Meet The French Company Atop The Hancock
For the first-ever Bisnow story reported in three different countries, we’d like to introduce you to Montparnasse 56. The Parisian firm has big plans for the Hancock’s observation deck, and your Chicago reporter caught up with CEO Patrick Abisseror recently in Paris.
He’s snapped on the roof deck of Tour Montparnasse, where we indulged in some afternoon bubbly (note the other famous tower in the background). The company's founders built the tower (below) 40 years ago, taking ownership of the 56th floor and developing it as a tourist destination, Patrick tells us. After 20 years of doing business in Paris, the firm landed on top in the bidding for Berlin’s TV Tower, or Fernsehturm, in 1994. Patrick joined the team as CEO in 2002 with a focus on local business development (Montparnasse’s 1.2M annual visitors in Paris now speaks for itself) and a new sales/marketing strategy in emerging markets. The company purchased the Crocodile Park in Provence in ’07. Today it has 250 employees and about €45M in revenue, Patrick says.
We got a VIP tour of the Fernsehturm (above) later that week, when we jetted over to Berlin. It was completed in 1969 as a symbol of the socialist GDR’s strength (or a message from outer space?) and is still an operational TV tower today. As Germany’s highest structure, it stands 1,207’ tall, almost as big as the 1,250’ Empire State Building.
Managing director Christina Aue showed us around. We snapped her pic after riding the glass-top elevator up to the tower’s revolving restaurant for 360-degree views—which our camera flash obliterated. (Take our word, they were fantastic.)
The two French families that own Montparnasse have always loved the US (and studied at Cornell and Columbia), so it was in the spirit of the firm to cross the pond, Patrick says. A 2010 bid for One World Trade Center’s observation deck in NYC fizzled (they came in second or third to Legends), but it introduced the US market to Montparnasse, helped them build a team over here, and lead to a dream opportunity—the Hancock. It’s difficult for foreign companies to break into the market, Patrick tells us, so they quickly joined the team taking on the distressed skyscraper’s debt, eventually buying the observatory from a Deutsche Bank-led venture.
Then a $5M refurbishment plan began in earnest, including the concourse area and 94th floor. The first wave of improvements (including floors and ceilings) were unveiled this month, and the rest will be completed during the next low season (i.e. the next Polar Vortex), Patrick says. They’ll model much of the space’s upgrades on Tour Montparnasse, above, which is full of electronic tools, interactive screens, and history of the city. The key was thinking creatively to compete with Willis Tower, but they're also colleagues, Patrick adds. Montparnasse invited Willis to join the World Federation of Great Towers this year as a way to share ideas and best practices, while developing the Chicago market.
Meet Tilt, 360 Chicago’s (the observatory’s updated branding) most innovative new feature. The hook: there are more ways to view the city than in an upright and locked position (the wall moves, offering downward-facing views—an outside shot above). The amenity is an example of the unique optimism and enthusiasm Patrick has noticed in the US market, unlike much of Europe. The City was quick to praise the project and lend its support, while in France a similar idea would take years to gain approval, he says.
While we’re talking about Paris, we had to include another favorite view of ours from the top of Notre Dame Cathedral. (The gargoyle asked to remain anonymous.) Business development will be the key to 360 Chicago’s success, Patrick says, with a sales and marketing team (led by GM Nichole Williamson) that can extend its tentacles all the way into rapidly growing markets like China, India, Brazil, and Russia.
And the other obligatory shot, your Chicago reporter and her boyfriend at the Eiffel Tower. It’ll take a few years to gain recognition in the US tourism market, Patrick tell us, but Chicago has already become Montparnasse’s base platform for US expansion, with a few more projects around the country brewing as a result. Ideally, he’d like to open two or three more US venues in the next five years to help optimize operations, and we look forward to telling the country it all started here at our beloved Hancock. When he’s not working, Patrick enjoys traveling (he just went to Morocco) or relaxing at his home in Provence.