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Last Updated: Friday, 16 May, 2003, 04:59 GMT 05:59 UK
Are things looking up for the Eiffel Tower?

By James Arnold
BBC News Online business reporter in Paris

The Eiffel Tower
10,100 tonnes of pulling power

There may be a certain froideur in Franco-American relations right now, but it's hard to detect on the Champ de Mars.

Queuing excitedly in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, a gaggle of elderly American tourists express nothing but warm feelings for their French hosts.

"Whatever Mr Bush says, we love France and love the French," gushes Jean Bazarian from St Louis. "Vive la France!"

Nor is Mrs Bazarian alone: according to the French tourist authorities, there is still no sign that Americans are starting to visit France any less frequently, or to splash their dollars about any less extravagantly.

Making Paris pay

Which will be music to the ears of Jacques Marvillet.

Waving the Tricouleur on the Eiffel Tower
Built 1889 for Universal Exposition
324 metres high
Weighs 10,100 tonnes; paint alone weighs 60 tonnes
Employs more than 400 staff
204,381,152 visitors between 1889 and 2002
Tower's lifts travel 103,000 kilometres every year
Sells tickets weighing 2 tonnes each year

Mr Marvillet is the man charged with wringing every last euro cent out of the Eiffel Tower, the city's most popular and best-known paying attraction.

His company, the Societe Nouvelle d'Exploitation de la Tour Eiffel (SNTE) has presided over a huge increase in turnover at the tower since it was incorporated at the beginning of the 1980s.

Americans account for 11% of visitors to the tower, equivalent to Britons in importance, and behind only the French themselves.

But while Mr Marvillet may be happy at holding on to his American clientele, he is now casting around for ways to start SNTE's revenues growing again.

Ups and downs

Over the past couple of years, SNTE has paused for breath after a blistering two decades.

View from the Eiffel Tower
There's a long, long way to fall

In 1981, SNTE - a semi-public beast whose main shareholder is the Paris city government - launched an expensive scheme to overhaul the tower.

"It had been neglected for many years," says Mr Marvillet.

"And we discovered that, for structural reasons, we urgently needed to make the whole tower lighter by 1,000 tonnes."

Over the next three years, the firm stripped away the tower's excess metal - equivalent to about 10% of its weight - and bent its warped frame back into shape.

It installed bigger, faster lifts, and created three pavilions to house gift shops, a restaurant, a cinema and a post office.

Growing pains

Together with a more commercially minded marketing campaign, the refurbishment helped to more than double visitor numbers - from 3 million in 1979 to 6.2 million last year.

In 1999, the tower played host to its 200 millionth customer.

But since then, visitor numbers have bobbed about the six-million mark, and revenues, although inching up slightly in recent years, have yet to break much beyond 50m euros (36m; $57m).

Tourist views on the Eiffel Tower

The tower, it seems, may have reached the limit of its capacity; its super-fast lifts cannot get any faster, and regulations and natural prudence prevent Mr Marvillet packing in more than 30,000 people on any one day.

Adding glamour

Mr Marvillet insists there is a little slack capacity, at least outside the crucial spring and summer months.

Since the tower's operating costs are fixed, he says, any increase in visitor numbers produces a far greater proportional increase in profits.

But bringing more people to the tower is always going to be tricky, as long as Mr Marvillet's marketing is at the mercy of those marketing Paris and France as a whole.

Eiffel Tower models
Can Paris get the most out of its premium brand?

"Almost everyone who comes to Paris comes to the Eiffel Tower, but no-one comes to Paris just because of the Eiffel Tower," says Mr Marvillet.

Money is being poured into making the tower more glamorous: after an outcry when millennium-year lighting was taken down in 2001, the company spent 5m euros on a new 20,000-bulb display in late April.

And licensing the Eiffel Tower name looks like a potential goldmine: the firm earned just over 1m euros from copyright fees last year, even as every souvenir vendor in Paris and beyond is cashing in on the tower's unmistakable image.

Going underground

But the real profits are always going to be in squeezing more money out of each visitor the tower attracts already.

To that end, Mr Marvillet is planning SNTE's biggest project since the early 1980s - an underground visitors' centre, using the vast 16,000-square-metre space between the tower's four feet.

At present, visitors are divided between the two or three of the foot entrances that are open at any one time.

But the new centre will shepherd them through one efficient - and, for SNTE, more lucrative - facility, combining ticket office, museum, shops and cafe.

Competition time

There is one snag, however.

At the end of 2005, SNTE's 25-year contract to run the tower finally comes to an end.

Mr Marvillet says he intends to tender for a renewal, but the uncertainty makes it tricky to plan ahead.

"It's not possible to invest when we are so near the end of our contract," he says.

"We hope it's going to be renewed, but nothing is certain."

Competition: that's one American import Mr Marvillet could do without.

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