Voice of Luxury: Relais & Châteaux president Laurent Gardinier

Sustainability and quality are key focuses for the luxury hotel and restaurant association, which has 580 members and 370 Michelin stars to its name. Erica Rich reports

Q. How did you become involved with the association?

I was a member of Relais & Châteaux for 18 years before becoming president. I have a family business, so I am the co-owner of a Relais & Châteaux property in Champagne called Domaine Les Crayères, which is a two-Michelin-starred restaurant, boutique hotel and brasserie. We also have a two-Michelin-starred restaurant in Paris called Le Taillevent. We were in the wine business for more than 20 years so I have an F&B background.

Q. You became president in January 2023. How has the first year been?

What I’ve tried to achieve focuses on two aspects: first, the quality of the network and second, sustainability, because that is something we absolutely must address. It doesn’t mean it is not addressed by members, but as we operate in 65 countries we are not at the same level in every destination. So we need to be sure that we advise, monitor and address the sustainability points in each of our properties, which is not an easy task. I have met with most of our members over the last year and there is not a single one who has said to me, I don’t want to go into sustainability.

Q. Last year you published the association’s first sustainability report. What were the key takeaways from this?

This was started by the former president [Philippe Gombert] and it has been a very good initiative. Why? First of all, you cannot act if you don’t measure. When you have the data, you start understanding what major issues you need to address and how you have to address them. The report is very interesting: we see that we have good points and areas we need to improve.

[The report found] 48% of those working in Relais & Châteaux are women and 52% are men so we’re quite well balanced in terms of inclusion. We are also very good when it comes to the ecosystem and gastronomy. Hardware of the properties [is an area we need to work on]. Electricity, carbon footprint, water management systems, sewers, compost – all of these things need to be addressed.

Q. How was 2023 for the Relais & Châteaux network?

We have had a very good 2022 and 2023. We have not seen an increase [in revenue] between the years. It means that in the core network, we are at a plateau, but the plateau is at a much higher level than 2019, which was already a record year. We’re still at a very good level of average price, knowing that we are facing other increases regarding electricity, water, taxes and wages.

The forecast for this year is quite good. Bookings aren’t as strong as 2023 but the level [value] of bookings in our system is quite high. We have less of the last-minute bookings that we’ve seen over the past two years. Bookings from our key source market, the US, are doing well, as are sales to key destinations Italy and France.

Q. You operate in 65 countries – namely across Europe but with growth in North America, Asia and Africa. Are there any destinations you’re keen to have more of a presence in?

The US market is very important – the US, Central America, South America and Mexico. We also want to develop a market in Scandinavia. We have two ways of considering our business – you have the source market and the destination market. We can also develop ourselves more in Egypt – we have two properties there currently.

What you have to think about is our DNA. We are not obliged to [reach] any number of properties. Our DNA is family spirit, a sense of design and architecture that is locally based, the sense of welcoming and a local restaurant. I don’t care about having more fees at the end of the year. We are crazy about quality.

Q. Relais & Châteaux is known for its strict admission standards and quality control process. Can you tell us more about that?

We have 15 anonymous inspectors who check 500 points and if properties don’t have what we want them to have, we don’t take them. We inspect about 200-250 properties a year. If the report is good, no problem. If it’s not good, the member goes through the network commission and we usually give them a warning, where they will have around two years to change. If it doesn’t, it can be excluded. We take out 30 or 40 hotels a year.

Q. Currently the association mainly comprises hotels and restaurants. Are there plans to expand into trains or cruise?

Yes, but it depends on the quality. The train market is much more occupied now with Belmond, they are very good in trains. There is also the Orient Express so if there is a nice train that is independent and wants to join us, we would be very happy to do so. We already have some ships so we are quite open to that. Ponant recently joined as a new member and we have the EcoVentura boats in the Galápagos. It is not our core business, but we are very happy to consider them.

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