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INTERVIEW – FABIEN PIACENTINO, GENERAL MANAGER, LE COUVENT DES MINIMES : "A FANTASTIC ONCE-IN-A-LIFETIME ADVENTURE" (France)

"We didn't just change the wallpaper. We redid everything, the networks, the walls. We only left the historical walls, the structure. We cleaned up everything to start again from an almost blank sheet of paper"

INTERVIEW – FABIEN PIACENTINO, GENERAL MANAGER, LE COUVENT DES MINIMES : "A FANTASTIC ONCE-IN-A-LIFETIME ADVENTURE" (France)

"We didn't just change the wallpaper. We redid everything, the networks, the walls. We only left the historical walls, the structure. We cleaned up everything to start again from an almost blank sheet of paper"

Category: Europe - France - Industry economy - Interviews and portraits vRenovation / Addition - Interviews
Interview made by Christopher Buet on 2023-04-28


It is hard to imagine that in a few weeks the place will be cleaned and ready to welcome customers. Hundreds of people are still working in the four corners of the domain to add the final touches to the decor. An impressive broom of craftsmen, coming from all horizons, to participate in a unique construction site.

For three years, the Couvent des Minimes has been closed to undergo its most important transformation, the one that will make it definitively enter its time, ready to face decades to come. Of the building erected in the 17th century, only the walls have been preserved. For the rest, Fabien Piacentino decided to wipe it all, to rethink everything to invent a new history within the old one. A story that is fundamentally eco-responsible, authentic and simple, but not without ambition.

For the former religious house claims a certain standing and has given itself the means to do so. ”It's going to be a beautiful house and a great moment to show it off. This kind of event in one's life is shared with joy and happiness,” said the master of the house, already excited to show off this new temple dedicated to the well-being of body and soul. It is this impatience to receive guests once again that has motivated this reopening, even if i twill be in two stages.

As of June, 34 of the 49 rooms will be accessible, while the entire domain will only really open in the fall with the inauguration of a monumental spa, the new flagship of L'Occitane. A way to renew the thread of hospitality and make the pleasure last.

The tall, dark-haired man with the charm and elegance of an Italian man, took his time to talk about this beautiful project and to share his vision of hospitality, luxury, and life in general with the Journal des Palaces. Between the hills of Provence, where the sun is generous and silence is a precious companion, the former religious house is already buzzing about its upcoming reopening, in June 23th.

Journal des Palaces : You are coming to the end of several years of work, and next June, you will open 34 of your 49 rooms in the old part of the convent. What does this step represent for you?

Fabien Piacentino: We say to ourselves that finally, we are going to make it. It's been almost three years since we closed, three years of work, three years that I've been doing something other than my favourite job and learning a new one.

The first on-site meetings, I was like a little child in a scientists’ meeting. Over time, I learned some basic vocabulary. We are seeing the first stage of the rocket.

Why will you open partially in June and totally in October?

The ideal would have been to open everything at the same time, but a construction site of this magnitude does not go off easily. We had a lot of little delays, which means that today we are going to open our 34 rooms with our two restaurants and a semi-Olympic pool. Opening partially is the fastest way to get people back in the hotel.

We could have chosen to let the hotel close this summer, but we all decided that we had to have a normal season with our clients. It was a new challenge because we had to find all our employees, which is almost mission accomplished. I have found some very nice people in this new team. Le Couvent des Minimes will be, for three months, like the Unfinished Symphony (by Franz Schubert).

We are aware of the inconvenience that this may cause, but the pleasure of a hotelier and his team will be to erase the small inconveniences with many beautiful surprises. And this fall, we’ll open the most incredible part because the spa will be just crazy.

How did the work go?

We are a heritage site, but not listed as a historical monument. We did a construction site on a convent from 1613. We had to file building permits for the work on the historic base and a new base. We had building permits, demolition permits, work permits, agreements with architects of "Bâtiments de France", the prefecture.

All this took place against the backdrop of Covid with the second containment and as if we hadn't had enough, there was the war in Ukraine, which raised the price of materials, raw materials, and the scarcity of certain parts.

It was a fantastic adventure that happens only once in a lifetime. It was very stressful, tiring, but very motivating because we are at the base of everything. We think about everything. It's pretty cool to build a hotel like this.

What trades did you work with?

First, we worked with the Swiss architectural firm De Planta. We hired a general contractor, Bouygues Bâtiment du Sud-Est, and then we brought in all the possible trades, from the carpenter to the bricklayer, from the tiler to the acoustician, from the upholsterer to the gardener…

There must have been about 40 or 50 trades. I am the delegated project manager for the site. There are many companies that I hired directly for budgetary reasons, but also for efficiency.

How many people were mobilized on the site?

Today, according to Bouygues' figures, there are 250 workers.

Was it difficult for you to make your mark in a world that was not your own?

I know how to impose myself and when I’m there, I’m seen and heard. But it was difficult, and it still is because it’s not my job and when people discuss technical matters, I often remind them that I went to business school and not to Les Ponts et Chaussées.

Afterwards, I'm not going to teach them their job. It's management, human management. If we start out with the idea that we aren’t partners, we haven’t understood anything. We can have disagreements, but we work together. I was saying to my wife the other day that maybe I'll miss all this when we're reopened.

Was being a project manager the ideal position to achieve what you wanted?

A lot of hoteliers come in once work is done, but I couldn't imagine myself not being a part of everything that was done. I was consulted on plenty of things and my presence facilitated many choices for the architect, both in terms of materials and customer expectations…

Then, I like it, and I'm with my wife. Even at the worst of the confinement, I kept my collaborators, notably my technical director, my administrative and financial manager. We were a small core group still thinking about the hotel business.

Is this the first time you have built a hotel from scratch?

When I was in the West Indies in Saint-Martin, I participated in the reconstruction of my establishment, which had been destroyed by hurricane Luis in 1995. Every time I've been somewhere, I've done some work, but this time I must admit that we did a lot.

Why was this project more important than the others?

We didn't just change the wallpaper. We redid everything, the networks, the walls. We only left the historical walls, the structure. We cleaned up everything to start again from an almost blank sheet of paper, with wastewater and rainwater networks and electricity to be redone.

We brought down entire buildings to rebuild them. I didn't know that to build, you needed so many design firms. There were a lot of steps that I didn't know about.

During the construction, you discovered frescoes from the 17th century. Were you surprised?

When you're working on a historic building, the law requires you to do archaeological research. Bâtiments de France came, and I told them that there was little chance of finding anything on the site because research had already been done in 2008 during the first renovation.

What we didn't know was that while scraping and testing the walls, they found two beautiful frescos that will be preserved. We have an early 17th century Virgin and Child that cannot be moved and will remain in a room. It’s being restored before being put under glass on its original base. The second one was quite surprising because we would have said that the architect had drawn a sketch. It’s a kind of column with its foot and its capital on an ochre-yellow background. We were able to remove it from the wall, and it is being renovated and reassembled by the archaeologist Erwan Dantec. We’ll also put it under glass, but we don't know where yet.

Le Couvent des Minimes is a small building with a beautiful history. Bâtiments de France, in exchange for research that we financed, will provide us with a booklet with the whole history of the place. They found in the archives of the Diocese of Digne (50 km away), entire books where the sisters, who returned to the convent around 1860, wrote day by day what they were doing and what was happening.

Another exceptional discovery, in short.

In the luxury hotel, we do the cover service in the evening. We freshen up the room, open the bed, and often leave a little something for the guest. If it's really what I think it is, that we have a whole year's worth of writing, and it looks like years.

I'd love to put on a piece of paper what a Sister as doing on the day, but in 1875. I like to keep all this, to put forward the heritage of the place. We tell a real story, the authentic.

What spirit did you try to give to the rooms and to the hotel in general?

An authentic and relaxed Provence.

This fall, you will be opening a new spa. Can you tell us more about it?

It's a spa L'Occitane. It will be a unique, rather crazy place with more than 2.500 m² of client space, with ten treatment rooms, eight singles and two doubles.

We’ll have at the same time a spa, a treatment centre and a wellness centre with sports coaching, dietetic and nutritional proposals with speakers. We’ll have yoga, muscular awakenings, cocooning places to watch nature next to the fireplace, cold and hot baths, a salt grotto, a boutique, a herbalist shop that will also be a healthy bar.

Louis Gachet, recruited in October 2022, will manage all the food outlets. The decor will be very sober with only natural materials.

You seem to want to attract people beyond the summer period.

Our whole approach with the spa is to bring in people from all over, to give them a program lasting from one to ten days to give them an experience based on care and the discovery of Provence.

A gritty Provence, that of Giono, the French writer. We really want to tell our clients that Provence is summer, when the weather is beautiful and hot with cicadas, but also spring, fall and winter with lots of things to experience, more intimate.

The emphasis has also been placed on a responsible and sustainable offer.

Everything environmental, ecological, green, natural, organic, we were already there.

We’ve always been careful about what we put on our plates, about not wasting more than necessary, and we’ve exacerbated this with the work. For example, we chose the geothermal option for heating and cooling the entire property. It's an additional cost in terms of investment, but it's a smaller carbon footprint, and we are closer to nature.

We work a lot with local producers. We don't have to go out of our way to find natural things because we live in. We aren’t fanatical or relentless, we also work with farmers who are not necessarily stamped organic but who produce products of exceptional quality.

You mentioned earlier that you had almost finished recruiting your teams. What is the exact status of your needs in terms of employees?

90% of the staff has been found. I can open the hotel because I have all my pillars. I am proud of that.

We have also completely revised our social plan on how to attract people, what to give them and what not. We’ve created a position of internal relations manager, who is responsible for recruitment, staff reception, and the company's image. His role is to make the employees of Le Couvent des Minimes feel almost at home, with a human work environment.

Your establishment is also a family affair.

It's a family affair with my wife, our two sons, Romain and Maxime, and their partners, Mathilde and Camille. We’re used to working together.

We’ve been doing this for 30 years with my wife, and we’re still very close. Our boys grew up in the hotel business and when he was little, Romain said that when he grew up, he wanted to be like dad but in Las Vegas. They both went to hotel school and worked at Le Couvent des Minimes where they found their wives. It's more than a hotel, it's a home.

How does your duo with wife work, and why did you choose to work together?

Family, for me, is sacred. If you take my wife away from me, you take half of me away. We sometimes argue, but mostly we complement each other. There is an unshakeable trust between us.

There are other stories like ours. I think of Michel Guérard, his wife and his two daughters who built an empire.

You have a very rich background. Tell us more about yourself.

My background is atypical. I didn’t come from a hotel school, I went to business school, and I was not predestined to be a hotelier.

As a child, as far as I can remember, I loved two things: having people around at home and helping to prepare meals with my grandmother. I started my career in the retail industry at Carrefour. It was a field I liked because there was action. It was not an office job. I was a manager with responsibilities and a clear future.

One day, my store manager told me that he wanted to send me to Évry. My wife was pregnant with our second child and I didn’t accept because I didn’t want to raise my children in Paris. If the hotel business is a difficult job, supermarket distribution is 10 times. I left Carrefour.

What did you do?

My best friend was a hotelier after having attended the École Hôtelière de Lausanne. He was in Saint-Martin, in the West Indies, at the time. I called him and asked him what he thought of my resume as a multilingual salesman for the hotel industry. He asked me to come, at worst it would be a 10-day holiday, at best I would find a job. I went alone and on the second last day, I was told that a hotel was looking for an operations manager. I didn't think I had skills, but they insisted I go.

I met with the owner, an American. The meeting was supposed to last 15 minutes. It lasted two hours. We liked each other and, as the American she is, she told me she wanted me and asked me when I could start. I then called my wife, we were in 1993, and I told her about the proposal to take over a 140-room hotel on the beach in Saint-Martin. My wife being an only child, Romain was one and a half years old, Maxime two months, she told me to accept. I returned to Nice and spent two weeks at the airport in the Occidental hotel, a Spanish chain, to do a kind of internship because I knew absolutely nothing about the hotel business.

How was the experience in Saint-Martin?

I was 26-27 years old and I had a hard time. I stayed for two months and when I saw the owner, Louise, I asked her if I could bring my family.She validated my trial period and we left for the West Indies without knowing for how long. We stayed there for almost ten years. We spent some fabulous years, and then the children started to want to see grandma and grandpa and go to the mountains...

By chance, I had a friend who called me to tell me that he was looking for a director in Orcières-Merlette in the resort, and then I went to Les Arcs, to Valmorel.

How did you get to Disneyland Paris, you who refused Paris region before?

I’ve another friend from Saint-Martin who had joined an Austrian group and who told me that they had bought a hotel at Disney. He asked me if I would be interested. I agreed, so I went to Prague to meet the president of the group. We agreed, and I went to Disneyland Paris to manage a 400-room hotel. A few years later, the group bought another hotel and I found myself with 800 rooms to manage.

At the same time, I went to Bucharest (Romania) where I helped a struggling general manager. I spent the week there and the weekend in Paris. We got tired of Paris and one day, a person working for L'Occitane with whom I had installed all the bottles in the bathrooms, told me that his boss had just bought a hotel in Provence. I told him that if he was looking for a manager, I was interested. Three years later, he asked me if I was still interested.

What happened then?

I metReynold Geiger, CEO of L'Occitane, with my wife, and he invited us to visit the convent, telling us that if we liked it, it would be ours. In November 2012, we drove down to Provence, the weather was not very nice. I discovered the convent and told my wife, "This is my home and if I don't have it, I'll cry tears of blood."

We arrived on February 28, 2013. It's been over 10 years and the happiness is still there, as is the desire to do well. In 2014, I did some initial work there, in 2015 the same and these are the climax where we broke everything to redo everything.

What a journey...

The story continues to be written. Frankly, if someone asked me if I would do the same thing again, I would say yes. I wanted to be in the hotel business. I like meeting people, living in this luxury that is a bit different.

In the hotel business, we experience different things. It's not even a job, it's my passion. Being a hotelier is a passionate job. If you're not, you have to do something else. If you come to the hotel business to make money, you haven't chosen the right industry.

We are hoteliers because we love people and life. I am very attached to the people I work with. This family is also very important. We are sellers of happiness, creators of emotions. We love the beautiful, the well done. We are perfectionists.

How would you define your personality?

I am Mediterranean, not necessarily the calmest of characters but I’m anything but mean. I don't hide, I often react with my heart.

What do you keep from all your past experiences that still helps you today?

Flexibility and adaptability. I tried to give that as a value to my children. I went from the retail industry to the hotel industry. I wasn't good at the beginning, and I think I'm not too bad after all. I think I also keep in mind that you shouldn't take yourself for who you are not. In the end, I don't know if I learned something or if I had it in me. But what I’m sure of is that I’ve changed.

When I was younger, I was more into appearances. I wanted to be someone who mattered. I wanted to be the church in the middle of the village. My grandmother always called me Garibaldi. I’m never better than when I have people in front of me. When I was in the Alps, it was club-hotels and I sometimes sang, did theatre, parodies of Ringo Starr, the Bee Gees with wigs and makeup. I don't know if I learned anything or if I had it all in me.

Would you say that the person who recruited you in Saint-Martin is the most important person in your professional life? Why or why not?

Without Louise, I wouldn't have got anywhere. If she hadn't sensed the potential (in me) and made the kind of bets that Americans do... She has shaped my entire professional life.

Today, when I interview someone, I hardly look at the CV and I ask the person what he or she is capable to do, to sell themselves for tomorrow.

Which personality inspires you by his positive and innovative vision ?

Two people inspire me: Olivier Baussan,creator of L'Occitane, who is an exceptional man in his capacity to innovate and create. He is a visionary.

The second is Reynold Geiger, president of L'Occitane and owner of Le Couvent des Minimes. He has an incredible vision for the company.

I love life paths, and they are not born with silver spoons in their mouths. They are entrepreneurs and I believe that in every hotelier, there is one.

What is your relationship with Reynold Geiger on a daily basis?

We have a transparent, effortless and healthy relationship. He gave me the keys to the hotel, he made me a part of the capital. I think that L'Occitane could be a hotel brand with hotels in the world because it is also a way of life. The effect of an opening can create an induced effect…

What is your vision of luxury?

Our definition of luxury with my wife Valerie is simplicity, which isn’t new. We don't really believe in bending over backwards or making a fuss. Our DNA is to please, to listen and to serve our customers and our staff.

We don't like this hotel business where you have to back down in front of the customer. Luxury is to receive and make them feel comfortable without forgetting that they are customers, but to make them have a good time. And for that, you have to be simple, authentic and real, not a bunch of yes-men who are going to do the slightest thing.

We've all had meals in starred restaurants with people who watch you eat and as soon as you raise your arm, they're there for you. That's one vision of luxury, but mine is simpler, more natural.

The customers have to feel that we are there without feeling that we are there. They shouldn’t have the feeling of being in a hotel school. It isn’t obvious. We know how to do a play, we know how to set everything in music, we know how to prepare for the arrival of the customers, but the best actor is the one who gives the impression of doing it without looking like an actor.

What advice would you give to a young person who wants to work in the luxury hotel sector?

First, I would tell him that he should go into the hotel business, whether it is luxury or not. Luxury is a plus.
If you are passionate, you will succeed, but it isn’t easy. You must not look at the clock, you must have ideas. Entering the hotel business is a life.

More about...
Le Couvent des Minimes Hôtel & Spa
Chemin des Jeux de Maï
04300 Mane-en-Provence
France
Member of Relais et Châteaux in 2024
Number of rooms and suites: 46
Website
https://www.facebook.com/hotelcouventdesminimes  https://twitter.com/CouventMinimes  https://www.instagram.com/hotelcouventdesminimes  




About the author

A journalist with many skills and an ever curious traveller, Christopher has a great attraction for carefully refined hotels, where characterful gastronomy, impeccable service and sincere elegance go hand in hand. A discreet and gourmet pen at the service of a certain idea of luxury.

Read articles by this author


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