Director for the Americas, Maison de la France
Chairman European Travel Commission
When your father is the CEO of Air France during the birth of the Concorde, travel is a way of life. So Jean-Philippe Perol launched a prestigious career in travel as soon as he concluded his education in Paris that took him around the world, with lengthy postings in Brazil, Europe and–since 2003–New York. He now leads Maison de la France, the official French tourism office, and has increased its membership by 60 percent during his tenure. Perol also chairs the European Travel Commission. In March, he sat with editors of Elite Traveler in New York to chat about the two styles of luxury travel in France today, how tourism is an industry of major financial consequence, and why Brazil continues to beckon him.
ET: How has your career path led you to this position in the U.S.?
Jean-Philippe Perol: I went to university [Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris and the Sorbonne] to become a public servant. And then I received a PhD in business administration [from Dauphine]. And my first job was as a trainee in Air France’s tour operator subsidiary, Jet Tours, in Rio de Janeiro. When it came time for my six months of military service, I worked in the army as a commercial attaché in Rio during the morning, and for Jet Tours in the afternoon! Then I moved into the marketing department of Air France, and next I became director for the Amazon region, based in Manaus. In 1979 I founded my own travel agency, and after I sold it to Wagons-Lits, I became director for their Brazil operations. In 1985 I returned to France to direct all incoming ground operations for Wagon-Lits. Then, at the end of 1988, I went to Maison de la France as marketing director.
Tourism today is a serious industry. But in 1985, in France, when I would meet up with university friends, and they said “What are you doing?” and I said tourism, their response would be “and what else?” That is because travel and tourism wasn’t considered a serious business to them. But over the last 15 years it has grown to be very serious. Then, it was hard to tell one’s father that you got a job in the tourism industry! It was M. Steirn, France’s original Minister of Tourism, who realized the necessity of speaking only of the economics, the numbers of tourism—revenues, jobs, profits—NOT beaches. It also became more serious in 1987, when Maison de la France began. The business of tourism for a country like France is not so old, compared to a country like Jamaica. But now tourism is big. Just yesterday, in the newspaper, a full page letter ran from hotel executives to Congress regarding the meeting and incentive business, and reminding them of how many jobs that part of tourism represents.
ET: What are the big changes in travel you have witnessed since joining Maison de la France in 1988?
Jean-Philippe Perol: First, the fact that tourism is now a recognized industry. The second is that Maison de la France is recognized by the trade itself. Maison de la France was founded with 75 members, and now there are 1,300. It began with partnerships from private companies, and today France’s cities and regions are the big partners.
Also, the internet has completely changed the trade. There was a chain that everyone respected—from travel agent, to tour operator, to hotel. Now people buy direct and the consumer jumps right to the hotel 40 percent of the time. This was a big change.
ET: What does France offer the private jet traveler today?
Jean-Philippe Perol: There are two concepts of luxury: sometimes it is the thing that is the most expensive, and the contrary is the thing that is impossible to buy. So you can go to the Ritz, or visit a privately-owned wine cave, which is something fabulous that is nearly impossible to do. In France, travelers can do both. Sometimes the person who has everything wants the thing that money can’t buy. With the economic crisis, bling bling is not very correct. Chic will be defined not by the big hotel, but the boutique hotel that is small, discreet, a place you won’t ever run into someone you know, yet it could be even more expensive than the biggest hotels.
This year, Picasso’s family will open his chateau for the first time, and it will be viewable only by appointment. This is a once-in-a-lifetime event, and this type of exclusivity is growing a lot. As for wine tasting in a private wine cave, I experienced the Drouin La Rose Burgundy caves, between Dijon and Baune, remarkable.
ET: Our readers are certainly familiar with Paris and the French Riviera. Which other regions will elite travelers find exciting to visit now?
Jean-Philippe Perol: This year there are two important ones. Normandy is marking the 65th anniversary of D Day. It is going to be especially emotional because it will probably be the last big anniversary with a lot of veterans in attendance. The second is Provence, where nine places around the region are recognizing Picasso and Cezanne. The events and exhibits are all centered on Picasso’s step-daughter allowing people into his home for the first time. I will also say that a region with a growing profile is the Southwest, between Bordeaux and Biarritz. It was built by Napoleon for his wife, so it’s not new! But it is new to many people in the U.S.
ET: Have you been impressed by any new hotels in France lately?
Jean-Philippe Perol: The new trend is small, boutique. And it ranges from the classical in style to a very modern décor.
ET: Where does a native of France, now residing in New York, choose to go for his own vacations?
Jean-Philippe Perol: My favorite region is the Amazon, and every year I invite friends from around the world to take a five-day cruise up the river on my boat. People from France, the U.S., Mexico, Canada and Brazil all mix together on board, up to 18 people. What happens is people discover themselves, and they all have a little something in common. I’ve done this for three years now, and it’s on board the 100-foot boat that I share with another friend. I had been doing the trip with just the same group of people, and then asked friends all over the world if want to, and some do and some bring friends, and some bring their kids We cruise up the Black River, where there are no mosquitos but there are beaches.