Quest for authenticity in the historical accommodation market

By Cindy Feix

Turn your stay into an experience

The latest trend to hit the world of tourism is the quest for experience and authenticity in every facet of one’s stay (accommodation, activities, catering), which is certainly due to Generation Y’s entry into the market. The notion of ‘experiential marketing’ has therefore hit the tourism sector but reality often proves to be a disappointment as operators settle for an attractive presentation of what is already on offer in guise of experience. A true opportunity for the historical accommodation market?

historical accommodation market

‘Hostellerie de l’Abbatiale de Saint-Savin’ in Gartempe near Poitiers, recently converted into a historical hotel © Groupe Hôtels & Patrimoine

“History must keep keep things alive”
Americo Castro

Promoting experiences?

Researchers Anne Gombauld and Dominique Bourgeon-Renault explain: “the characteristics of the offer need to be improved so consumers can enjoy better quality experiences which are more diversified … This initial and essential task, is often missing from tourism offers”. They have identified seven factors which foster a memorable experience: hedonism, the implication (during the visit, activities, dialogue, etc.), local culture, self regeneration, meaning (what this experience affords the tourist) and novelty (cultural difference, innovation, etc.).

A French group has now entered the historical accommodation market

In the matter of accommodation and to fulfil the expectations of these new tourists, some focus on unusual accommodation sites; hotel chains are going for the “boutique” or “lifestyle” hotel, others opt for technology … while one group has decided to invest in cultural heritage.

historical accommodation market

The Spanish Paradores are hotels inside unusual buildings, which have a long history and appreciable value as cultural monuments © Parador Siguenza

While the SpanishParadores” network was set up in 1926 and expanded in leaps and bounds in the 1960s to now include 94 sites employing about 4,300 salaried personnel … France has only just entered this niche market.

With the agreement of CMN (Centre des Monuments Nationaux) responsible for restoring, preserving, keeping alive and managing the 100 historical monuments which belong to the State, Atout France, (the national agency for the promotion of the tourist destinations of “France” abroad), carried out a feasibility study in 2009 which paved the way for private operators. This is why the Groupe Hôtels & Patrimoine has recently started promoting 4 exceptional hotels: the Couvent Royal de Saint-Maximin near Aix-en-Provence, the Château-fort de Sedan, the Abbaye Ecole de Sorèze located between Toulouse, Albi and Carcassonne and the Hostellerie de l’Abbatiale de Saint-Savin in Gartempe near Poitiers. And 5 others will be opening their doors very soon.

historical accommodation market

The ‘Chateau Fort de Sedan’ seamlessly combines military walls that date back to the Middle Ages and rooms with contemporary furnishings @ Hôtels & Patrimoine

The company’s manager explained in Le Figaro: “We aim to make these exceptional places flagships of the French art de vivre by putting the spotlight on local producers”.

As the majority of French historical monuments belong to the State or collectivities, the formula developed by the Groupe Hôtels & Patrimoine (GHP), falls midway between the Portuguese Pousadas, historical buildings managed by a private group, and the Spanish Paradores, a public company.

For these ‘French paradores’, the GHP group has mobilised private investors – essential to balance the investment budget required for the renovation and furnishing of the location – and manages the hotels on a very long term commercial lease (25-75 years) so it can obtain the return on its investment.

Enthusiastic owners

In parallel to the GHP Group recently launched on the historical accommodation market, several enthusiastic owners of cultural heritage sites have opened their monument to the general public either by offering hotel or other facilities.

This is what the Château d’Étoges has done in the Marne, which is an obligatory stopover for tourists visiting the Côte des Blancs Champagne vineyards. The château is located on the site of a medieval fortress, built in the 12th century by the Lords of Conflans, marshals of Champagne. In the 17th century, the fortress was razed to the ground and replaced by a very sober classical style château. This was its golden age: Étoges became a Count and the château welcomed the court and the King of France, firstly Louis XIII, then Louis XIV. Amand Charles Antoine Uriel acquired the château in 1877, reducing its proportions and converting it into a comfortable house which his descendants later embellished and renovated.

historical accommodation market

The facades, roofs, moat and bridge of the Château d’Étoges have been on the list of historic monuments since 1957 and its grounds are on the Inventaire du Patrimoine © Château d’Etoges

In 1987, Anne Filliette-Neuville – the current owner – inherited the domain and undertook extensive restoration work on the roof and interiors in order to provide hotel facilities. Since 1992 the château d’Étoges has housed an hotel with 19 rooms. In the early 2000s, an outbuilding, known as the Orangery, has provided more space and enabled a restaurant to be developed. The recently opened wellness area offers a sauna, steam room, jacuzzi, treatment room, massage parlour, relaxation area and tea room.

historical accommodation market

This establishment which used to have a 3-star classification has just received a well deserved 4th star © Château d’Etoges

The château has not lost its soul and on entering you are transported back to another era as every element reflects the passage of time (flagstone threshold, stairs, door handles, curtains, furniture, etc.). Even if, as the manager admits, the utility areas are not always very practical and the work carried out under close supervision, the ‘immersion into history‘ sensation felt when staying at the château is the site’s big plus point.

Support from the Association de la Demeure historique

Its cultural heritage also provides added value to the Château de Bignicourt-sur-Saulx, in the Marne, a masterpiece of classical architecture from the beginning of the 19th century, built in the spirit of Andrea Palladio’s Venetian villas at the end of the Renaissance.

historical accommodation market

The unusual architecture of the Château of Bignicourt-sur-Saulx really stands out in the French countryside © Fabrice Provin

After fifty years of neglect, this ruin of a château was purchased by an enthusiast – Fabrice Provin – and was put on the historical monument list in 2005. A long journey beset by many pitfalls began with the amassing of sufficient funds for its restoration. With support from the Association de la Demeure Historique, philanthropy played a vital role in this operation. About ten years later, the wager paid off as the château and its grounds have now returned to their former glory. The site was gradually opened to the public as works progressed making it possible to devise an overall plan of activities.

historical accommodation market

Like many prestigious stately homes which are difficult to maintain, the Château de Bignicourt-Sur-Saulx was in a parlous state when it was purchased by Fabrice Provin © Château de Bignicourt

“Architecture is history’s infallible witness”
Octavio Paz

The historical accommodation market: a new niche?

Tourist accommodation is a restrictive activity, which requires a respect of regulations and provision of numerous services to its clientele – particularly when they are upmarket guests. French and foreign examples show that it is totally feasible to reconcile tourist accommodation and historical buildings. While some owners prefer to opt for contemporary interior furnishings or design, others have chosen to retain the soul of the site by recreating their interiors in the spirit of the period.

This intoHistory internet site brings together a great many establishments of historical interest in the whole of Europe, which fall into this category. The presentations address the key points in their history and depict their period atmosphere, conducive to ‘time travel’. Moreover, they also make it possible to capture – and this is the crux – the spirit of these sites and the enthusiasm of their owners for their period property.

I think that these establishments can fulfil what the tourist is looking for in terms of experience and authenticity as well as provide an upmarket stay. It seems to me that this niche market has a promising future. Like all niche markets, they are often overlooked by tourism institutions and large commercial retailers who aim at the masses (and do not have the means to position themselves in every sector). The ‘intohistory’ concept carries with it the premise that could bring the ‘Grand tours of Europe’ in the Age of the Enlightenment back into fashion – along the lines of the renaissance of the Orient Express, devised by the SNCF (French National Railways).

historical accommodation market

Italy was an obligatory step of the Grand Tour – oil on canvas painted by Jacob Philipp Hackert

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Historical authenticity
Ambiance and settings
Quality of welcome
Degree of comfort