We chat to the president of luxury hotel and restaurant association Relais & Châteaux, which marks its 70th anniversary in May 2024.

What is Relais & Châteaux?

Relais & Châteaux is an affiliation, we’re not a chain or the owner. Our challenge is to find hotels and restaurants – whether they’re in Spain, Portugal or Japan – which represent the best of those countries locally and culturally. The best properties represent the soul of the owner or chef. We also have to be careful that Relais & Châteaux doesn’t work for itself but for the benefit of the members. If you have a profit-orientated mindset, the organisation will produce things that are good for itself but not for the members.

How do you select properties?

We send anonymous inspectors with 500 criteria for hotels and 180 for restaurants. The brief is to find the best of the local community in terms of architecture, food, design, service and sustainability. We receive roughly 600 applications per year – and accept 20-25 every year.

How often are they checked?

It used to be every three years, and now it’s every two. It’s like at school, the more you are inspected, the better you perform. It gives rigour to everyone in the network. A year is too short if you need to implement changes, but every two years gives you time to make corrections and make sure you’re at the best level. The properties receive a 30-page report – this is the added value we can bring.

Chewton Glen joined the association in 1971 as the first British member. What made it stand out?

First of all, it’s about two hours outside of a big city. The DNA of Relais & Châteaux is to be outside of big cities (though we also have some city hotels). Then there’s the beauty of the property’s architecture, the service and also the fact that it is within the New Forest.

How has the company evolved over the past 70 years?

The organisation has been able to expand without losing its soul. Why? Because we try to find the same DNA all over the world – the best Japanese ryokan or Irish castle. We’ve always had this mindset. Gastronomy has also made us special. You know you will have a great gastronomic offering that represents the local area – we have 376 Michelin stars.

What’s your favourite property?

I don’t know all 580 of them unfortunately, but among them is Villa Bokéh in Guatemala. Open your curtains and there’s a wonderful garden and a huge volcano 10km away. Hameau Albert 1er in Chamonix is also a very strong example of Relais & Châteaux – family-owned, nice cuisine and very well-managed.

And favourite hotels outside of Relais & Châteaux?

I love big palais-style hotels, such as Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc in Antibes and Hotel Principe di Savoia in Milan. They offer an absolutely extraordinary experience of everlasting luxury. Also, the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi and Raffles Singapore where you’re part of history.

How would you define luxury?

It’s much more a matter of experience than just material things. Luxury is about the best of the local at the highest standard – but this differs from one country to the next. I stayed in a ryokan in Japan, which was simple with few furnishings, but it offered the best of Japanese culture and design. For me, this is more luxurious than having marble in the bathroom.

What are the biggest challenges facing the association?

We had huge staffing problems during and after Covid. We are still struggling. The UK market is struggling even more – because of Brexit you can’t hire people from foreign countries. What happened is a nightmare, incredibly stupid. Outside of the UK you don’t have this, you can hire people from other countries more easily.

We’re also facing a lot of strong competitors who are bigger than us and who are starting to invest in smaller properties. The 500-room building with four different pools and five F&B venues will always meet a certain level of customer, but CEOs at the premium level of the industry are starting to invest in smaller properties [like the ones we focus on].

What’s next for Relais & Châteaux?

We need to provide the services to achieve sustainability and collectively participate in change. It has to be seen as a movement. We have a sustainability report and [a reporting system based on] 60 indicators with around 150 questions, but our inspectors monitor the guest experience. Most sustainable aspects are behind the scenes and our inspectors are not trained for that – you can’t ask them about the water system, compost etc. You need a different team to check the operations and advise the properties. Whether we do this ourselves or contract a certification company, that’s a choice we need to make.

Which countries are you looking to expand in?

We’re not well represented in southeast Asia. Then you have the two main markets: China and India. We have beautiful members here, but we need to consider whether to go further or not. We’re not a group so we don’t build properties. It’s a matter of finding a property that aligns with our DNA. We can improve in the northern part of Europe too: Denmark, Norway, Sweden. They have a fantastic gastronomic scene.