Hotels

Inside the Secret Application Process to Become a Relais & Châteaux Hotel

The hospitality organization always whispered its elite status, but now members may want to turn up the volume.
IMAGE COURTESY OF RELAIS & CHÂTEAUX
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Clinging perilously to a perch above the quietly bubbling Dordogne River are the creamy yellow peaks of Château de la Treyne. The property, located over 300 miles south of Paris and three hours east of Bordeaux, features manicured gardens, a pool, a handful of lazy cows, and eight rooms each decorated in their own style. Far from the more famous cities though it may be, tourists and locals alike drive out to spend an evening in the dining room with the Michelin-starred chef Stéphane Andrieux, who creates among many other dishes, a millefeuille with generous alternating slices of foie gras and filet mignon.

It is the home property of Philippe and Stéphanie Gombert, and the former has just begun his fifth year as the president of the global hospitality association Relais & Châteaux. In his role, he presides over 580 properties around the world. Spots in the United States range from six of the best restaurants in New York City (Eleven Madison Park, Per Se, Daniel, Del Posto, Jean-Georges, and Gabriel Kreuther), to Blackberry Farm in Tennessee, the Inn at Dos Brisas in Texas, and Twin Farms in Vermont.

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Gombert is determined to make the brand—well, "shout" isn't quite the word, but whisper a little louder. Sotto voce.

Since the association launched in 1954, a Relais & Châteaux designation has represented a certain excellence, a distinction of quality that the most discerning jetsetter or foodie might notice via subtle plaques at the door or pins on the lapel of a concierge. The brand whispered its caliber. Now, Gombert is determined to make the brand—well, "shout" isn't quite the word, but whisper a little louder. Sotto voce.


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The dining room at Château de la Treyne

Gombert didn't choose the hospitality industry. He was born into it, as both his father and grandfather were hoteliers in Paris; in 1982, his mother acquired Château de la Treyne and spent years renovating it into a functional hotel. Gombert studied law, though, and practiced as a lawyer in Paris during the week only to spend weekends at the property. His German-born wife, Stéphanie, assisted with renovations—particularly the decor—and remains the lady of the manor to this day, greeting guests at the front desk and checking on couples throughout their dinners by first name. The couple live not at the hotel, but rather at a home tucked nearby.

Her detailed devotion to guests' comfort is about what one might expect from a Relais & Châteaux property. What makes a hotel or restaurant right for the association? It should aim to be "the living expression of a place, its history, environment, and culture," according to its official mission.

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Gombert phrases it a bit differently. "Of course there are standards," he says. "It's a full experience. It is food and wine, yes, but I think that the most important thing is to feel that you are in a unique place, having unique experiences."


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Philippe and Stéphanie Gombert

Put another way, he says, "We are against any kind of standardization. We are fighting against it."

To become a member of the association, a property must express interest. "They have to explain why they want to apply. What are their commitments? We need to know and to understand, what are their philosophies? This is very important for the board," Gombert explains. "Then what we do is a technical, and mysterious, visit. One of our twelve inspectors worldwide go there and have the full experience of a guest: having dinner, describing each and every dish, with a lot of details."

The inspector role sounds similar to the secretive testers at the Michelin guide, and indeed the job is both enviable and rigorous. "It looks like fun, but it is not so easy. They have to fill out a long questionnaire, with good details, so it takes time," he explains. "They are very good at it."

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We are against any kind of standardization. We are fighting against it.

The technical report and application are reported to the board, and the board then asks the delegate from the candidate’s region for further commentary. Finally, there is a vote of the board. If the property is very close to acceptance but still lacking in some areas, Relais & Châteaux won’t keep it a mystery: They’ll share feedback so the place can apply again.

Rarely, some spots are invited to apply. "Sometimes it is a reward, where we say, 'You are really embodying the brand. It could be a good idea for you to join,'" Gombert says.

The benefits to membership extend beyond bragging rights. Annual fees go toward the organization’s communications system: printed guides in each room in French and English, a Relais & Châteaux app, the website, an online reservation structure for the hundreds of properties, centralized public relations, a yearly meeting. "Look, each and every property is working very hard on a daily basis to promote themselves. Stéphanie, here, is working very hard to promote Château de la Treyne, and she's doing very well. But there is something that individually, a property cannot achieve," Gombert says.

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A view of the Dordogne River from a room at Château de la Treyne

"Presenting a property in more than nine languages, including Mandarin, we cannot do that," he continues, speaking as a property owner. "So that's [Relais & Châteaux]'s role, to help."

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From his leadership perch, Gombert is further using the association's resources to fix broader issues he hears about at those annual conventions of members. "One key problem that has been raised for the past two years is many of our properties are facing recruitment problems. People want to work hard, but… there is a lack of skilled workers, because you have to be very skilled," he explains. Recently, the association launched a central jobs board and system of transferrals so that staffers may get the opportunity to move up in the world—and travel it.

"We have 42,000 staff members worldwide. We want them first to be proud of their part in Relais & Châteaux, to think it's an honor, that this can do something for their careers. We can treat them very well," Gombert says. "If they want to change from France to Australia to the U.S., we facilitate their mobility internationally. We keep it in the family." As he speaks, a waiter comes by who is just spending the season at Château de la Treyne before returning to Canada.

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A dish in the dining room at Château de la Treyne

Additionally, a digital magazine was launched in 2016, the same year the organization partnered with Slow Food, an international grassroots group dedicated to rediscovering "the flavors and savors of regional cooking and [to] banish the degrading effects of Fast Food." Relais & Châteaux furthered their campaign, Ark of Taste, to bring attention to regional ingredients that are facing extinction—R&C chefs are encouraged to introduce those rare and special plants into their cooking again. (In the U.S., such endangered products include the Boston marrow squash in the northeast, and Inchelium red garlic in Washington.)

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The future of Relais & Châteaux seems to be more of what they do best: banding together in a common mission, with fellow properties and with like-minded organizations.

"I think we stand for authenticity. We stand for excellence, for food, for experience, and for culture," Gombert says, sipping a rosy Champagne at sunset over the Dordogne. "The culture is in this location, but the culture also is made by all the people surrounding us, what you call generally communities. We all have our communities."

This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.

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