Interview With Luxury Travel Expert and Tour Operator Marie Tesson, Founder of Exclusive France Tours

Exclusive France Tours: “We really believe in the importance of bringing France to life, of giving tourists experiences.”

Interview with Marie Tesson, founder of Exclusive France Tours : French version on TOURMAG website

For twenty years now, Marie Tesson has been welcoming top-of-the-range foreign clients to France to help them discover all the beauties of our beloved France. Personalized, friendly experiences, but at a very high level. Today, like the 200 or so inbound agencies specialising in France, her activity has come to a halt altogether. So, while waiting for the return of its clientele – mainly American – the agency is looking forward to the post-crisis period. Back on a back-and-forth exchange with a woman in love with France and her professional life.

Written by Anaïs BORIOS on Wednesday 13 May 2020

Marie Tesson began her career in tourism in Australia.

 

Then director of the French-Australian Chamber of Commerce in Sydney, she developed a passion for high-end events, organising events and receptions for VIPs.

Back to France at the end of the 90’s, and married to a winegrower, she settled in a wine estate in Gevrey-Chambertin, in the heart of Burgundy and very quickly positioned herself on the wine tourism scene.

In 2001, she created her first incoming agency, with a deep conviction to share and transmit her love for wine, terroir and French culture.

Little by little, clients’ requests became more specific. This prompted Marie to explore beyond Burgundy, and to imagine themes other than those around gastronomy and wine.

In 2016, she launches a new commercial brand: Exclusive France Tours, a high-end tourism agency for individuals and luxury events for companies.

Marie Tesson
Co-Founder of Exclusive France Tours
Marie Tesson launched Exclusive France Tours in 2016, a high-end tourism agency for individuals and luxury events for companies

How to sell France: “It requires some real expertise”

TourMaG.com – Marie Tesson, for nearly 20 years now you have been helping foreign customers discover France. Why did you choose this career whilst you were posted in Australia?

Marie Tesson: I love bringing joy and welcoming people, hence it was quite naturally and thanks to my previous experiences in Australia that I started welcoming clients in Burgundy in a very personalised, friendly way, but also at a very high level. I have always felt at ease in this environment.

I design a new program for each request, I work with service partners (guides, tour leaders, logistics professionals), it’s both very interesting and fascinating.

At the beginning, my offer was very much wine oriented, and focused on Burgundy. But, in response to inquiries, I quickly started to make customers go elsewhere: in Champagne, Provence, Bordeaux, the Loire Valley…

And then, by chance, I was led to invest in 2CVs for a Belgian insurance company. In six weeks, I set up a 2CV rental company in Beaune, 2CV Bourgogne Tours, and bought 12 cars. This brings a nice and authentic touch to the tours in Burgundy.

TourMaG.com – Most of the French incoming agencies specialized in the domestic offer offer sell only one region. How to properly sell France in general?

Marie Tesson: Getting to know a region professionally takes years and involves at least three to four inspection trips. You have to dig out the region and understand it geographically. That takes a lot of time and requires a significant know-how and a thorough network.

TourMaG.com – Do you only work with foreign clients?

Marie Tesson: Mostly American clients, yes. And then from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore.
Foreign clients easily spotted me, but I don’t have any connections with the French, apart from a business tourism clientele.

“U.S. Agencies are currently betting everything on 2021”

For Exclusive France Tours, each stay is unique and hand-stitched. Here, a wedding proposal in front of the Mont Saint-Michel – DR: EFT

TourMaG.com – So, you think it would be difficult for you to sell France to the locals this summer?

Marie Tesson: I don’t know if the French might be interested in my services, or maybe for weekends, birthdays or family events. And for a targeted fringe of customers with very high-end demands, which should be impacted to a lesser extent by the drop in spending power. I think that these customers will always be able to afford to travel, with perhaps slightly less extraordinary requests.

But I hope to be able to attract European customers or to build partnerships with European agencies. I have to hold out at least until March 2021.

 

TourMaG.com – Have you had any new inquiries from customers in these last few weeks?

Marie Tesson: No, since March 12, 2020, no new requests as such – whereas we usually have two to five a day.
On the other hand, we have been contacted by some American agencies who are preparing for “The New Normal”: they are in the process of adapting their tourism offer by integrating the changes brought about by the Covid-19 crisis.

Some of them are already operating in Europe and are looking for inspiring and reassuring products. Others want to diversify their offers, which until now have been focused on cruises.

Customers who were expected to come in 2020 have postponed either to August/September or to 2021, whether they are individuals with whom we had direct contact or agencies. The American agencies are currently betting everything on 2021, with some hope of selling a few stays at the end of the year.

As far as corporate tourism is concerned, I was pleasantly surprised by the confirmation a few days ago of a seminar over several days at the end of September for about fifty people.

Of course, we are working on the sanitary measures to be implemented, but this is not a hindrance to holding this seminar, these are procedures that are socially endorsed by our client.

A Manual of Good Practices common to the whole industry

TourMaG.com – On this subject, are you working on new sanitary procedures to be implemented?

Marie Tesson: We are working on new procedures with our key business partners, whether they are hotels, restaurants, lecturered guides, private drivers, bus companies or tour leaders.

I find that they have reacted quickly to these new constraints. They are committed to protecting our clients. Now we need to wait and see what this implementation will involve…

In my opinion, this cannot be achieved without an industry-wide European Manual of Good Practices – such as the handbook that the Americans are currently working on “Travel in the New Normal”, under the supervision of the US Travel Association and in conjunction with government representatives, the tourism industry and medical authorities.

I understand that the European Community is working on a similar project, as is France.

I hope there will be some harmonization between what the European Community and the EU members states are planning, for more consistency and ease in implementing these procedures.

 

TourMaG.com – How do you see the post lockdown with no reopening as of now of hotels, cafes, restaurants, beaches, festivals, tourist sites, and so on?

Marie Tesson: First of all, we need a reopening date for the restaurants. As long as the restaurants are not allowed to reopen, there cannot be any upturn in tourism, even Franco-French tourism.

TourMaG.com – How do you see the post lockdown with no reopening as of now of hotels, cafes, restaurants, beaches, festivals, tourist sites, etc.?

Marie Tesson: First of all, we need a reopening date for the restaurants. As long as the restaurants are not allowed to reopen, there cannot be any upturn in tourism, even Franco-French tourism.

It is obvious that, for all those involved in tourism, the first weeks of post lockdown will enable us to keep on building up for the future welcome of tourists, whether they are French or from abroad.

Most of our business partners have already had this reflection and are in the process of putting in place the necessary measures to provide, each in their own profession, a maximum level of health security.

The most difficult thing is the absence of a framework, of specific guidelines at the governmental or professional level. Indeed, apart from the general industry sheets available on the Ministry of Labour’s website, there is nothing. As a result, everyone has taken the initiative to act at the best they can.

“The task is more complex for independent hotels”

Hotels – especially luxury hotels – communicate extensively about the measures they intend to take.

Many hotel groups and associations work on developing a hospitality protocol for welcoming their guests: Relais & Châteaux, Michel Reybier Hospitality, ACCOR, BRITT…

The task is more complex for independent hotels, which have to sort it out themselves, without the support of a collective approach.

Some hotels and restaurants tell me that they fear the recommendations which the Government might want them to implement would be too restrictive to allow them to operate in an economically viable way. Will there be a 24 hour time frame for re-renting a room? Will some restaurants be required to cut back on the number of seats to meet security measures?

Yet, beyond any regulatory issues, most of them have been responding proactively to the situation and have come up with new services; therefore, the tourist offer will also become richer and more attractive. Many are questioning themselves in order to better satisfy their clients, always in the light of requirements arising from the crisis.

Once the date for the restaurants to reopen will be confirmed, and provided that the measures required by the government will be achievable and realistic enough, Franco-French tourism will slowly restart, followed by tourists from neighbouring countries.

It seems very likely that luxury tourism professionals will be able to quickly reassure customers looking for high-end and exclusive services, and the recovery should spontaneously work out well for them.

TourMaG.com – And at your level?

Marie Tesson: At my agency, we first of all thought about what the Covid-19 situation would entail and what would be the reasons that would make our clients – mostly American and Asian – want to come back.

We thus decided to communicate on the measures taken in France by the government and tourism professionals to welcome customers, and to offer them maximum sanitary safety. We explain clearly that our partners have already well integrated these new constraints, to make you feel safe.

But we are also going to identify our itineraries most likely to interest our potential customers. For example, we have created a News page on our site.

Finally, we are highlighting the specificity of our top-of-the-range tailor-made trips, far away from mass tourism.

Thus, we insist on the fact that respecting social distancing is not a real challenge for us, since we have been offering totally private experiences for more than 20 years, far from the crowds and off the beaten track.

chauffeured vehicle, private villa, chef at home… These services are part of what we offer on a regular basis. The seriousness of the Covid-19 crisis pushes us to go even further to ensure that our trips are carried out in complete safety, by scrupulously following the instructions and health measures.

This is why we publish during this period a bi-monthly newsletter which covers a number of these different subjects, with a touch of inspiration through short videos on some of the trips we have made in the past. (See video below).

“We need to work together to overcome this crisis.”

TourMaG.com – Aren’t you afraid that some tourism actors will decide this summer to use a ” System D ” and to make proposals to customers directly among themselves, forgetting the receptive agencies?

Marie Tesson: I can only talk about what concerns my agency: the profile of our clientele presupposes elaborate services, tailored to each client, down to the last detail – and therefore in consultation with our partners. That’s the reason why it’s a real collaboration between us.

Our partners need us as much as we need them, and this period only strengthens these strong ties between us.

We are constantly seeking to create beautiful products that match our customers and highlight the specificities of each of our partners. We need to work together to overcome this crisis and that is what we are doing.

For example, we are in the process of setting up trips with certain hoteliers by using their assets and building a whole programme around them, their economic situation and going even further than before. It is together that we will be able to attract a clientele that suits us. We act together.

TourMaG.com – During these challenging times, did you feel supported by the French government? Did you receive any help?

Marie Tesson: Yes, we received help from the Solidarity Fund, and we intend to reapply for it in April.

TourMaG.com – You are a member of the receptive agencies network France Private Travels. Have you been consulted at your level or that of the network by the Government, Atout France or any other public structure?

Marie Tesson: No, absolutely not. The problem for us, receptive agencies, is that we are part of the “travel agency” profession, without having a dedicated representation.

Many people don’t even know that we have the specificity of being solely dedicated to France.

How can institutions give us any consideration since, in their eyes, we only exist as a travel agency, nothing more?

Then, you can imagine at the governmental level: there is not even a designated Minister of Tourism! To be aware of and subsequently take into consideration the specificities of each category of tourism professionals is thus science fiction for them.

“Giving a very human dimension to everything we do”

Personalized artisanal ice-cream making workshop. This is just one example among many of the services provided by Exclusive France Tours

TourMaG.com – Do you have any feedback on the situation in the USA via your tour operator partners?

Marie Tesson: The TOs and US agencies are waiting for 3 things :

  • To find out when the borders will reopen;
  • To be reassured on the conditions of entry into France. For example, will there be or not a quarantine imposed on entry into the territory for non-EC nationals? As of when will we be able to enter the territory freely, without any restrictions on movement?
  • To identify the health measures taken by each country to welcome tourists.

The receptive agency has an important role in communication and will be the guarantor, in the eyes of the clients, of the respect of the sanitary measures – we will have to protect ourselves in terms of our Civil Liability by specifying in our general conditions of sale that we cannot be held responsible if a customer contracts the Covid-19 during his stay, in the same way as a terrorist attack.

Once the date of the reopening of the borders is announced, the sales could start again, not before.

Then, it will be immediately necessary to reassure about the conditions of reception of tourists in France, this is what the American TO ask us. They believe that group travel will not resume immediately – it will be more like FIT.

It makes sense to promote “reassuring” destinations outside the major cities. This is what my agency has been proposing for 20 years, so it does not represent a revolution for us – we just need to integrate an even greater level of social distancing, enhanced for a while by additional precautions and health measures common to all.

 

TourMaG.com – How do you envision tourism after the Covid-19 crisis?

Marie Tesson: I think that we will be able to attract customers primarily by offering them experiences and encounters.

Whether it be the French, Europeans, Asians or Americans, there is a benevolence, empathy and sharing that needs to be brought to the forefront, given the crisis that we have gone through.

Some travellers will have experienced serious health problems, many will have avoided bankruptcy or major economic difficulties. Earlier values such as globalization and immediate consumption, which had become everyday values, will no longer be, at least for a while. This will make it possible to reflect on real values and real aspirations.

When we live in a world where everything is available, we can no longer even think about the reasons for consuming. This situation should put human beings back at the centre of many things, hence the importance of giving a very human dimension to everything we do, whether in tourism or elsewhere. This is already the case for Exclusive France Tours, but it reinforces my ideas and will encourage me to develop it even more.

Nothing is possible without human beings and discovering something without interaction is totally sterile.

France is a country with an incredible cultural, historical, human, gastronomic and wine heritage. Everything is always very different.

We are incredibly lucky and we must bring out all this potential, and not just in a contemplative way. We really need to bring France to life, to give tourists experiences, and not just show them things.

 

Published by Anaïs Borios Journalist – TourMaG.com

Contact us



Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join our mailing list to receive the latest news and updates from our team.

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Contact