Castles in the air…

“Who needs a castle? Surely not a courageous man! Who needs a guard? Surely not a brave man! Who needs a gun? Surely not a strong man! Cowards need castles, they need guards and guns, simply because they are weak and chicken hearted!”
― Mehmet Murat ildan

The history of the Chateau de la Rochepot in Burgundy summarizes the rich and illustrious history of this important French region, home to the Dukes of Burgundy.

 

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La Rochepot (pronounced “Rochepoe”) dates back to the 13th century. Originally a medieval fortress with glazed tiles, it was the home of the Lords Pot, kights of the Golden Fleece and advisers of the Dukes of Burgundy. The fortress was destroyed during the French Revolution and was bought by the wife of the President of the Republic Sadi Carnot for her son in 1893. He too was called Sadi Carnot and excelled as an officer in the French army during the second world war.

He had an unparalleled passion for history and with the help of the famous architect Charles Suisse (and a lot of cheap labour) restored it identically, using excavations and archive documents. Its features include a drawbridge, barbican, walkway etc and is considered to be the last great example of Gothic Revival architecture in France.

Until 2015, the castle was still owned by a member of the Carnot dynasty – Sylvie Carnot – granddaughter of Sadi Carnot. Although the price was not communicated, it was apparently sold for around 30 million euros. The chateau was on the market for quite some time (3 years) before a buyer came forward.

The village of la Rochepot was concerned that the new owners could be Chinese or Russian and would close the 3rd most visited monument in Burgundy. As it happens, the chinese bid was rejected and the new owners, a consortium of investors from Ukraine, Lithuania & Moldavia (so effectively not Russian) took possession.

In an article in a regional paper that dates back to August 2012, date when the chateau officially went on the market, locals, including the mayor, Jerome Billard, expressed their worry over the future of the chateau. Everyone hoped that the chateau would not become the second home of a rich foreigner.

Well, three years later it has…

But the good news is that it won’t be closed to visitors…yet.

At first view, the future rehabilitation projects are favourable to the image the chateau conveys: controlled deforestation to enhance views, future construction of a truffle zone with restaurant and terrace, purchase of an abandonned hotel in the village, the chateau’s own wine brand. The owners even went to an auction to buy back 80% of the books that belonged to Sadi carnot and that were kept in his library, until they were mysteriously auctioned by Sylvie Carnot. Sounds exciting.

But what is behind the “forest that hides the tree”, as the famous French expression implies?

I was mandated to assess the wine tourism potential at the chateau, by one of the owners, a certain “Dimitri”. At first it became apparent that the owners had a love and respect for the local culture and traditions and had some ambitious projects for the chateau. But I soon realized that under these admirable intentions, lay other objectives: notably to tranform the chateau into a Disneyland for the rich. “Well,” I can hear you say, “they are the owners, so they can do what they want, can’t they?”

There is a kind of moral obligation to repect the castle and its historical interest for visitors. In my opinion, either you buy the chateau and keep it for yourself (close it to the public) as a main residence, or you buy it with the intention of sharing it with the public and turn it into a small profit-making venture.

I believe our investors are having trouble finding the right strategy. Their vision is not clear. They use it (almost) as a private chateau, whilst still keeping it open, if somewhat reluctantly, to the public. They have purchased 50 terrace chairs at 1500€ per chair and tables that are too small for two plates, glasses and a bread basket, barbecues at 2000€ that are hardly ever used. This is not what you really need for normal castle tourists that want to buy a sandwich, a soda and some toys for the kids.

When they first put out the chairs and tables on the snack restaurant terrace (yes its just a snack), clients asked if they had any plastic chairs, which they said, were more comfortable! So they went and bought 50 plastic chairs…

When digging a little deeper, I saw the long-term ambition, which the owner later admitted to me – less visitors and more high net-worth clients. Hence the new wine tasting room with its chic 20,000€ tasting table – transparent glass and dubious paintings dipicting a wine glass surrounded by “floating jellybabies”!

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I’m all for targeting a wealthy market, but will it provide day-to-day employment for the guides? Should you not pander to the everyday visitors that bring you your annual revenue? Why not improve the current guided tour and make it a little more dynamic, especially with the “story telling” aspect being so important. And more choice of gifts in the shop. What I saw was a slightly outdated, very undynamic, limit friendly, family-orientated tourism product lacking punch but with a huge potential.

To give the guides credit, they are good, but lack direction and management. As they admitted to me, there’s no one in charge. Nobody gives any instructions and the last two directors (both Ukranians) were sacked for over-spending on futile things. The owners, by their own admission, don’t understand French administration laws and even less, the culture of business in France. You just can’t turn up and dose out your own ideas without knowing the subject matter ( unless you’re Donald Trump!).

When a client has a vision, my role is to analyse it (through an audit) and turn it into a viable business venture with a strong and adapted sales and marketing strategy.

I managed to audit the chateau, create a wine-tasting concept, cherry pick 20 winery partners, welcome a number of specialist wine tour agencies, the tourism office, the mayor of Beaune, the fraternity of the Order of the Dukes of Burgundy, the Burgondia and Feminalise wine tasting competitions, a project to create the Bugondia wine village weekend, a last-minute winetasting experience during the famous wine aution weekend at the Hospices de Beaune  etc…but apparently this wasn’t enough.

Having spent two months working for la Rochepot, I find myself like the dozen or so other “consultants” before me, without further news. The owners have disappeared…So how will the next season of 2017 fair? Without a sales & marketing team, without a strategy, without local support, not very well, I think.

Who needs a castle? Surely not a courageous man…

 

 

 

 

 

 

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About stephenliney

Wine consultant based in Burgundy. Specializing in Burgundy, Rhone & Provence wines, wine investment, brand marketing, wine tourism & international wine export
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