It is early May and the famous Place du Casino — wherein lies one of the world’s oldest gambling houses, the renowned Monte Carlo Casino — is overflowing with tourists.
Californias, 911s and Continental GTs line the casino entrance for tourists to gawk over and take the cliché Monte Carlo postcard shot beside overpriced luxurious wheels with the Monte Carlo casino behind: the ultimate photo of lavishness.
The European sovereign debt crisis engulfing the principality’s neighbors does not seem to have reached Monaco, but the faces flocking to these alluring two square kilometers do seem to have changed, with Asian and Eastern Europeans tourists replacing Western European and American ones.
A look at the recent financial results of the Société de Bains de Mer (SBM), Monaco’s biggest employer and the company behind some of the principality’s most prestigious assets, does not paint the same rosy picture as the Place du Casino.
SBM is the main economic actor of the principality and its assets include fours hotels, among which are the famous Hotel de Paris and Hermitage hotel, five casinos, including the Monte Carlo Casino, 33 restaurants and bars, three spas and the legendary Jimmy’z night club, a celebrity hotspot. Being 70 percent owned by the state of Monaco and the ruling Grimaldi family, with the remaining stake listed on the Paris stock exchange, “the SBM and the state are almost one” says Bechara el-Khoury, consul of Monaco in Lebanon.
As the financial crisis hit the pockets of tourists, the profits of the SBM reversed from 31 million euros ($39 million) in fiscal year 2006/2007 (ended March 31) to a 22 million euros ($28 million) loss for the fiscal year 2010/2011. Its stock price got hacked too, down some 50 percent from the start of the financial crisis. Year to date, it is down 10 percent (as of May 18). In response, the company reshuffled its management in November 2011, appointing a new chief executive who replaced the former CEO of nine years, creating a deputy CEO position and adopting a new strategy.
Attracting new customers
Sitting at the cozy yet refined Bar American in the Hotel de Paris, Axel Hoppenot, marketing director at the SBM, talks through the new strategy, which aims to identify how to develop revenues and readdress the cost structure. He reveals that they have witnessed a pickup in activity so far this year.
While the European sovereign debt crisis is still weighing on their results, Hoppenot is confident that the “engines of growth from the new markets will help the company overcome this difficult period.” He confirmed that there has been a focus on attracting new markets to Monaco, most notably focusing on Russia, Eastern Europe, Asia and the Middle East.
To cater to the Middle East, the SBM opened a representative office in Beirut at the end of 2010, headed by Eric Bessone, from which the company aims to cover the region. According to Bessone, the role of the Beirut office is to present offers of leisure, business, and well-being from the 50 institutions of the Monégasque company.
Currently, the Middle East accounts for approximately eight percent of their total hotel revenues and can reach up to 10 to 12 percent in the summer. The Middle Eastern clientele has increased in the past couple of years, adding some two to three percentage points, according to Hoppenot. He does, however, warn that this year will not be as solid due to Ramadan falling in the middle of summer.
Bringing Monaco to Lebanon
The interest in the Middle East was most striking with the opening of Saadiyat Monte Carlo Beach Club in Abu Dhabi last year, SBM’s first venture outside of Monaco.
“Today it is more complex to set up a business in European capitals as the entry cost is much higher, and because of quality control we can only set up in prime locations” says Hoppenot. “Abu Dhabi is, in the Middle East, one of our most important markets.”
When asked if SBM was considering more investments in the region, Hoppenot stated that for now, given the economically challenging times, SBM is focusing on consolidating their current assets in order to ameliorate the quality of service.
As for Lebanon, SBM has been focusing on bringing the glamour of Monaco closer to home. The aim is to “get closer to our guests and help organize ‘tailor made’ stays in Monte Carlo”, says Bessone. In 2011, SBM organized the exchange of DJs between Monte Carlo’s Jimmy’z and Beirut’s famed Sky Bar. This successful exchange will take place again this year.
It also brought the Les Ballets de Monte Carlo’s “Cendrillon” to the Casino du Liban in November. This year, it organized the exchange of chefs between La Posta’s Maroun Chedid and Blue Bay’s Marcel Ravin, with two events occurring in April and May.
“Many Lebanese love to visit Monaco and these events make them feel like they are in Monaco,” says Bessone, “at least for a night, until they visit again.”