connoisseurs.
I turned down the invitation since I am far more interested in the taste elements of Dr. Brown's Diet Cream soda and felt that my place might be best occupied by a Virtuoso owner who would appreciate the finer points of wine with bubbles.
There's more, lots more, and I will tell you about it in a future column. But I did want to share this in the hope that you will follow Virtuoso's lead in supporting those who need us most.
I don't need to make the case for Paris. It is November. The attacks occurred just a year ago, and it is cold and even a bit rainy. But the streets are packed with Parisians, absolutely packed. Life goes on here, as it always has, with a style and grace that is unmatched anywhere else on this Earth.
I am thinking I will return every November for the rest of my life.