Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Thoughtfulness is luxury, not the marble used: Relais & Châteaux's Laurent Gardinier

The president of the luxury hotel association talks about how a focus on local culture, sustainability, culinary excellence, and social responsibility is driving the group's future

Published: Jun 18, 2024 06:28:27 PM IST
Updated: Jun 18, 2024 06:44:03 PM IST

Laurent Gardinier, President of luxury hotel association Relais & Châteaux  Image: Virginie Clavieres/Paris Match Via Getty ImagesLaurent Gardinier, President of luxury hotel association Relais & Châteaux Image: Virginie Clavieres/Paris Match Via Getty Images

If you’ve ever tucked yourself into a fluffy hotel bed only to discover the light switch is on the other side of the room, you have a frustration in common with Laurent Gardinier. The president of luxury hotel association Relais & Châteaux, Gardinier is also the co-owner of the Domaine Les Crayères hotel in Reims, France, and the Michelin-starred restaurant Le Taillevent in Paris—so it’s safe to say that he knows a thing or two about hospitality.

He looks out for attention to detail, culinary excellence and service to community when surveying new properties to join the international network that was founded in 1954 by a group of hoteliers and restaurant owners as a way to offer travellers a consistent level of quality. Relais & Châteaux now spans 580 member properties in 65 countries across five continents. In India, the association has nine hotel members, including The Malabar House in Kochi and SUJÁN Jawai in Bilaspur, and one restaurant member, Masque in Mumbai.

The association sees immense potential in the Indian market, for its diverse culinary heritage and burgeoning luxury travel sector. Despite currently having only 15 members in the Indian subcontinent, the group is conducting market studies to identify and integrate more properties. With Indian travellers’ spending patterns mirroring those of high-value markets like the US, Relais & Châteaux is poised to expand its footprint in the country. Edited excerpts from an interview:

Q. As Relais & Châteaux celebrates its 70th anniversary, could you share some insights into the journey of the organisation, particularly its evolution in luxury hospitality and gastronomy?
While much has changed since the group was founded 70 years ago, one thing that has stayed the same for us is our commitment to excellence and quality. As a not-for-profit association of restaurants and hotels, we believe travel and gastronomy are both dependent on nature and our natural surroundings, and so it is our duty to ensure the sustained integrity and vitality of our surroundings. We believe in personalised hospitality, which allows each property from the network to maintain its unique character and individuality while subscribing to our larger vision.

The Relais & Châteaux Vision, a manifesto of 20 commitments that we presented to Unesco in 2014, remains the driving force behind our initiatives. We intend to update it this year. Our Sustainability Report, released in 2022, builds on our vision by focusing on environmental conservation, sustainable cuisine and social and societal empowerment.

Q. Are there specific plans that the association has for expanding its presence in India?
India is an extremely important market for us… I believe it is the future of the hospitality industry. I think that Relais & Châteaux, an association and affiliation of individually owned and operated luxury hotels and Michelin-starred restaurants, should have a wider presence in the Indian market, where the average trip spend on our Indian member properties is 32 percent higher than that globally, and almost similar to markets such as the US. We are conducting a market study to assess and map the potential properties that could fit our brand DNA. We are well represented in the Americas, Western Europe and East Asia, but only have 15 members in the Indian subcontinent, including Sri Lanka. There is potential for more members to join.

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Q. With the rise of global travel trends and changing consumer preferences, how does Relais & Châteaux ensure that its member properties remain relevant to younger audiences?
It is important for us to ensure our principles stay intact. You can try to stay trendy, but if that is the main focus, you are in a losing race because you are running after something that is not unique. That being said, the definition of luxury has changed significantly, and recently, it has become a quest for authenticity. Travellers are turning away from material spends and asking more for experiences. During the pandemic, we all lost a lot of time, and many are trying to make up for it at all costs. Time is the greatest luxury for me, and the hotel industry is naturally moving towards ‘slower’ modes of travel and more introspective experiences. This is where our properties truly shine, for our focus on local culture and more meaningful travel experiences.

Q. Given the potential impact of political events on global travel patterns, how does Relais & Châteaux work to foster cross-cultural understanding within its international network?

I am not the secretary-general of the United Nations, but I believe that what our properties offer is truly unique because guests can discover the world through hospitality. This is the goal. We try to showcase the best of the world in terms of design, architecture and service. If you go to a château in Portugal, you won’t expect the same experience as one in Japan. But retaining the soul of a place and the art of welcoming are important to us, and the quality of food will always be local and sustainable. We have the same standards, wherever you go. This allows our guests to explore different cultural nuances because each property is a window into a local culture.
 
Q. What do you look for in a hotel when you travel?
It all boils down to attention to detail. Things like how easy it is to put the lights on and off from your bed, how long you have to wait for the water in the shower to become hot, how thick the door of your room is—these are small things, but they make a big impact in a guest’s mind. If you get it right, it signifies to the guest that someone has thought about that level of the experience. And that thoughtfulness, to me, is luxury. It’s not about the marble used, but the attention to detail.

(This story appears in the 14 June, 2024 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)