Take a walk through Monaco and you’ll experience a juxtaposition of images. The Russian oligarch, the somewhat trashy atmosphere of The Hotel de Paris, the emotional highs and lows of The Casino, the glitter that isn’t always gold in the jewellers and gift shops, the stately presence of The Palace. It’s an unworldly feeling that is somehow a combination of the worst and best of humanity all contained in a tiny principality.
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But if you take a walk towards Cap d’Ail, you’ll come across a little jewel – the hamlet of Fontvieille. It has the relaxed atmosphere of an upmarket Caribbean island – a kind of St. Barts in the South of France, and in the midst of this tiny paradise is the Columbus Hotel. Once called the Abela, it was taken over an given a complete refit and re-emerged as Columbus in 2000. World-renowned interior designer, Amanda Rosa created a cool, fresh chic feeling by mixing the exotic nature of Africa with the sophistication of France.
Walk inside and one of the first people you’ll meet is the master concierge Patrick, a man who knows everyone and everything, and for whom nothing is too much trouble. A couple of years ago Force India boss Vijay Mallya woke up on race morning of the Monaco Grand Prix and decided he wanted a huge party on his boat. His marketing men briefly panicked and then rang Patrick who pulled it all together and put on the best après-race party in the harbour.
But today it’s the boss’s turn to speak, Columbus Manager Fredrik Aspegren, Swedish by birth, international by nature, is the man charged with making sure the hotel remains as the number one cool destination for the movers and shakers. We catch up on the Monaco Grand Prix race day morning. Aspegren has come in to check that everything is working “The Grand Prix, along with the Yacht Show in September are the biggest events of the year so I’m on duty 24/7.” But today he is taking a few hours off to take his sons aged six and four to the race for the first time. They’re going to watch from the terrace of the Hotel de Paris – one of the most sought after locations from which to watch the race.
“We created a special champagne cocktail to evoke the memory of the Princess. It was a Champagne Rose cocktail. We put rose jelly in the glass and froze the glass and then poured in a rose liqueur and topped the glass up with champagne. It was delicious and a tribute to Princess Grace and her elegance and beauty.”
Of course, Columbus has a unique view of the Grand Prix as an ex-racing driver and now successful BBC pundit David Coulthard is a 70 per cent shareholder of the hotel. “The best party of all-time was here in 2002 when David won the race,” says Aspegren. “I wasn’t here then as I joined in 2005 but the party in the reception area and bar has become legendary. About 500 people drinking champagne and partying all night! When I was here in 2006 David came third and that was another big celebration.”
Aspegren arrived as a hotel manager in 2005 from Cape Town. He was brought in by Ken McCulloch, who was then an owner with Coulthard and an American sleeping partner. McCulloch was known for his brilliance in the success of boutique hotels having developed the first boutique hotel, One Devonshire Gardens, in his hometown of Glasgow.
Aspegren had an eclectic upbringing. He and his brother spent their young years in Madrid where his father, a trained doctor, had decided to turn to become a film producer. Aspegren’s one claim to fame is that movie star Ester Williams was his baby-sitter in an era when all the action of Hollywood was essentially in Spain. But his father soon decided that playing at filmmaker wasn’t feeding his soul so he decided to save the world by returning to his original profession of doctoring and working for the Red Cross and the United Nations in places like India, Bangladesh and Cyprus. His father married three times and had seven children who range in age from 20 to 60, with Fredrick in the middle. This unusual childhood produced a man who can speak seven languages fluently (Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, English, French, Spanish, Afrikaans) and can get by in German and who has the ability to make himself comfortable and relaxed in any situation.
This easy ability to relate to people and places is obvious in the easy, relaxed atmosphere that greets guests at Columbus. “I’ve never chased star ratings, I’ve always focused on creating a feeling and the right atmosphere,” he says.
The hotel has 181 rooms of which 25 are suites. At night the mood is seduction and luxury as small candles greet guests in their rooms when they return from dinner. This love of luxury has now transferred itself to a new project – Columbus Destination. “We are developing the Columbus brand here in Monaco and creating evocative and special events,” says Aspegren. “In January we had a ‘Night at the Circus,’ when we took over the famed Monaco Circus for one night for a dinner for 700 people attending the Relais Chateau congress. We had the circus ringleader, and four acts from the actual circus and all the staff where dressed in circus-themed outfits.”
Preparing dinner for 700 of the world’s top hoteliers was a challenge but also a triumph. “We brought in a huge truck from Strasbourg which we made into a kitchen and we cooked Veal rose – medium pink for 700 people and it was medium pink for everyone.” He emphasises this last point as he is clearly enormously proud of the difficult accomplishment of producing perfect food for hundreds of people. “We had a precise and perfect organisation and timing. At the end, all the guests gave us a standing ovation. It was an extraordinary evening.”
Another extraordinary evening of Columbus Destination was the cocktail party in the beautiful Princess Grace Rose Garden, which is a garden designed by Prince Rainier and dedicated to the woman he loved, his wife Princess Grace. “It was the first time anyone had been allowed to have a cocktail party in the Princess Grace Rose Garden,” he says.
The next-door helicopter pad is the next location for Columbus Destination. “We want to light up the place and create a funky atmosphere where people can have a drink and look out over the sea. It’s about making our clients feel they belong to a club.”
However, even Monaco hasn’t escaped the cold winds of recession. “It’s arrived here later than in the USA and we started to feel it in late 2008 when congresses, incentives and events started to fall away,” says Aspegren. “We’re about 15-20 per cent down on bookings but we’ve suffered less than some. During the Grand Prix, we were full and in fact, we were giving business to other hotels. Some hotels in Monaco are 50 per cent down which is worrying. I’ve had residents come in here who were spending and well off last year, who now say they’re broke. Others have repatriated back to their own countries. The falling pound hasn’t helped the Brits. Even the rents have been falling here which is what happens when a recession hits.”
The annual turnover at Columbus is 12 to 13 million euros, so even with a 20 per cent drop that will still be a healthy 10 million euros or so. But it is not just room nights that are down.
“People are consuming a lot less,” Aspegren states. “Last year we sold 24 bottles of Cristal champagne over the Grand Prix weekend. This year by Saturday night it was only two bottles. Even people with money don’t want to be seen to be consuming. There is a real air of keeping a low profile and getting through it. It is the first time we’ve had such a wide-ranging recession encompassing not only the industry but also the finance sector. I think people are waiting to see when the finance industry will stabilise and money starts to circulate again. Investments have taken a dive so everyone has been hit. However, bookings for 2010 are more normal so we can see a light at the end of the tunnel. I think people are feeling more confident about 2010.”
It will take more than a recession to dampen Fredrik Aspegren’s enthusiasm. With the success of Columbus Destination, he has already widened his horizon to encompass the entire area. “Lyon is becoming the centre of Europe and the development of the waterfront by the river is amazing,” he says. “I want to see something similar here. I want Monaco to have a Roc Gauche and a Roc Droit like the left and right bank in Paris. Create a new concept, a new feeling and a great atmosphere.”
He’s off again with new ideas and it’s a sure thing that Columbus will continue to weather the storm of recession and attract the coolest people in Europe to their own haven in the sunshine of Monaco.
In the near future, Aspegren has new plans for the hotel – a complete renovation programme that will close the hotel for six months. “We need to start it in October as we have to be re-opened in time for the 2010 Grand Prix. That’s a date we can’t miss. It’s the best time of the year!”
And with that, he’s dashing off to collect his sons for a boys day out watching Formula 1 cars race around the most famous street circuit in the world.