A Visit With Napoleon: A Napoleonic Takeover Of The Arc De Triomphe

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Eat the Cake Studio‘s debut theatrical production, Let Them Eat Cake, was all set to launch on 4 July 2020. However, the date was to prove revolutionary in more ways than one. Covid hit, the production was put on indefinite pause, and the company was forced to pivot or perish.

Founder Frances Vieras Blanc explains how she switched to small-scale private tourism and collaborated with exclusive experiential travel specialists Secret Journeys and luxury travel designer Natalie Gond Travel to create A Visit With Napoleon, an intimate immersive experience bringing French history to life for a private client celebrating a birthday on top of one of Paris’ most beloved landmarks, the Arc de Triomphe.

Who’s our Hero?

We believe stories Start With Who – so who’s the hero of this one? Who had a problem to solve?

Eat the Cake Studio teamed up with exclusive experiential travel specialists Secret Journeys and luxury travel designer Natalie Gond Travel to create the bespoke travel experience A Visit With Napoleon.

What did the Old World look like?

How were things going? What was good or bad?

When my partners and I decided to build Eat the Cake Studio, we knew that we wanted our first project to focus on the tourism sector. After having been a Paris history tour guide for a few years, I knew that there was an opportunity to offer tourists a deeper, more meaningful and dynamic relationship with this iconic country.

What we were seeing was that there wasn’t much available for tourists outside of the more traditional tours and visits, and hardly anything that was immersive. So with that in mind, we chose to build an immersive theatrical experience around the world of Marie Antoinette and the French Revolution.

From early 2019 to March 2020, we were in pre-production on what we were hoping would be our company’s debut (and signature) experience, Let Them Eat Cake. We wrote the show, cast the actors, scouted locations, rehearsed, build partnerships… the works. We were set to debut July 4, 2020 – the date was a nod to the ‘revolutionary’ relationship between the US and France. But then Covid hit and everything shut down.

What was the Call to Adventure?

What was the problem, either “out there” – in society, the industry, the world – or “in here” – the firm, the community?

The moment we went into confinement, we knew that we needed to do something or the company wouldn’t survive. So we pivoted, as many did. We realized that despite not being able to offer tourists a large-scale historical event any time soon, we could adapt the format to smaller, more intimate experiences. We knew that tourism would trickle in with the ebb and flow of the pandemic. So while the future remained uncertain for full-blown tourism as it once was, we figured we could build for smaller groups. With that in mind, we started reaching out to people in the tourism sector to start building new relationships.

Who was your Mentor?

Did the people going on this journey have a mentor – either a real person or a way of thinking?

Once we had the idea to change our way of approaching our work, I reached out to some tourism contacts that I had. As they are also expats like myself, they recommended me to other expats in the travel industry in France. The expat community in France is robust and thriving, which really helps when building a network!

One of these expat connections – who has now become a good friend – connected me with her good friend, Natalie Gond of Natalie Gond Travel, who then connected me with Philippe Hertzberg of Secret Journeys. It was a time of lots of Zoom calls! And also meeting lots of amazing, talented people. It actually helped me get through the early days of the pandemic; even though we couldn’t be physically social, I was still able to meet great people, have engaging conversations, and share some laughs.

Why did you at first refuse the Call?

Why didn’t you action this before?

When I first connected with Philippe, we knew right away that we wanted to work together. We just didn’t know how or when. Everything was really uncertain at that time. So we just kept checking in with each other every few months to see when the right moment would come.

What was the Inciting Incident?

What changed?

In September, Paris was fortunate to welcome Christo’s posthumous wrapping of the Arc de Triomphe. It was an absolutely beautiful piece of artwork that attracted so many to the city. Prior to the wrapping, Philippe had called me wondering if we could create a theatrical experience featuring Napoleon, since after all, the Arc is his monument. He wanted to have Napoleon be a guest star on a podcast interview with him, followed by an in-person appearance at the top of the Arc. Fortunately, the actor that plays General Lafayette in our Let Them Eat Cake cast is also a huge Napoleon buff, so we already had an in-house Napoleon ready to go! However, shortly before the opening of the wrapped Arc, Philippe called to let us know that he wasn’t going to be able to do what he had planned due to scheduling conflicts with the monument.

However, the idea kept brewing. Two months later, Philippe called to let me know that he was building a weekly, private version of the experience and that he wanted to collaborate on it as we had been discussing. And that the first clients to test out the new version would be coming in a week! So my team and I quickly got to work to co-create this experience with Philippe. In one week, we cast and costumed a Napoleon and a lyrical singer, created a robust historical profile, scripted the interaction between Philippe and Napoleon, privatized the Arc de Triomphe, and dazzled the client on a chilly, yet sunny morning overlooking the romantic Paris rooftops.

What would have happened if you hadn’t Crossed the Threshold?

…or done what you’d always done before?

Had we done nothing, we wouldn’t have created such a fantastic partnership with Philippe and Natalie, and we would have lost out on the opportunity to create more immersive historical experiences with them.

What Trials did you face?

Lack of knowledge? Time? Money? Contacts?

Considering we only had one week to put it together, time was definitely a challenge! But we also had an issue with timing. Our in-house Napoleon was going out of town and couldn’t perform. We had to go through about one hundred actor profiles that we have in our database in order to find an actor that had similar physical characteristics to the real Napoleon. And once we found him, we needed to get him studied up on Napoleon’s history, especially in relation to the Arc.

Fortunately, Mathieu (our in-house Napoleon) was kind enough to build us a full historical profile while he was traveling, so that our actor had enough information in order to offer a deep immersion. We also needed to find a lyrical singer, as the singers we work with weren’t available last minute. Then there were the challenges of working with national monuments, as there are very specific ideas of what can and can’t be done on monument property.

Who were your Enemies?

Who stood in your way or tried to stop you?

I can’t say that there were many enemies in this particular case. There were definitely challenges, however. What could have been an enemy would have been if Covid had spiked again at that time. That would have curtailed the client’s travel to France and the experience would have been canceled.

Who were your Allies?

Who was on your side or helped you achieve your goal?

Everyone involved was fantastic. My team kicked into gear the moment we got the green light; everyone pitched in to make it happen. The actor and singer we cast were wonderful. Even though it was last minute, they brought their A-Game. And of course, Philippe and Natalie were genuinely fun, efficient and easy to work with.

What Tools helped you on this journey?

What’s the closest thing you had to King Arthur’s Sword, or Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber?

Our network was a huge tool. Fortunately, we have a robust database of actors that we could call for the part of Napoleon. And we found our singer through the help and connections of my business partner’s singing coach. And again, our in-house Napoleon was able to give us such a complete historical profile, including unique anecdotes for our actor to use while portraying the emblematic figure.

What was the biggest Ordeal?

What was the toughest challenge you faced?

Creating a rare-pearl moment in such a dynamic city as Paris. Paris offers so many ‘dream’ moments to tourists that standing out is quite a feat. I didn’t know much about the client, as Philippe and Natalie were exchanging directly with them, but I knew that they were potentially in the entertainment industry, so I wanted to make sure that the experience had great production value and that it would create a positive, lasting impression on the client: like a beautiful experiential postcard!

Did you have any “Aha!” moments?

Moments of discovery and inspiration… times when instead of the fog of uncertainty, you suddenly saw the way forward?

While I wasn’t able to be onsite the day of the experience, one of my partners was. For her, the ‘Aha’ moment was when the client asked Napoleon why he always held his hand over his stomach. When he answered, you could see the client’s eyes light up and smile. It’s as if the one simple answer changed her perspective completely on Napoleon, rendering him more ‘real’. There was no longer the gap between the mythic man of history and a real guy from Corsica with a chronic upset stomach!

For me, although I wasn’t onsite, it came together when I watched the recording of the experience. The lyrical singer was serenading the client with the Marseillaise under the early morning Parisian sky on the quiet rooftop of the Arc de Triomphe with Napoleon in silhouette. It was magical to watch. We were bringing history to life. That for me is why we do what we do.

What was the Reward?

Think in terms of outputs and outcomes: outputs are what you produce, whereas outcomes are what happens as a result of the outputs.

The client raved about the experience, which was not only a boost for us as theatrical experience creators, but also great support for both Natalie and Philippe, who were the ones that had liaised with the client. Also, since it went so well, Philippe was able to broker a deal with the national monument in order to offer the weekly Napoleon/Arc de Triomphe that he had started planning a few months prior. This means we’ll be creating more amazing private Napoleon experiences in 2022!

How does the New World look now?

Now you’ve faced this challenge, what does it mean for you, your organization, and the world?

This initial Napoleon experience has opened quite a few doors to new projects and collaborations with a similar style. Professionals in the tourism and hospitality industries appreciate the intimate format that we created for the Visit with Napoleon experience. We have a project in development with a Cordon Bleu pastry chef for a few different private Marie Antoinette experiences. We have another project in development with a certified art historian for a Josephine Bonaparte experience. And we are developing new projects, both with Napoleon and Marie Antoinette, and with Secret Journeys. History will be coming to life a lot in 2022!

What might the next Journey be?

Thinking ahead, what might the challenges ahead look like?

Due to the pandemic, tourism has shifted. In a heavily visited city like Paris, which relies tremendously on tourists, what we are now witnessing is the transformation of travel: going from en masse travel to a smaller group style. It’s as if people feel safer these days traveling with intimate groups of people that they know. They seem to prefer to do all the tours/visits/experiences together as a small group. They also tend to book their experiences ahead of time and prefer using their trusted travel agents or travel sites to take care of most or all of their travel arrangements.

We have two challenges as I see it. The first one is to build a format that fits the traveler’s needs and budgets but still offers a sense of engagement, immersion, and uniqueness. And the second one is to continue to build strategic partnerships to allow us to co-create more immersive historical experiences.

For more case studies and learning frameworks from the Experience Economy, check out more Case Studies here.