“Luxury is more than big rooms, marble floors, and three swimming pools.” It has to originate from the property’s location—the owner’s ability to deliver the finest of the culture of the place where the hotel is located,” adds Laurent Gardinier in his French drawl. The newly appointed President of Relais & Châteaux recently visited Sri Lanka, where he met with 20 Indian, Sri Lankan, and Thai hotel managers, chefs, and owners—just some of the 580 luxury hotels and restaurants that are members of the France-based global non-profit association.
After three years of the Covid-19 outbreak, the luxury hotel industry has fully recovered. According to an EY analysis, revenue per available room (RevPAR) in the United States increased by 8.1% from 2019 to 2022, while Europe increased by 6.1% during the same period. According to the Hotels and Hospitality Overview by HVS Anarock, an international hospitality consultant, RevPAR in India in June 2023 was 25-27 percent more than in June 2019. With both international and domestic tourists returning—not only in India, but around the world—Gardinier believes 2022 was a record year for the majority of association members.
“There has been a shift in how people in the premium segment travel. They travel in smaller groups, with just friends or family, and are looking for smaller properties and unique experiences away from the bustling crowds,” says Gardinier, effectively describing a typical Relais & Châteaux property, such as Cape Weligama on Sri Lanka’s southern coast, which offers 39 suites and villas perched on a cliff.
He goes on to say that the DNA of Relais & Châteaux is to have small properties with a strong emphasis on food. It’s no surprise that the association’s over 800 restaurants—including freestanding restaurants—have a total of 350 Michelin stars. Some well-known Relais & Châteaux restaurants include the three-Michelin-star Addison in San Diego, the two-Michelin-star Arnolfo in Siena, and the three-Michelin-star Akelarre in San Sebastian. Masque, situated in Mumbai, is the only solo restaurant in India to be a part of Relais & Châteaux.
Shreyas Retreat in Bengaluru, Ahilya By the Sea in Goa, Mihirgarh and Sujan in Rajasthan, and Niraamaya Surya Samudra and The Malabar House in Kerala are among them. Gardinier says he wants more Indian members, but locating the perfect land is critical. The non-profit Relais & Châteaux, which was founded in 1954 and currently operates in 65 countries, is picky about which properties it accepts into its “family.” Gardinier claims that each year, more over 500 applications are received globally, but only 20 members are accepted.
“Interacting with hoteliers from across the globe, cross-pollination of ideas and learning from their experiences is very helpful.” They can also make advantage of one another’s resources. Holkar used the example of inviting a Michelin-starred chef from a Relais & Châteaux member hotel to a charity event in India. “The Relais & Châteaux brand is extremely valuable. It’s highly established globally, and the guest knows what to anticipate in terms of service and experience.” When it comes to bookings through the Relais & Châteaux website, Holkar notes that most inbound tourists book through travel agents because they are on a multi-city tour, whereas Indian guests book directly through the hotel’s website.
Joerg Drechsel, who owns The Malabar House in Kochi, Kerala, and has been a member since 2007, is the country’s first Relais & Châteaux member: “Being a member of Relais & Châteaux is like belonging to a private club.” Other members provide frequent comments on best practices, sustainability challenges, and so on.” Having a brand also helps greatly with sales. “For someone coming from the US, UK or Europe, the brand name gives them confidence.” While Relais & Châteaux member hotels and restaurants employ over 40,000 people, there is a scarcity of educated personnel.
“Maintaining the level of service is a challenge as worldwide we are facing a shortage of people wanting to enter the hospitality industry,” Gardinier said. The greater challenge, according to Gardinier, is sustainability. It is critical not just for the hotel but also for customers, who want to stay in a more environmentally friendly establishment. “Sustainable choices must be made at every stage of the guest experience.” Whether it’s choosing paper over plastic, serving local food, promoting gender equality in the workplace, or conserving water.” According to Gardinier, sustainable options are initially more expensive. “Our challenge is to introduce sustainability without sacrificing quality or cutting corners.” The challenge is to keep the same level.