This year marks the 10th anniversary of two auspicious moments in Franco-American relations — one good and one bad. Ten years ago Congressman Bob Ney made his infamous demand that the congressional dining room change the name of the French Fries on its menu to Freedom Fries.
In the same year and much less conspicuously, Maison de la France — now known as Atout France — hosted its first French Affairs meeting in New York. The 10th Annual French Affairs returned to Manhattan on Oct. 20-21 this year at the Marquis Marriott on Broadway in New York City, bringing 142 U.S. wholesalers together with 63 exhibitors. “The purpose [of the meeting] is to develop business and get feedback from our partners in the trade,” said Jean-Philippe Perol, Atout France’s director for the Americas.
Those trade partners were not shy about providing such feedback. An online survey of U.S. tour operators with itineraries in France listed five ways to improve travel the country: First, more English needs to be spoken in French hotels; second, more flexibility in responding to customer requests; third, more unique experiences need to be delivered to give operators an edge over online vendors; fourth, there needs to be more personalized service; and fifth, there should be more loyalty from French suppliers to operators.
Two other themes dominated the open discussions at the show — the perceptions of French inhospitality to American tourists and the dominance of Paris as America’s favorite French destination. “We give regular training sessions to our staff in order to sensitize our people to other cultures,” said Patricia Barthelmy, marketing manager with the Paris CVB. To that, one tour operator responded: “And it’s up to us to sensitize our clients to French culture as well.”
As the smaller French cities and regions put on a show of all they had to offer, Paris lowered its dimmer switch so that the other destinations could strut their stuff on Broadway. With about 80 percent of all American visits to France centered on Paris, the delegates wondered what could be done to elevate other destinations in France.
Antibes, Cannes, Nice, the Cote d’Azur, the Rhone-Alpes, Aquitaine and the Midi-Pyrenees all put on exceptional presentations, but the focus on Paris has never been about any lack of beauty in other parts of France. Since the days of Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu, French political and financial power has primarily resided in the city. For those historic reasons and the sheer majesty of Paris itself, French identity is more tied to the city than Italian identity is in Rome, German identity is to Berlin or even English identity is to London.
“Eighty percent of our French room nights are in Paris,” said Harry Dalgaard, president of Avanti Destinations, when I spoke with him at the French Affairs meeting. “People keep coming back to Paris, and with French high-speed rail they often choose to visit other parts of the country on daytrips and then return to Paris at night.”
But clearly French tourism officials are stressing the importance of booking other destinations in the country as well. “Travel agents can make more money if they go beyond Paris,” said Anne-Laure Tuncer, director U.S.A. of Atout France. “American tourists feel very comfortable in Paris, so if you get them to go beyond Paris that extra complexity gives the agent more of an opening to display their expertise.” Tuncer pointed out that the most popular destinations after Paris are Provence, Lyon and the Rhone Alps, and Normandy.
Other U.S. tourism officials at the French Affairs meeting were quick to point out the benefits of selling France beyond Paris. “France is a great destination all around,” said Terry Dale, president of the U.S. Tours Operators Association. “A survey we did through Price Cooper Waterhouse found that it is the only country in the top 10 in both group and FIT sales. It’s second in escorted tours and 10th in FITs. It’s also in everybody’s best interest to sell more than just Paris. It’s in the best interest of the customer to discover how beautiful the rest of France is, it’s in the best interest of Paris because it gives people more reasons to come back, and it’s in the best interest of travel agents since they end having new and more complex destinations to sell.”
Pascale Bernasse, president of French Wine Explorers, told me his company sells a lot of regions outside of Paris. “What really makes the difference is if the local tourism industry is coordinated and professional,” he said. “I sell some places that don’t have as much as others in terms of interest and attractions, but they know how to handle my clients.”
Of course, despite the challenge of getting more people to venture beyond Paris, it’s not as if France has lost its popularity among U.S. travelers. Last year France once again tops among American travelers, as 3.1 million visited the country, well ahead of the 2.9 million who visited second place Britain. In 2012, 81.2 million visitors traveled to France from all over the world, maintaining the country’s position as the world’s leading travel destination. According to Perol, U.S. travelers accounted for 10 percent of France’s tourism revenues.
Of course, when talk at the French Affairs meeting inevitably turned to perceptions of poor French hospitality, it wasn’t long before someone reminded the gather about the days when “Freedom Fries” defined the Franco=American relationship. In the 10 years since “Freedom Fries” and the first French Affairs meeting, American visitation to France has been on an almost unbroken upward curve.
Americans who travel to France love the simple complexities of the country’s good life, including its art, food, wine and especially its authenticity. As for Congressman Ney, the infamous author of “Freedom Fries,” he ended up spending 30 months in prison on corruption charges. Given time authenticity will usually prevail!