The number of specialist websites and travel agencies geared towards women has exploded recently, and Paris has not been overlooked in this revolution. What exactly are women looking for when they use these services though and what role do they play in Paris? I discussed the subject with Doni Belau, founder of the GirlsGuidetoParis website and Sophie Caudroy of Les Grandes Girafes.
Can a city have a sex, and if so, what would Paris be? "A woman" says Doni Belau, founder of the GirlsGuidetoParis website. “London and New York are male, but Paris is definitely female” she continues. Belau is a dynamic ‘mid-west American’ whose passion for Paris led to her moving to the city for a six year stint, and who created the GirlsGuidetoParis website after a period of intense market research.
The layout of the site, a selection of guides, tips, interviews and online shopping, reflects many of the desires women expressed during this market research. “The idea behind the website was to make it as personal as possible” Belau explains. “Women look for one-to-one advice, and want insights from other women who experience the city on a daily basis. To answer this need, we recruited a network of local female bloggers to keep visitors up to date with what’s hot in Paris”.
To some extent, the site is also aspirational. A regular series of interviews called Parisian Women portrays successful ladies – roughly a 50/50 split between French and expatriates - who have forged an identity and a place in the city. Belau has also reinforced this initiative by including visits to the homes of some of these ladies during the women-only group trips she organises to Paris.
Is hers a purely Anglo-Saxon model? It would be tempting to think so. Doni Belau’s research in the US pointed out that women travellers are the fastest growing sector in travel, but with the launch of services such as Les Grandes Girafes in France, it seems that women-only travel and leisure is a far more widespread movement today.
Launched by Sophie Caudroy and Cécile Greth in September 2009, Les Grandes Girafes is an agency that organises women-only events in and around Paris for groups of up to 12 participants. Interestingly, Sophie Caudroy sees Paris not as a woman, but in fact as the perfect couple. “The atmosphere, sparkling, futile and glamorous is certainly feminine” she suggests. “However, the architecture and the Haussmanian avenues are masculine - protective, large and strong!”
Nevertheless, activities organised by Les Grandes Girafes are purely women only, a decision which involves a certain militancy. For Les Grandes Girafes, the idea of offering completely up-to-date activities is also crucial. “In Paris everything changes so fast” says Sophie Caudroy. “Women want up to date information about where to go and what to buy. Each month we create new products according to those trends and try to predict what women are looking for”.
But what exactly are French women looking for, and are they different from their American or English counterparts? “We always try to keep an eye on feminity and lightness when creating our products, but we certainly don’t want to be too girly” explains Sophie Caudroy.
Superficially, the desires of French and Anglo-Saxon women may be similar, but the reasons that women from these cultures decide to spend time together, and what they hope to get from the experience is to a large extent different. Debra Ollivier, an American writer living in Paris described these differences in a recent interview published on the girlsguidetoparis website.
“I think French girls could benefit from learning about American-style sisterhood—not in the feminist sense of the word, but in the social sense. French women are generally far more distant than American women and harder to get to know. What they perceive as superficial bonding is often a genuine sense of connection that many American women feel among one another”.
American and English women have a long history of gathering in single sex groups to pursue common interests or leisure activities. In these markets, the travel agencies and specialist websites are simply an extension of this. French women on the other hand are less comfortable in these situations. Sophie Caudroy describes the services provided by Les Grandes Girafes as being “still avant-garde for French women”. Their clientele, aged on average between 40 and 60, are looking for “a well-adapted activity which meets women’s needs”. It is the activity itself therefore and not the ‘sisterhood’ which is important.
In many respects, both GirlsGuidetoParis and Les Grandes Girafes operate at the high end of the market, and it could be argued that the singling down of their services to one particular sex is a way of making them appear even more exclusive. The lack of any particular feminist angle and a selection of offerings which remain in the fairly classic domains of shopping, culture and gastronomy, also points to a certain lightness, but is it the role of such organisations to provide anything more political? As the song says, ‘girls just want to have fun’, and it would seem that this is especially true in Paris!
What do you think? Are you happy to participate in single-sex activities? Do you think French women and their anglo-saxon counterparts (or any other culture) differ in this respect? Do you think there is a need in Paris for specific women-only information and activities?