How can a group of quirky, individual hotels and restaurants remain a major force in today's world of corporate globalism? Jennifer Sharp examines how far Relais & Châteaux has come during its 60-year history as the organisation moves towards throwing off its traditional, fusty French image and celebrating the individuality of its members
Chewton Glen has changed beyond all recognition since it became one of the first UK members of Relais & Châteaux in 1971. Then, it was an eight-bedroom property owned by Martin and Brigitte Skan. Today, with funding from multi-millionaire property magnate Ian Livingstone, who bought the
property in 2006 from the Skans, the hotel is now a luxury resort featuring 70 bedrooms (including 12 treehouse suites), a spa and impressive activity packages for families.
With further expansion on the horizon too, Chewton Glen is a million miles away from the traditional image of a Relais & Châteaux hotel or restaurant as a homely but stately French-focused property, with the emphasis solely on high quality food and drink. Just as Chewton Glen has developed in order to meetthe demands of 21st century guests within the luxury market, Relais & Châteaux itself is also having to adjust its focus.
The consortium, which turned 60 this year and now numbers 530 members across 64 countries, has certainly moved on from the day when it started as a small band of likeminded French hoteliers with nothing more in mind than celebrating l'art du vivre.
In fact, the intention is now to throw off the Frenchness that has pervaded the organisation throughout its history and instead celebrate the culture within each country in which it is represented, as it moves towards becoming a more sustainable and inclusive body.
Philippe Gombert, chairman of Relais & Châteaux, announced at the organisation's annual congress, held in Paris last month, that cuisine and hospitality had become threatened by global uniformity and standardisation over the past 20 years.
"The future is no longer just about French gastronomy: it is important that all [cultures] are celebrated around the world," he said.
The commitments In a bid to combat a "profoundly negative impact on the health of both our planet and our consumers" from "the actions of many large-scale food producers and dining establishments", Relais & Châteaux has now published a list of 20 commitments, which all members will be expected to sign up to. They include the necessity for members to offer food that respects local traditions and environments; to work closely with local farmers and fishermen; and ensure they operate sustainably with regards to food waste and energy and water consumption.
Many UK members said they believed their hotels already adhered to the commitments, while recognising the new vision was an opportunity for Relais & Châteaux to refocus and differentiate itself from other hotel consortia.
The French flavour of the body will not disappear entirely - there are 144 members in France, the headquarters are located in Paris and the London office is called the maison, in the manner of top French luxury brands.
However, Relais & ChÁ¢teaux is now represented in all corners of the globe, with members from Australia to Brazil, Mauritius and Cambodia. There are more than 50 representatives in the USA alone, including some of the starriest chef names: Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud and Daniel Humm.
For the well-travelled, sophisticated clients who make up the customer base, the familiar Relais & ChÁ¢teaux plaque outside the door remains an immediately recognisable symbol of quality and service.
The annual guide book is a trusted and valuable resource, which brings in business, even though it will often not be via the official Relais & ChÁ¢teaux booking system. Hoteliers will tell you that many guests plan their next Relais & ChÁ¢teaux holiday when they're staying in one of the consortium's properties.
In the UK there are 33 members, many of which are located in picturesque, rural settings, including some of our best-known and respected hotels: Gidleigh Park, Hambleton Hall, Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, Inverlochy Castle and Whatley Manor, to name just five. Some are tiny, like the 10-bedroom Ynyshir Hall in Powys or grandly freighted with history like Cliveden in Berkshire, now sister property to the aforementioned
There are only three Relais & ChÁ¢teaux properties in London but what a trio they are - top restaurants Le Gavroche and Hibiscus, both with two Michelin stars, and the Goring,one of the capital's most high profile hotels and still privately owned and run by the Goring family.
While the family component is no longer prevalent among all members, it was certainly an essential element of the original Relais & ChÁ¢teaux properties - the group was founded after Marcel Tilloy formed a loose association of properties between Paris and Nice under the slogan La Route du Bonheur, during the early 1950s. Tilloy was an entrepreneur and popular singer, but he had a vision of small hotels full of character with impeccable service and a good restaurant. It was simple, precise and highly appealing. Within a few decades Relais & ChÁ¢teaux had evolved into a significant force in the luxury travel market with the concept of the five Cs: character, courtesy, calm, comfort and cuisine. It attracted the best chefs and hoteliers in France and increasingly abroad.
The first British members were the original country house hotels. Today, few exist in the same style or have the same owners - as in the case of Chewton Glen. Martin Skan, now retired, recalls the original overtures and rigorous inspections by Relais & ChÁ¢teaux before Chewton Glen was permitted to join in 1971.
"At the time, so many of us in Britain were not trained hoteliers," he says. "We were enthusiastic amateurs and we learned so much from the French. The timing of our joining Relais & ChÁ¢teaux was perfect. The Americans were just beginning to discover Europe and country house hotels were just what they were looking for."
In the UK today, there is a huge range of owners, some more actively involved than others. Three of the six hotels among the Gidleigh Collection, owned by Andrew Brownsword, are members of Relais & ChÁ¢teaux - Gidleigh Park, Amberley Castle and Buckland Manor.
Another of his properties, the Bath Priory, was a member of Relais & ChÁ¢teaux until December 2013, but Brownsword felt there was a conflict of interest having another Relais & ChÁ¢teaux property (Buckland Manor) not too far away and he withdrew it to join Small Luxury Hotels of the World instead.
At the other end of the scale is Ynyshir Hall in Machynlleth, Powys, where Joan and Rob Reen have attracted an international following for their boldly decorated hotel near the sea, once owned by Queen Victoria. Joan was named Relais & ChÁ¢teaux Woman of the Year at the recent annual congress.
MaÁ®tres de maisons
There's also a new generation of managers (Relais & ChÁ¢teaux calls them maÁ®tres de maisons), acting on behalf of private owners and bringing a crisp new expertise alongside the core values of warmth and quality.
At the venerable Gravetye Manor, near East Grinstead, West Sussex - a member of Relais & ChÁ¢teaux since 1976 - Andrew Thomason is managing director and 'mine host', closely involved with guests and preserving the special atmosphere of the house and notable gardens, while moving it forward and broadening the client base.
Similarly, on the south coast of Ireland at Cliff House in Ardmore, general manager Adriaan Bartels is both a constant engaging presence in the hotel and a subtle marketer, keenly aware of the practical value of the Relais & ChÁ¢teaux affiliation. "We have been a member since 2010," he says. "We were a new hotel and needed to expand our market internationally as quickly as possible. I knew Relais & ChÁ¢teaux very well - I did my postgraduate
and masters theses on it - and I had no doubt about the business it brings and the prestige associated with the Relais & ChÁ¢teaux name."
The move towards a more commercially minded organisation was highlighted by the decision by Relais & ChÁ¢teaux last year to allow its members to join Pride of Britain, a move that the latter had been campaigning for for many years. Relais & ChÁ¢teaux had introduced the non-dual membership rule in 1998, barring members from belonging to competing organisations. An exception has now been made for Pride of Britain, which is focused
on marketing directly to consumers within the UK, whereas Relais & ChÁ¢teaux primarily works internationally.
The change in heart was described by Philip Newman-Hall, managing director of Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, a Relais & ChÁ¢teaux member, as being "mutually beneficial".
As managing director of both Chewton Glen and relatively new member Cliveden, Andrew Stembridge is greatly admired for his astute business sense as well as embodying core principles of the original Relais & ChÁ¢teaux families.
"These are not cheap hotels, but you should feel they are good value," he says. "Relais & ChÁ¢teaux isn't for everyone with its quirky mix of personalities and personal service," he says. "Some people will always prefer the slick reliability of a Four Seasons to creaky floorboards and pipes that go clank in the night. But the trust Relais & ChÁ¢teaux inspires is something you, as an individual hotelier, can't piece together yourself. The
organisation is invaluable to us."
Stembridge is a modern hotelier with the insight and drive to create a sustainable business that goes from strength to strength. He's the only non-owner on the steering committee of the UK chapter of Relais & ChÁ¢teaux and says his default position is playing devil's advocate.
He says: "I'm not in awe of Relais & ChÁ¢teaux and I'm not a courtier. I'll fight forthings that will work best for us and the rest of the group."
Membership is one such issue. "Assessment used to be an old boy's network," he says. "Now it's much more professional and rigorous for new applicants and if standards are slipping, we're getting much better at saying 'you're on a warning'."
The rigorous assessment process and desire to create an organisation that is transparent partly stems from the scandal that has gripped Relais & ChÁ¢teaux in recent years. Ongoing charges still surround Régis Bulot, president of Relais & ChÁ¢teaux until 2006, who was accused of creaming off large sums from central funds and being involved in a much larger corruption story involving high-profile politicians.
"It's a bit like FIFA," says Malcolm Lewis (see panel) without a hint of irony. Lewis, who is chairman of the UK and Ireland delegation and owner of Longueville Manor, goes on to talk about Jaume TÁ pies, owner of El Castell de Ciutat in Spain, who became the first non-French president and chairman of the Relais & ChÁ¢teaux board, a position he held until 2013.
TÁ pies was closely involved in tackling all the legal issues. "It became extremely personal for Jaume," says Lewis. "There were even threats on his
life. The corruption was much wider than our organisation - it was part of a very dubious web across France."
The current president, Gombert, is both a hotelier as the owner of ChÁ¢teau de la Treyne, near Souillac, France, and a lawyer. He is determined to "get back to basics" and oversee a steady expansion of Relais & ChÁ¢teaux. One of the true legends of Relais & ChÁ¢teaux is the renowned chef Michel Guérard at Les Prés d'Eugénie in south west France.
Michel's wife Christine Guérard comes from one of the original founding families of Relais & ChÁ¢teaux, the Barthélemys who were brought on board by Tilloy in the 1950s. Mme Guérard's aunt and sister manage two other properties within Relais, while Christine herself is the creative heart of Les Prés d'Eugénie with immaculate taste and a flair for comfort and hospitality.
The evergreen Guérard has held three Michelin stars for nearly 40 years and is still a hands-on inspirational leader who attracts chefs from all over the world eager to have a stage in his kitchen.
The next generation of the Guérard family is daughter Adeline who brings experience of finance and banking to running the hotel. Underneath her calm, well-mannered exterior, there's a no-nonsense pragmatism and steely intelligence. Adeline is part of a new generation of owners who want accountability and transparency. She's not afraid of change, nor will she be told what do by a distant board in Paris. The old boys network of Relais & ChÁ¢teaux would be wise not to underestimate her.
So what next for Relais & ChÁ¢teaux on the worldwide stage? It's generally agreed that the chief opportunities will come from the Far East and India and there is still scope for serious expansion in the USA.
The Relais & ChÁ¢teaux inspectors, a small, highly-experienced and secretive group (even the board members don't know who they are), continue to comb the world, seeking out and assessing existing and potential members, building on the quality and values that have been 60 years in the making.
Malcolm Lewis: 'Mr Relais & ChÁ¢teaux'
Malcolm Lewis, chairman of UK & Ireland delegation, Relais & ChÁ¢teaux Malcolm Lewis is without doubt Mr Relais & ChÁ¢teaux this side of the Channel. He sits on the international board, is chairman of the UK delegation, and is the owner of long-time member hotel Longueville Manor in St Saviour, Jersey, opened by his father and grandfather in 1949.
"The founding fathers of Relais were great hoteliers,' he says, "but they were guided by instinct and what they wanted out of life. They weren't trained, they did it naturally."
Today, however, Lewis has a clear vision of where Relais & ChÁ¢teaux goes from here. "A nut we're trying to crack is why the Relais is not so well-known in Britain as it is in France," he says. "We're determined to turn it into an international brand, but this means dismantling some of the Frenchness and this has met with a great deal of resistance from French members."
Lewis is in no doubt that a process of weeding out is inevitable and he sits on a task force committee to deal with problems of questionable quality among some longstanding but perhaps out of touch properties.
"It's a hard and distressing experience," he admits, "but essential." For Relais in the UK, Lewis is optimistic about the future. "The British delegation
has seen a significant growth in sales via the central booking service and there are more people with valuable and impressive properties lining up to join than I've ever seen before," he says. "Inspections are rigorous and the cost of joining is high but that isn't affecting the surge of interest here."
Relais & ChÁ¢teaux: the stats
Members 530 worldwide (33 in the UK)
Number of countries 64
Turnover £88m (generated directly by Relais & ChÁ¢teaux)
Total turnover of member properties £1.4bn (including all revenues generated by Relais & ChÁ¢teaux and other channels)
Total number of rooms 12,600
Average length of stay 2.4 days
Average price per rented room £261
Average spend per stay £627
Top revenue sources France 21%, USA 19%, and UK 12%
Top destinations France 26%, USA 24%, and UK 13%
Sample membership cost 29-bedroom hotel £13,965; restaurant without rooms (more than £1.5m turnover) £5,193; restaurant without rooms (less than £1.5m turnover) £3,462