Owner of the clifftop Château de la Treyne hotel in France’s Dordogne Valley, Philippe Gombert has guided Relais & Châteaux as president for nearly a decade and earned admiration and deep appreciation from owners and management of the non-profit organization’s 580 member hotels and restaurants. Newly elected to serve as president at R&C’s annual congress, Laurent Gardinier—who with his family owns both the Domaine Les Crayères hotel in Reims, in the heart of Champagne region, and the renowned Paris restaurant Le Taillevent—will lead the association over the next five years as it approaches its 70th anniversary in 2024. Gardinier will begin his post as the New Year rolls in.
Filling up Venice’s sumptuous La Fenice opera house, 750 Relais & Châteaux members and staff held their annual Rendez-Vous congress last week under the theme of Embracing the Future. In addition to elucidating goals such as stricter sustainability measures for R&C properties, organizing committees presented a handful of trophies to individual high achievers. For longtime members who come from all over the world, many of whom are multigenerational owners, the event is a chance to reconnect with old friends and welcome nearly two dozen newcomers. They gathered at La Fenice just as much to celebrate Gombert’s tenure and witness Gardinier get ushered in on stage.
And celebrate they did at masked parties, including at the spectacular Palazzo Pisani Moretta on the Grand Canal, one of whose salons features a ceiling by Tiepolo. A gala dinner and entertainment at the massive Arsenale, the former shipyards from which all that former Venetian power emanated, went into the wee hours. Both events showcased wines, spirits, foods and goods and services that Relais & Châteaux chefs use and guests enjoy: from big producers like Moët Hennessy to the small M. Chapoutier wines on the Rhône River; from Valrhona chocolate to Blancpain watches and Ponant cruises.
The Rendez-Vous also revealed the first edition of Relais & Châteaux’s sumptuous new Travel Book that was nurtured by Philippe Gombert and of which an initial 300,000 copies will be distributed. With an image of an Awasi Patagonia villa fronting Chile’s stunning Torres del Paine peaks on the cover, it’s more fine art book than promotional material. Properties are slated to appear every third year.
Following that rousing goodbye at La Fenice to Mr. Gombert and the welcoming of Mr. Gardinier, both the veteran hoteliers took time to discuss the book, the recent past and future for Relais & Châteaux within the the luxury hospitality world, as well as their personal plans and goals to come.
What was your aim with your new Travel Book which is absolutely unlike a traditional catalogue?
Philippe Gombert: The book is much more of a hybrid format than a catalogue with different chapters of inspiration. As the pandemic was ending, we asked ourselves if we should publish again. Yes, but in a different way, with a book with beautiful pictures and which is digital with QR codes that open to all R&C worlds. It’s like a new baby
We made an editorial choice not to showcase each property, which was disruptive to members at first. But you can’t be inspirational showcasing each and every one. Sometimes you have wonderful and long chapters, sometimes just some pictures of what is very rare and iconic in a property. It’s not humble to say, but I’m proud of what the team has achieved, right down to the quality of the paper.
How does R&C reach the next generation of travelers?
Laurent Gardinier. I’m not sure that level of excellence which was enough for us or our parents is enough for the younger generation. The way they feel luxury is a little bit different. As hoteliers, we need to give a sense of what we are doing on a local basis. We have to embrace consciously what we can do to improve and how we operate and communicate with clientele.
…and what about adventure activities like hiking or skiing for young people today?
LG: As we are not mainly urban, that very core of R&C activity connected to location is already more than 60 years old. We have a collection of small properties, some of them remote, which are basic to R&C. We’ve seen a big change over the last five-ten years in the average age of our clientele, which has dropped from 52 to 48.
PG: The younger generation is looking for a reconnection with nature because they are very urban. It’s something very basic.
LG: I think of Domaine de Rymska, a new member in Burgundy, and they have chickens on the farm. Our guests go more and more to vegetable gardens to see the bees. Very simple. I’ve been to Patrick O’Connell [owner of The Inn at Little Washington in Virginia] and you walk with him to his organic garden and it’s absolutely beautiful. It’s very small, but you’re at the top of the luxury experience and raffinement.
…and how about getting on board with social media?
LG: Teaching, teaching, teaching. We have good teams. We don’t do a lot of advertising. We have one million social media followers. That’s not so bad.
Are you seeing changes in R&C source markets?
LG: The American market has become the biggest at more than fifty percent. Joining a lot of different aspects—culture, food, architecture—is the key to R&C. I don’t think this has changed dramatically over the last twenty years. It’s the DNA of R&C. We are lucky to be well known in the American market where the art of living is key to our clientele.
PG: Some Americans travel for two or three weeks and it’s important for us to have this clientele. Travel agents have reinvented themselves due to the pandemic and we see a lot of newcomers working in niches…and we are a niche market. They are bringing us added value. We are doing tailor-made journeys and providing agents with a lot of information who shape the journey of their clients.
What was the biggest challenge in getting through Covid?
PG: It was tough. To support our members under lockdown, we provided them Zoom conferences three times a week with full attendance. I remember Vicky Lau in Hong Kong [chef at two-Michelin star Tate Dining Room & Bar], who was the first to close and reopen, and what she was doing in her restaurant. Everyone was looking to Vicky.
We also decided to downsize our fee level by 40% and 60% to countries like in South America that are dependent on flights. That was a message of hope for our members. But we didn’t cut our sales force in order to be ready for the rebound which has been strong, with 2022 one of the best years in our history. It’s not over, but we can live with it.
What are the advantages of having a non-profit structure?
LG: It means that a non-profit organization is not working for the benefit of itself, but for its members. Otherwise, there is a conflict of interest. We have to be much more efficient and balanced for the long term. But we can’t be bought by anyone. You can’t put a figure on this incredible value and members know it very well.
PG: When I arrived in 2013, there was a bit of lack of trust because our economic model pushed bookings for our own website to balance the cost. We stopped that in order to deliver services at cost. And we regained that trust.
With hospitality being such an international industry, is this a time of challenges in staffing?
LG: In many of our restaurants, the only way [to combat staff shortages] is to reduce the number of covers and days of operation. We are not a political entity. But visa policy is a key part of our industry and many countries are now very restrictive. As we are a labor intensive industry, we are badly hit.
PG: We try to help our 42,000 employees worldwide stay in our ecosystem. If they want to leave, let’s say to learn English, we try to manage them going to Ireland or the U.K.—so we don’t lose the excellence, as training is expensive.
What about issues like sustainability?
LG: We as hospitality are at the corner of social demands and we need to address that. This is the discussion I’d like to focus on, with four or five main goals to implement in our properties and for the 70th anniversary in 2024 t0 enhance the manifesto that Philippe developed in 2014 [as presented here to UNESCO].
PG: And if I may give a message of great hope, we have many members who are very much advanced in best practices.
Mr. Gombert, as you move on, what are your plans now for your own property and personal projects?
PG: The previous owner of Château de la Treyne sold everything, but kept the truffle crops. We have 300 acres of land and forest overlooking the Dordogne River and one of my goals is to plant new oak trees for truffles and later build two or three treehouses to reconnect with nature. And taking some time for my family as my time was fully booked as president of R&C. And I’ll try to travel to eight or ten members a year to deeply understand our network…to feel the soul, the spirit of a R&C property.
And, Mr. Gardinier, how often do you anticipate traveling in this new role in life?
LG: I’ve reorganized the company that I work in with my two brothers. This commitment would not have been possible without my brothers saying okay. And then, I would really like to visit the African properties. I’ve already been on safari, but I think the mission there is very important, not just to sell rooms or see lions and elephants, but to work with the community. There is an ecosystem created that I want to discover and understand more of.
This discussion was condensed and edited for space and clarity.