Lifestyle

Bernard Arnault's Winter Wonderland


By A. Craig Copetas

(Bloomberg) — There's no whiff of economic crisis in the winter wonderland built by luxury-goods magnate Bernard Arnault in the French ski town Courchevel 1850.

For 47,000 euros ($67,466), the chairman of Paris-based LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton SA can guarantee the sun rises at the Cheval Blanc hotel with a 1947 vintage bottle from famed Chateau Cheval Blanc in Bordeaux. Dawn also may be savored with a 220 euro "Dome of Black Truffles."

"Luxury's a natural experience for us," says the hotel's director general, Philippe Gourgaud. "You don't feel recession in our rooms."

The rest of the world may still be in the throes of the worst economic calamity since the Great Depression, just don't caw about the fallout with Cheval Blanc guests living in autarky. They may be pecking at Michelin three-star chef Yannick Alleno's supper of steamed pigeon with crushed cacao beans melted in carrot tops and mushrooms seasoned in Tonka beans.

The only inflation worry inside the coddled confines of Cheval Blanc is the helium pumped into the silver balloons that deliver bedtime chocolates to your room aboard a gondola. Hyperinflation is splendid excess. For 130,000 euros, sommelier Sebastian Labe will uncork a 1990 "nabuchodonosor" (20-bottles-in-one) of the 34-room hotel's namesake St. Emilion Premier Grand Cru Classe. (The chateau is co-owned by LVMH and Belgian billionaire Albert Frere.)

Luxury Dreams"There's no point when luxury becomes absurd," the 41-year-old Alleno says of the hotel's "haute couture experience," branded "nuits so chic" by Groupe Arnault's public-image consultants. "Man must dream at Cheval Blanc," Alleno says.

Concierge Jean-Baptiste Raud says man also must eat cake and, as was recently required of him, send a limousine on a 10-hour, 924-kilometer round-trip journey from Cheval Blanc to collect two fresh cream cakes at a Zurich bakery.

Need to be clipped? Push a button for the "notoriously chic" 700 euro "Hair Room Service by John Nollet," the barber behind actor Johnny Depp's coiffure in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie. Cheval Blanc's polo-shirt uniforms are woven from the dehaired underdown of cashmere goats.

The style is flamboyant at Cheval Blanc, where staff members are called "players" and clipped Cuban cigars and century-old Armagnac materialize inside a "genuine" Mongolian yurt festooned with Savoie roebuck antlers and photographs by Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld. Yet there's something mischievously comforting about a hotel that chills and pours tumblers of vodka atop a 10-foot-long bar chiseled from ice, followed by a rubdown for guests in the Givenchy "snow spa."

Sky RanchAbundant liquidity helps. Around $10,000 is essential for the 30-minute helicopter ride to Cheval Blanc from the Geneva airport. Gourgaud says there are no room discounts. Cheval Blanc's substantial private portfolio of guests keeps occupancy rates at 90 percent and they have no difficulty paying anywhere from 1,130 euros to 20,000 euros a night on a range of accommodations that stretch from a basic single with a maxibar full of Krug Champagne to a 650-square-meter duplex sky ranch.

The fifth-floor super suite's master bedroom has appendages that include a gym, massage room, sauna, steam room, Jacuzzi and a dressing room with eight closets and 84 drawers and shelves. There's a private elevator and the grand piano is tuned often.

"Some 20 percent of our guests are from Russia and Eastern Europe," the 37-year-old Gourgaud says. "The remainder are French and British. We have more Brazilians than we do Americans, and 80 percent of our clients are repeat visitors."

Billionaire GuestOne of Cheval Blanc's visitors in 2007 was Russian billionaire and New Jersey Nets basketball-team owner Mikhail Prokhorov, who French magistrates charged with running a prostitution ring in Courchevel. The charges were dropped last September. "All that was established was that Prokhorov and his friends had gotten together to celebrate the Russian New Year," Prokhorov's lawyers said in a written statement. "The detentions could have been avoided had our investigators lived a bit less in cliches."

Yet Cheval Blanc is a cliche, a dramaturgy of "tactile moments" and "perfumed pleasures," where guests—wearing dark glasses to avoid being recognized—wander the grounds as if they were installations in a museum. The curator of this show is Cheval Blanc chief protocol officer Marie-Claude Metrot.

"We deliver dreams," says Metrot, who tutors the staff in the Hollywood home of rap star 50 Cent and now trains Cheval Blanc's 115 players in the art of fulfilling fancies. "We don't let guests think," she adds. "We anticipate their desires."

Kanye WestBeyond Cheval Blanc's soundproof windows and removed from the gaze of the hotel's bronze teddy bears created by rapper Kanye West, satisfying those cravings can mean choreographing a downhill rumpus on Courchevel's 372 miles of ski trails. Guests also snowmobile on the landlocked Courchevel Yacht Club piste or ogle the outdoor exhibition of 14 Salvador Dali sculptures, including "Space Elephant" and "Woman in Flames."

Although Cheval Blanc isn't solely responsible for Courchevel's building boom of luxury hotels and private chalets, Arnault's elite December-through-April snow palace is given much of the credit for attracting the have-yacht crowd to the city whose motto is "White Powder Gold."

"Cheval Blanc is an important contribution to Courchevel's reputation and getting our more than 40 other hotels through the winter season," says Nathalie Faure, manager of the local tourist office. "When Bernard Arnault builds a hotel, believe me, it's good for the economy."

Wealthy GatheringMichel Benedetti, the 68-year-old chairman of regional construction company Benedetti SA, says Cheval Blanc's guests over the past three years have helped sustain the city as a gathering ground for the wealthy.

"Courchevel was once a small 19th-century village the Vichy regime made popular in 1942," says Benedetti, whose company maintains many of the city's ski slopes. "Now we redesign the pistes every year to keep them fashionable too."

Back in the kitchen, poring over a 195 euro chicken and a 120 euro turbot "deep fried in cuckoo pint," Alleno says that "buffet lunches and dinners are no longer chic."

Cheval Blanc is on a mission, Gourgaud says. "It's not easy," he frets. "If even one guest departs Cheval Blanc without memories, then we are crushed."

To contact the writer on the story: A. Craig Copetas in Paris at ccopetas@bloomberg.net.

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