It feels like the set of a Hollywood movie. Around 9 p.m., the opera is getting out inside the Belle Epoque Casino de Monte-Carlo designed in 1863 by architect Charles Garnier, who also designed the original Paris Opera. Descending the stairs out front, a throng of men in tuxedos and women in long flowing dresses slide into a waiting line of Aston Martins, Ferraris and Rolls. The facades of the casino and adjacent Hôtel de Paris, built in 1864, are lit up in light against the black night like fanciful wedding cakes. Meanwhile across the street at the Café de Paris, waiters are pouring pink champagne at the outdoor tables facing the casino like they have since 1920.
The Principality of Monaco has arguably been the most exclusive and glamorous destination in the world during the last century. For meeting and incentive planners, the incomparable seaside setting and undeniable cachet bring a lively, refined atmosphere to any event. And thanks to group packaging, value dates and varied hotel product, rates are on par with many European capitals.
Monaco feels out of this world but it doesn’t have to cost that way.
The Principality stretches a mere three miles along the Mediterranean around three coves separating France and Italy. Between them, there are two tall promontories perched high over the water. One is “The Rock,” butressing the charming old town of Monaco-Ville next to the official palace of Prince Albert II. The second is at the base of Mount Charles—“Monte-Carlo”—capped by the casino and a handful of historic hotels that define true, unadulterated fabulousness.
“It’s a destination to go beyond yourself,” says Guillaume Jahan de Lestang, our liaison with the Monte-Carlo SBM group, majority-owned by the Principality. SBM was founded in 1863 so next year will be their 150 year anniversary. The group operates all of the casinos in Monaco, four hotels, 33 restaurants, the largest wine cellar in the world, and the cliff-hugging Les Thermes Marins Monte-Carlo Spa.
“Perception is that Monaco is expensive and complicated but this is not reality,” says Guillaume. He suggests that with one phone call to SBM’s New York office, planners have access to everything they could possibly require during any type of program for a variety of budgets. “Safety is another key figure to highlight,” he adds. “Here ladies can wear their real jewelry at two in the morning.”
HOTEL DE PARIS + THE HERMITAGE
That includes the nationally-registered Le Salle Empire banquet space off the lobby at Hôtel de Paris. The fairytale venue with ornately gilded arch ceilings and extravagant chandeliers is Monaco’s most opulent public room for 450-pax gala dinners. Sample dishes include Scottish smoked salmon blinis and Normandy sole meuniere.
“Event planners don’t really need to be concerned about decor,” deadpans Guillaume. “Just flowers.”
For VIP dinners, there’s the Michelin 3-star Le Louis XV by Alain Ducasse. For al fresco dining and cocktail receptions, book the Côté Jardin garden restaurant and terrace.
There is rarely a bad time in Monaco to sit and talk over a cup of espresso. No one, you will come to learn, can draw out a conversation over a cup of espresso like les Monégasque. We retire to the classic Le Bar Américain, also off the lobby, talking about its cool photographs of past guests like Cocteau, Matisse and Cary Grant. Returning on a weekend night, the joint is jumping with a live jazz trio and packed crowd of all ages.
Next door at Hôtel Hermitage, one room wing extends along the rocky ridge overlooking Port Hercule. This is the picturesque harbor you see in the backdrop of the famous annual Formula I race, To Catch a Thief and a few James Bond movies. When you open the tall French doors to the balcony and look out over the marina, even the most well-travelled executive will gasp audibly.
Room decor differs among the range of accomodations. The Port Hercule suites are romantic, spacious and rather dainty with Louis XIV chairs and dressers, lavender walls and subtle floral wallpaper depicting Loire Valley hunting scenes. Other than some of the specialty suites, these are our favorite rooms in Monaco because of the view.
Hermitage has two lobbies and the one dedicated for groups is the showstopper. The intricate metalwork and large stained glass dome were created by Gustave Eiffel, the architect who designed the Eiffel Tower. Cocktail capacity is 200 pax comfortably, and let us know if you ever see a prettier prefunction space. All together, total meeting space is 12,000 sf across 12 rooms, including two sleek new ballrooms.
“The Hermitage always feels comfortable and modern, not too old,” says Guillaume. “We have made a very big effort to correspond the historic and the modern.”
For indoor/outdoor group dining, Le Vistamar is a winter garden-style fine dining restaurant with a private room for 12. Seating 200, the terrace overlooks the port with “awesome, magical” views says Guillaume. It’s true, it does.
Positioned across the sloping lawn from the Monte-Carlo Casino, the 141-room Hôtel Metropole Monte-Carlo is opening a new pool bar and bistro next year designed by Karl Lagerfeld. Everybody is talking about it. There’s going to be a 65-foot “fresco sculpture wall” with black and white photos taken by the fashion icon of models posed in various settings inspired by Ulysses. The new pool will be available for private rental for up to 80 people.
When you walk in the lobby, you’re greeted with a huge floral installation, which on this day happens to be a fragrant cherry blossom covered in soft pink buds. It’s tea time in the lobby where spokeslady Odile Firmin-Guion talks about the tea, scones and unique selling points of the hotel for U.S. groups. During this trip, this was the most comfortable place to retreat out of the sun. Gracious, comfortable, and set back from the street, Hotel Metropole is classy and comfy.
“Planners bring groups here from the States because it’s really like a large villa,” says Firmin-Guion. “The privacy and intimacy we offer is popular, as is the quality of the dining.”
Understatement is an art form in Monaco.
Perhaps the world’s greatest chef, Jöel Robuchon heads up F&B at Hôtel Metropole. His Michelin 2-star Jöel Robuchon restaurant serves Mediterranean cuisine such as lobster in a iced velouté of avocado, spicy oil and burrata. All dishes come with no more than three ingredients, plus sauce. Semi-private dining is available for 30 diners, or you can book a chef’s table event by the open kitchen for eight. Next door, the 1-star YOSHI is Robuchon’s first Japanese restaurant. It can be privatized, although we’re told such an event starts around $25,000. If that’s not quite doable, the acclaimed French chef also oversees all catering.
With a 60% business crowd, Firmin-Guion says groups average 20-40 rooms, using three meeting rooms, the largest seating 110. Rooms/suites are classic in tone with gold, bone and rouge floral fabrics and French doors opening outside.
Skirting the Mediterranean Sea directly below the casino, the 602-room Fairmont Monte-Carlo offers 18 meeting spaces including the new Salle de La Mer waterfront space for 230 seated, with a terrace over the water. The rooftop Horizon Deck restaurant with panoramic views of the Med is spectacular for private group events, both indoors and outside. During lunch up there, groups really start to unwind in the breeze and sunlight, and conversation flows easily. GM Xavier Rugeroni joined us for a cup of espresso.
“The secret to Monte-Carlo is knowing that the fancy cars and clothes are not real,” he says. “For me, it’s about meeting people and enjoying time with them.”
The guestrooms of choice are obviously the seaview units, but all of them are well maintained with a bright nautical or cozy residential theme, balconies and work desks. The lobby bar is the biggest scene in town with tall wraparound windows facing the sea. And you’re five minutes walking distance to the casino and surrounding restaurants.
Monte-Carlo Bay Hotel
MONTE-CARLO BAY + BEACH HOTELS
Leaving the casino area, it’s a 10-minute drive along Larvotto Beach to the other two SBM hotels. Built in 2005, the 334-room Monte-Carlo Bay Hotel has a very mod, slightly Asian vibe with lots of bamboo, greenery and open floor plans. It’s popular with younger groups because it’s somewhat less intimidating and more resort-like in nature. About 75% of the rooms have waterviews and all have large balconies.
The big selling points for groups are the price, the modern ambiance, onsite casino, and a great seaside indoor/outdoor pool complex big enough for hotel buyout events. Of the four restaurants, the breezy and colorful Blue Bay is a fun private dinner buyout option for 100 pax, with tables by the water and a French/Caribbean menu. Total meeting space is 14,000-sf and all of it has natural light.
Next door, Jimmy’z is a legendary night club where Lady Gaga’s offical DJ spins tunes for Bono and Johnny Depp.
On the other side of the small cove, the retro, 40-room Monte-Carlo Beach epitomizes the 1930s jetsetter beach club. The airy and bright Art Deco look includes sporty rooms/suites with either wide stripes or Matisse-style drawings on the walls, porthole windows, terrazzo floors, wicker/wood furnishings and balconies close to the water.
Along the beach, there’s a long row of 120 cabanas and a large pool—easily the best seaside venue in Monaco—for cool Great Gatsby-themed pool parties up to 600 pax. And right on the water, the open-air Sea Lounge is one of the hippest spots for chilling out with chilled champagne and 100 colleagues late into the evening.
Somewhat surprisingly, the Grimaldi Forum Monaco convention and cultural center occupies the most prime real estate on Larvotto Beach in the heart of the Principality. Just a short walk from the Fairmont, the venue features three auditoriums, 22 breakouts, three F&B outlets and 365,000 sf of exhibition space.
“If you’re looking for a venue, we offer a country—look what’s around us,” enthuses Leida Sharpe, senior marketing manager. “Monaco is great for incentives but we want to convince people that Monaco is both convenient and affordable for conferences and conventions too.” She states that hotel rates average $225 from November to March, and the Forum offers a plethora of freebies like cocktail receptions and WiFi.
In 2008, the facility was one of the first such venues in Europe to win ISO/14001 green certification. Sharpe says if planners supply the data, the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation will willingly calculate the program’s carbon imprint or help create a carbon-neutral event.
Monaco isn’t all just about pink champagne and cherry blossoms, but it sure feels that way.