Image credit: Thomas Bismuth / Mediatome

French-headquartered luxury hospitality association Relais & Châteaux may have turned 60, but age is, after all, just a number.

Call her a hip grandmother if you will, or a diamond getting more brilliant with each successive facet during the polishing. Just as each cut to produce the facet requires hours and very careful positioning, the brand is slowly but strategically shaping itself to tackle the next decades.

Just months before it turned 60, it boldly added villas and private homes to its repertoire, where the 85 home-away-from-home options can range from a Loire château to a Cretan yacht to an African farmhouse in a private game reserve. It spent the last two years transforming itself from a technologically awkward senior citizen to a digital-savvy millennial, scooping one of the top awards in travel for its iPad application just 45 days before its birthday. And Asia… well, it has barely gotten started.

To begin with, its story had been fairytale-like. In 1954, Marcel Tilloy of Hostellerie La Cardinale in Baix had the spark of joining up with other like-minded property owners and chefs to showcase French-style art de vivre (art of living) in the countryside between Paris and Nice. This route was entrenched as their slogan, La Route du Bonheur, or The Road of Happiness.

It’s as if the association had come full circle then, when it celebrated its 60th big bash at a venue with significance to where it had all begun. The celebratory party was at Georges Blanc Parc and Spa, run by the Grands Chef whose uncle Paul Blanc hosted the originators of Relais de Campagne for dinner in his Chapon Fin that fateful night on 12th May 1954.

Ruby revelry
As much fanfare as there is about the association’s six decades of history, there is another anniversary worth marking, pointed out Jean-François Ferret, Directeur Général or CEO of Relais & Châteaux. Forty years ago, in 1974, Relais & Châteaux registered perhaps its most significant milestone, when it made the decision to go truly international by expanding its membership network beyond Europe. And not only that, it merged three brands — Relais de Campagne, Relais Gourmands and the rival Châteaux-Hôtels– into a single entity, Relais & Châteaux.

“1974 is really at the heart of the Relais & Châteaux history.”

Ferret is naturally more intimate with the recent milestones, given the fact that he only joined Relais & Châteaux in January 2012, reporting to then International President Jaume Tàpies. And that’s quite a few, given that the 51-year-old Frenchman, who has had stints in Thomas Cook and Hertz among others, had entered a body on the cusp of change that included a new board and president since November 2013.

While the association has grown in many ways since its founding brands, Ferret acknowledged there had been missteps. One, in particular, was losing out on 10 years in the digital world. “We missed the digital revolution after 2000. We did not invest enough in digital, didn’t invest enough in talent, to make sure we had a digital strategy.”

This weakness, in turn, drove his tenure. Catching up and making for lost time in the mobile and Web realm became one of his priorities after he assumed office. Ferret put together a new e-commerce team, worked out a new strategy and went on to plug the gaps. Within 16 months, the company went from being “a little old-fashioned in terms of our Web and apps” to successful deployment on the iOS and Android platforms, including an iPad app. Relais & Châteaux’s iPad offering snagged the Travel d’Or award (the Oscars of tourism) for the best tablet application in 2014 in late March, just several weeks after it released an app optimised for Android tablets. The gift programme offering the Relais & Châteaux abode or gourmet experience in the form of certificates was also revamped and has chalked up “good sales figures” since its launch last October.

Going East
Another blip, the executive weighed in, has been the lack of presence in Asia. Although Relais & Châteaux’s first wave of international expansion reached the shores of Japan, early on in 1975, there was subsequently not enough emphasis on development in Asia. “The first Relais & Châteaux in China was inducted in 2004… this was really too late, and now we try to catch up,” said Ferret, who professes a love for foreign language. Besides his native tongue, he speaks English, German, and Russian and has spent some time learning Japanese in school and more recently, Chinese. The CEO also knows a thing or two about art de vivre — he learnt to play the cello at the age of six (and still does as a hobby), has been an avid artistic fencer for the last 10 years, and also speaks of an interest in art, particularly 16th-century paintings.

“The problem that we have in Asia is that either we have very beautiful palaces or very high-end hotels which means no soul of the innkeeper or no taste of the land, or we have good hotels either with not enough service or not enough cuisine.”

Currently, there are 33 Relais & Châteaux members in Asia, with another 15 to 20 in the pipeline thanks to three prospection trips last year that uncovered numerous beautiful properties in countries including China, Vietnam and Thailand. Where before, it took around 40 years to recruit 30 Asian members into the family, the association wants to double that number to 60 in the next three years, Ferret disclosed. In May, it also unveiled a dedicated 24/7 call centre for reservations out of Asia excluding Japan.

Tallying up Relais & Châteaux

  • 520 members in 64 countries, of which two-thirds are based in Europe
  • 33 members in Asia — 25 hotels with restaurants and 8 restaurants without rooms
  • 446 hotels with at least one restaurant and 74 standalone restaurants worldwide are part of the Relais & Châteaux family
  • 800 restaurants, with a total of 321 Michelin stars
  • 156 Grands Chefs worldwide, with nine based in Asia
  • Only two — Taiwan’s Chen Lanshu and Park Kyung-Won of South Korea — of the 14 female Grands Chefs are of Asian descent
  • Spain and Belgium were the first European countries to be represented in Relais & Châteaux, in 1960; the Auberge du Moulin Hideux in the Belgian Ardennes, remains today a Relais & Châteaux member
  • 63 Routes du Bonheur to date
  • Relais & Châteaux’s award-winning iPad app available in seven languages: English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish and Russian
  • The Relais & Châteaux mobile app has been downloaded 228, 880 times (as of 17th July, 2014)

This bullish outlook for Asia is not by coincidence, of course. Collectively, Relais & Châteaux knows the region is a harvest field, and the appointment of Jaisal Singh from Suján in India as vice president — the first Asian appointed to the Executive Committee — at the 39th International Relais & Châteaux Congress signalled a shift in course. And, according to Ferret, international expansion is one aspect of the three-prong vision for the four-year term of Philippe Gombert, who took over the International presidency in November 2013 at the Berlin congress. Gombert, the maître de maison of Chateau de la Treyne in the Dordogne and a former lawyer called to the Paris bar, also has digital acceleration and value cultivation on his agenda.

At the same time, Ferret stressed the association will stay focused on welcoming the right partners. “We are very demanding in terms of cuisine, and we find a lot of beautifully-designed hotels in Asia with ‘OK’ cuisine, but Relais & Châteaux is very much focused on cuisine and we don’t want to have cuisine that is only ‘OK’.

That said, he noted that the type of hotel Relais & Châteaux is looking for is on the rise in Asia and the association is “very optimistic” its membership here will grow in the next few months and years.

Seeing beyond the 5Cs
Ferret believes that now, more than ever, Relais & Châteaux needs to stay relevant. One challenge the association is facing right now, particularly in Europe, he explained, is getting right the “balance between the return on emotion and the return on investment” in light of the economic environment. “Family spirit is really the true value of Relais & Châteaux, but we see that during the economic crisis our members require more and more return on investment and we need to be more efficient and proactive.

“This is why we launched our commercial activities and we are now very dynamic in all our sales channels — digital, call centres and travel agents — to make sure they push the activities of our members.”

The association, however, doesn’t just consider members as family; customers are also kinship, Ferret noted. And making paying guests feel they are part of the Relais & Châteaux family will remain important. Since the foundation of Relais & Châteaux was laid six decades ago, there has been five intrinsic qualities: cuisine, charme (charm), charactère (character), courtoisie (courteous) and calme (calm). But about four or five years ago, Relais & Châteaux sensed the need to go beyond the 5Cs — to make sure that there is experiential value for the family coming to visit.

A major element of this new value system is the “taste of the land”, Ferret stated. “Whether the cuisine or the hotel, when it’s in China it should feel like China. When it’s in Japan, same thing; when it’s in France, Paris for example, it should feel like Paris.

“It’s not like the Four Seasons, when you’re in Beijing… when you’re in Moscow, it’s the same — very high level but very homogenous,” he added.

Next on the list is “the soul of the innkeeper”. When a guest enters a Relais & Châteaux, Ferret explained, he should feel not only the property but also somebody or a family behind that. “The soul is something very important; if you cannot find the soul, the property cannot be a Relais Châteaux.”

To that end, the association also took a bold step this year to reinvent the Relais & Châteaux directory, a guide listing all its member properties and restaurants that has stayed somewhat the same in the last two decades. Brandishing it in front of his webcam during the interview, Ferret said the inclusion of full-size images, quotes of the owners and restaurateurs in handwriting font and intimate conversations with Grands Chefs about food and recipes were more representative of the new direction of Relais & Châteaux.

In pursuit of happiness
The soul of the innkeeper or the Grands Chef, is not only encountered at the member premises, but through the Routes du Bonheur, or Road of Happiness, launched in 2011. Similar to the idea behind the founding of Relais & Châteaux, the routes were to have a champion, or ambassador, who knew intimately the terroir and its producers, the properties and “the treats to find”.

“The Road of Happiness is really an itinerary that can showcase all the values of Relais Châteaux. We want to position… Relais Châteaux as the best way to discover the world and to taste the world.”

There were only seven or eight Routes du Bonheur when Ferret joined Relais & Châteaux two years ago, he revealed. Developing the routes became another big area of focus for him. The number rose steadily and at the threshold of its 60th anniversary, Relais & Châteaux had been gearing to unveil its No. 60 Route du Bonheur.

There had been a rapid development of these inspirational routes linking member properties and restaurants over the last year, but this one was special for a couple of reasons, revealed Ferret. First, it was championed by the Troisgros family and specifically Michel Troisgros, the son of Pierre Troisgros, who together with Joseph Olivereau established Relais Gourmands in 1972. The route also incorporates historic properties that were not in the original route — Georges Blanc Parc & Spa, Maison Troisgros, Oustere de Baumanière & Spa and Châteaux de La Chèvre d’Or. The Auberge des Templiers, which kicks off the accommodation for the route, is the only one of the original eight collaborators still part of the Relais family.

A little apologetically, Ferret confessed that he has only followed through two Routes du Bonheur in his two-and-a-half years with the association — discovering the wilderness of West Canada last year, and indulging in the romanticism of Amalfi Coast and the Napoli area.

This, despite travelling many weekends to Relais & Châteaux properties both for work and to relax with the family. “It’s always nice to spend time with the family,” Ferret mused. “It’s work, but it’s also fun.”