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Paris Travel Guide

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Developing a client base in Paris requires cultural awareness from business travelers.

Of all the European cities a North American can do business in, Paris is surely the one most designed to make you feel like an outsider. Making contacts within the French capital’s hyper-formal, close-knit business community, where education at the best universities is a prerequisite, requires persistence. So far better to be an outsider armed with insider knowledge than cast adrift without a sense of how business gets done in a centuries-old culture that operates on its own terms.

Where the Money Is

Paris is a city with an exceptional strategic position at the heart of Europe, a highly educated workforce, superior lifestyle choices and, despite a Europe-wide recession, vast wealth built on solid precepts. According to last year’s CNN Money Global 500 survey, Paris boasts more multinational headquarters than any other European city. Thirty-three of the world’s 500 biggest companies have their main offices located in the French capital.

It is not just old money either. Last December Google inaugurated a $131 million Research and Development Center and European Cultural Institute in Paris’ Ninth Arrondissement. Google’s move was a boon for Paris, which is trying hard to cast off its ill-won reputation as a “museum city.” At the center’s inauguration, French president Nicolas Sarkozy, who is expected to stand for reelection later this year, admitted that France had been slow to take advantage of the Internet and that it was necessary to make up for lost time.

“Paris now gathers the fifth highest concentration of researchers in the world,” says Karine Bidart, managing director of Paris Développement, the capital’s city-run economic agency. She adds that there are more than 130,000 researchers operating in Paris, noticeably more per inhabitant than in Silicon Valley (where many of the most talented French computer researchers relocated during the last two decades).

According to Bidart, France can now offer the best R&D tax incentive in Europe. It provides a tax break of 40 percent of R&D expenses the first year, 35 percent the second year and 30 percent the following years up to $131 million. France’s universities (the most prestigious grandes écoles, Sciences Po and the École Polytechnique, are based in or around Paris) are also being primed to compete more strongly in future high-tech innovations by becoming more commercially autonomous and less state-dependent.

These sorts of cultural changes are being welcomed by Paris-based North American entrepreneurs like Curtis Bartosik. Eight years ago, Bartosik started up Seneca, a high-end language training company that helps French companies in the hotel sector. “In the last 10 years, starting a company, hiring people and paying them has become so much easier,” he says. “There are many more ways of setting up a business now, including France’s new tax-friendly auto-entrepreneur law.”

Business Culture, Paris-Style

Bartosik, who came to Paris as a trailing spouse and spotted an opening in the language training market, took a little while to grow accustomed to the thoroughness of the French and their way of doing business. “I came to realize that the decision cycle is much longer in France than in the United Sates,” he says. “If you do a deal with someone and start working with them, it’s only after a long period of due diligence.” Such behavior is par for the course, says Bidart: “French managers tend to favor long-lasting business relationships, and personal connections are usually established as the business links grow stronger.”

Indeed, personal relationships can take a long time to build. Joseph Smallhoover, a North American who has practiced law in Paris for almost 30 years, remembers it took 10 years before he was finally invited into a French couple’s home for dinner.

Good points of initial contact in Paris include the American Chamber of Commerce and alumni associations. As president of the Cornell Club, Bartosik says he can draw on a massive contacts base. There are about 60 North American universities with a presence in Paris, some with as many as 3,000 alumni.

From Bartosik’s experience in dealing with French clients, the key word is loyalty. “If you screw up in Paris there’s really nowhere else to go [in France],” he says. “So be careful who you create your relationships with because they’ll be pretty permanent.”

The good news is that most French businessmen and women now speak reasonable English, which was not the case a generation ago. Nevertheless, Smallhoover suggests a few polite phrases would not go amiss. Another nice touch is to have the underside of business cards translated into French.

Backslapping, or any sort of overfamiliarity, is out of the question. “Err on the side of formality,” says Smallhoover. “I have occasionally looked up at the ceiling and said to my clients (not all of them, because they might get upset): ‘Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.’”

In the luxury capital of the world appearance is everything. Shoes should be kept shined and suits in impeccable condition, while ties for business meetings are a must. Punctuality is less important, as long as it does not extend to being more than 15 minutes late.

An interest in food and wine is a welcome attribute as a lot of business is done over lunch or dinner. “The closer you get to closing a deal, the later the meal usually gets,” says Smallhoover. “Meals are for discussing the bigger picture, while the office is where the nitty-gritty gets done.”

But Smallhoover stresses that it is important not to be in a hurry: “It’s quite common among most French businessmen to wait until coffee before discussing a deal, whereas Americans want to get into it right away.” This makes having a general cultural awareness and a good supply of small talk essential. “You don’t have to love all of France or know everything about the country,” says Bartosik. “But just to know one thing and know it well will earn you a lot of respect.”

Having a hobby can also be a way of becoming integrated. Bartosik is a member of a running club, which he says was an invaluable way of meeting people when he first arrived and did not speak much French.

Smallhoover, meanwhile, swears by l’AROP (Association pour le Rayonnement de l’Opéra National de Paris). “They have these fancy dinner parties where you often sit next to people you wouldn’t encounter otherwise,” he says. “It’s probably a faux pas on my part, but if somebody says to me, ‘Please keep in contact,’ then I will take them at their word.”

Perhaps the most important thing not to lose sight of amid the minefield of business dos and don’ts is to carry on being yourself. “I’m not going to try to out-French the French,” says Bartosik. “Many of the people who choose to do business with me do so because I’m American. They tell me that I give them a shot of American energy and optimism.”

Paris Travel Guide: Where to Stay

Le Royal Monceau
37 Avenue Hoche; + 33 1 4299 8800
A hip and happening hotel where doormen are just dying to open the door for you, as opposed to looking for a tip. Very avant-garde and very un-French.

Four Seasons Hotel George V
31 Avenue George V; + 33 1 4952 7000
Only steps away from the Champs-Élysées, this landmark hotel offers stunning service and all the five-star treatment redolent of its kingly name.

Le Meurice
228 Rue de Rivoli; + 33 1 4458 1010
This classy hotel in the heart of Paris is ideally placed for business travelers: It’s only a stone’s throw from such iconic sites as the Jardin des Tuileries, the Place Vendôme and the Louvre.

Paris Travel Guide: Where to Eat

6 Rue Bailleul; + 33 1 4596 0572
Chicago-born chef Daniel Rose’s boutique restaurant was recently raved about in The New York Times. The multicourse meals are as prettily presented as they are mouthwatering.

9 Rue du Vertbois; + 33 1 4272 0360
Down a tiny alleyway, this fairly priced and stylish restaurant with English-speaking staff serves up classic French fare such as foie gras, truffles and ris de veau.

La Société
4 Place Saint-Germain des Prés; + 33 1 5363 6060
A little more glamorous than the usual frères Costes-run establishment, this is the place for a see-and-be-seen business lunch.

Airport and Ground Transportation

Both of France’s main airports are close to Paris. The largest, Charles de Gaulle, is served by Delta, American Airlines, United Airlines and US Airways. Slightly smaller Orly is served uniquely by American Airlines. Orly is the closest to Paris and with good traffic is only a 20-minute drive to the Périphérique, the main road that circles Paris. Charles de Gaulle is a bit farther out (about a 35-minute drive on a good day). From the same airport you can also get a taxi, which costs about $66, or take the regular shuttle bus operated by Air France ($26 for a return ticket), which makes several stops around Paris. Inside Paris itself the fastest means of transport is the Metro subway, which starts at about 5:30 a.m. and stays open until about 12:30 a.m.

Tobias Grey is based in Paris and writes for publications such as the Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, Harpersand Variety.

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