For the opening events of the 2023 Cannes Film Festival this weekend, film industry A-listers will descend on the French Riviera—and many of them will check into the Carlton Cannes, a Belle Époque hotel with a cream-colored exterior that’s said to be one of the most photographed grande dames in the world.
The Carlton, which opened as the first luxury hotel in Cannes in 1913—and whose towering marble columns had collected a little too much dust in past decades—has just completed a major transformation. (The undisclosed cost is the subject of much speculation.) AFAR’s recent in-depth review of the hotel reports two new wings, a sprawling Mediterranean garden, and a fitness center with the city’s first boxing ring. Gone are the false ceilings and layers of paint that hid original marble details. Ornate Murano glass chandeliers now illuminate the public spaces.
What’s certain is that the Carlton Cannes is the new “it” hotel of La Croisette, the polished beachside boulevard that hugs the Mediterranean coast. To date, it’s also one of the most high-profile examples of IHG’s newly invigorated Regent brand, which will also debut in Santa Monica and Bali this year.
I was in Cannes last December and was lucky enough to get a hardhat tour of the renovation with Tom Rowntree, the vice president of global luxury brands for IHG. As a former guest of what was once the InterContinental Carlton Cannes, I was floored by the transformation, including the grand-but-intimate lobby, which leads to a handsome bar and a serene garden. The guest rooms are centered on the postcard-worthy Med views that have mesmerized me at every stay.
As AFAR’s resident hotel expert, I was dying to know what it was like to take over the stewardship of an icon and not just update it but also shape the hospitality experience for a new generation of luxury travelers through Regent’s lens. To get some answers, I caught up with Rowntree to hear more about the rebirth of the Carlton Cannes, a Regent Hotel—and how the 50-year-old Regent brand is getting a second life, too.
Jennifer Flowers: The Cannes Film Festival is right around the corner. What’s the vibe like right now at the Carlton Cannes?
Tom Rowntree: It’s an exciting vibe, I have to say, and the hotel team is thrilled. The Cannes Film Festival is what Cannes is synonymous with, and a lot of the stars are returning to the Carlton Cannes reborn. The Cannes Film Festival’s official opening dinner will be taking place at the Carlton Cannes on the 16th, and then on the 17th we’re hosting the Carlton Cannes opening party, which is going to be quite spectacular—about 500 people are attending.
Why is the Carlton Cannes such an important hotel opening for the city?
What you have with the Carlton Cannes is the reinvestment behind a national monument in some respects to ensure that it endures for generations to come. It’s an incredibly historic building. As a result, loads of phenomenal craftsmanship went into that hotel. For example, the work that was done on reconditioning all the chandeliers in the grand salon, we used the same people who did all the chandeliers in the Palace of Versailles.
I loved how the lobby had a sense of arrival in a special place without feeling overwhelming.
One of the design concepts for the lobby is what we call intimate grandeur. So how can you be in this beautiful grand space but make it feel very intimate? We do that through what we call the beauty of contrast. When you get those contrasting elements, that’s when your senses are heightened. When you’re in the garden area, for example, it’s designed to give an element of serenity, and it contrasts with the vibrancy you get on the Croisette or in the beach clubs. The role that the hotel plays is to put the guests in the perfect mindset so they can truly enjoy the beauty of the world around them and the world that they want to be in.
One of my favorite details in the guest rooms are the chaise lounges that face the sea. What went into that decision?
How many hotels do you walk into where you’ve got these stunning views, but the sofas are oriented into the room toward the door? At the Carlton Cannes, the sofas are facing out to this sensational view, and we have reading materials adjacent to that seat that are all inspired by Provence, by the Mediterranean, by the sea itself. We know that someone’s going to sit there, probably watching the sunset and relaxing after they’ve had a busy day at the beach or wherever it might be in Cannes.
This is a design element within the Regent brand called a “personal haven” that’s basically a seating area. But what we’ve looked at is why the guest is sitting in that area. What is it they’re going to be doing in that space, and then how do we design that space? [This element] will show up a bit differently in every single hotel. In Hong Kong, it’s a daybed in the window looking out over Victoria Harbor. Each hotel has five or six of these personal havens—the guest room bathrooms, swimming pool, cabanas, the bar—which are all then programmed beautifully based on why the guest is there.
What is the origin story of the Regent brand?
The brand was founded in the 1970s. What the Regent brand did, from its origins in Hawai‘i and then Hong Kong, was it took the very best of Eastern service principles and then took the very best of Western design principles at that time, bringing the two of those together to really reinvent the traditional luxury space at the time. The brand came in with some bold new firsts that changed the way customers interacted with luxury hotels. On the one side, it was through service, which took the traditional cues of luxury service and overlaid them with massive amounts of personalization. And then it took the design elements and made them more customer-centric at that time. Regent created standards that live in luxury hotels today, such as five-fixture bathrooms with separate baths and showers. Villa hotels with private pools were created by the Regent brand, as well.
Tell me about one new approach to Regent’s hospitality.
Regent is designed to be very guest centric. I know all brands say that, but we’re taking it beyond focusing on the destination, and we’re thinking about the mindset of the guests. We created a function called “experience agents.” This came from insights that very often hotels will give great service to the guests, but the way that the guests run their lives is often with support systems. So it might be personal assistants, office managers, luxury travel agents. We need to be making sure we’re giving our service to the luxury travel agent or to the personal assistant as much as to the guests. A great example would be if you are staying in a hotel, and you’ve got your assistant or advisor that’s booked your car at 10 o’clock tomorrow morning. Rather than disrupt the traveler’s experience by asking them to confirm the car, we have an experience agent who connects with the luxury travel agent or the admin before arrival to handle that, and they remain in contact with the organizers all the way through the stay.
What’s in the pipeline for the brand?
We have eight hotels open and eight hotels in our pipeline, and that’s a blend of urban hotels such as Hong Kong, urban resorts like Santa Monica, and then true resort hotels like Phu Quoc, Vietnam, and Bali, which is opening at the end of 2023. We have an ambition to have about 40 hotels and resorts in key gateway cities and resort destinations around the world in the next few years. But we also want to innovate in the traditional luxury space for today’s luxury consumer.