Relais & Châteaux’s new president, Laurent Gardinier, is just a few months into the job and he’s already got big plans: “Every day I hear people say ‘Relais & Châteaux is old-fashioned’ — I am here to prove we are not!”
We’re talking via video call after a few in-person arrangements were postponed due to travel difficulties. He is in his office in Paris; I’m at home in London. “Strikes have made it tricky to travel in the UK recently,” I offer. “It is a complicated situation,” Gardinier concedes diplomatically.
Diplomacy is clearly something he knows a thing or two about: Relais & Châteaux’s leadership is built upon it. Gardinier stepped up to be president in January 2023 following a leadership election, and 17 years on the board. Once a new president is elected, they serve a first term of five years, with the potential to be reelected for a further term — if they do a good job, that is.
As with all of the French brand’s presidents, Gardinier is a hotelier himself: The beautiful Domaine Les Crayères in Champagne and the Parisian restaurant Le Taillevent are operated under his watchful eye. “It is so important to have owners as presidents,” he says. “We have to remember that this brand works for its members, not the other way around.”
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Stepping up for election was not a decision Gardinier took lightly, nor one he took alone. “I’m 56 years old,” he says. “If I didn’t do it now, I wouldn’t do it. I work closely with my two brothers, so we agreed that the work I was doing at my company will be done by them and one more person while I am president. We made the decision as a family, which was very important.”
At the top of Gardinier’s list in his new role is bringing this legacy brand to the future. Its name might be proudly displayed by the door of each of its member hotels and remains a marker of luxury, but in a world of megabucks conglomerate hospitality groups, staying relevant is essential. Your more well-seasoned friends and family might know the name Relais & Châteaux, but a new generation of traveler is coming over the hill — and if R&C doesn’t get them on board, the future looks worrying.
Diversification plays a key role in Gardinier’s bold ambitions. When it first launched in 1954, Relais & Châteaux was a collection of just eight properties dotted along a route from Paris to Nice, with the slogan La Route du Bonheur — or, ‘The Route to Happiness.’ Now, nearly 70 years later, the brand represents 580 hotels and restaurants in more than 65 different countries. Fortunately for Gardinier, the diversity that the brand needs to prosper already exists — he and his team just need to communicate this with prospective guests.
“The essence of Relais & Châteaux is [that] we have a level of quality that is the best in the location of the property,” Gardinier explains. “We don’t impose anything — you won’t be welcomed in the same way in a [Relais & Châteaux hotel] in Japan as you will be at a hacienda in South America, or in a castle in the UK… Each [property] has to be the best in that location, but for us, there is no definition of luxury. This makes us very different from the rest. But we need to have a range of properties to suit [all travelers.] We need to fulfill the different desires of our guests — some want trendy lifestyle [hotels], others want very traditional. I want people to know you can have a lot of different experiences with Relais & Châteaux.”
And then, there’s the key ingredient in Gardinier’s future-proofing recipe: Sustainability. It is a buzzword in the hospitality industry, but one that can’t be brushed away as a trend. In 2022, the brand released its first-ever sustainability report. “It’s our first, but not our last,” Gardinier is quick to remind me. “We will do them every year now.”
He says: “We were very cautious about what sustainability means and [what it means] in different countries. Of course we look at energy use and plastic use, but we also look at people. Are the people in our community happy? Are we achieving gender equality? We have to look at all of it.”
The inaugural report comes on the back of the brand’s 2014 sustainability manifesto, which outlined 20 commitments. “This was just a declaration. Now, we need to action it,” Gardinier says. To create the report, each member was asked to complete a lengthy form, outlining what they do and don’t do in the daily running of their property, with objectives based on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals framework. “We were [pleasantly] surprised by how many people responded,” Gardinier says. “It really reflects how important sustainability is. It takes a long time to answer — it showed commitment.”
The results were promising. Gardinier is especially proud of the company’s diversity: 46% of women are in management positions and 42% in the top ten salaries (although only 5% of executive chefs across the brand are women).
But, some gaps presented themselves, and some pretty big goals have been outlined: Single-use plastics will be eliminated by 2025; 100% of properties will manage their green areas to enhance biodiversity (up from 70% in 2021); every member will monitor and reduce water usage by 2025 (up from a small 45% in 2021); and three-quarters of properties will use wholly organic, local, seasonal vegetables by 2030, compared to 2021’s 30%.
Then comes the implementation. As Relais & Châteaux is very firmly and proudly not a hotel group, and instead an association of independently owned hotels and restaurants, there is no one-size-fits-all option, nor a universal rollout. Instead, the board needs to be equipped to support each member across the global network.
“Our role is to provide sustainability services to members. If you want to be serious about sustainability, you need to have a supplier ecosystem. We need to have a service in headquarters [available to] members in Morocco — who do they call if they want to eliminate single-use plastics? Then we need that for every country.” Eventually, there will be formalized sustainability inspections, Gardinier says. “It’s not to say ‘You are a bad guy’ to members who [aren’t aligned]. It will just be to make advice and suggestions. We are thinking of offering a Green badge or sign to our members — just as Michelin has with its Green Star.”
If Gardinier remains worried about being behind the times, the stats prove his concerns are unfounded for now; a Relais & Châteaux badge remains a coveted accolade. “We receive around 500 applications a year,” Gardinier tells me. “But we only accept around 20.”
In line with the brand’s democratic ethos, nearby members are consulted on new applications. Only once they approve are the inspectors sent in. There isn’t a colossal appetite for growth either: Laurent proudly tells me that if we counteract these newcomers against those who leave (voluntarily or due to their own dropped standards), the number of properties remains nearly level year over year.
And do hotels ever get kicked out? “Yes,” Laurent replies. “But there are a few strikes. We send an inspector, they make recommendations. If they are not met, the member might get another strike. Sometimes we are told the process is too long, but we see it like family — we don’t want to kick people out.”
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This article appears in the 30 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Winter 2023/24