Interview: Nicola Liddiard, UK MD Relais & Chateux (2009)

Posted on: November 15th, 2009 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

Known originally as Relais de Campagne (1954), Relais & Chateaux was an association started by a small group of like minded hoteliers, who went on a journey south along the N7 from Paris stopping at eight places along the way – they called this their Route du Bonheur.

In similar spirit, some 56 years later, Relais & Châteaux customers seek their individual, tailored, route du boheur and the team at the London ‘maison’ is more than equipped to help.

Nicola Liddiard (left), UK Director, Relais & Châteaux at The London Maison, Beauchamp Place, Knightsbridge spoke to Simon Carter of fine-dining-guide on Tuesday November 24rd 2009.

Tell us some background about yourself?

I’ve been in the hospitality industry for more than 20 years, always at the luxury end of the market, working for five-star companies such as Sheraton, Luxury Collection , Meridien and Radisson. As well as regional experience in various UK and European destinations, I have also had on-property experience. My work has taken me all over the Middle East, Europe and Asia.

In 2006, I heard Relais & Châteaux was looking for someone to open and run the UK subsidiary of the French company. I was lucky enough to get the position and in April 2006 I started running the UK office of Relais & Châteaux. One of my first assignments was to find the right home for the company: I had six months to house-hunt for a permanent ‘Maison’ in the UK. I finally settled on Beauchamp Place in Knightsbridge. It suits the style and cosmopolitan luxury of our brand perfectly.  From start to finish, the project took a year and a half to complete. We opened the Maison in December 2007, and we’re about to celebrate our second birthday.

Describe your current roles and responsibilities

As UK Director, responsibilities include looking after UK & Ireland reservations on behalf of our 475 members world-wide for both inbound and outbound customers. The boutique here also provides a personal face-to-face service for reservations.

While customers can, and are encouraged to, make reservations online via, it’s vital to add value by offering every service we can, with efficiency, polish and expertise, from fielding calls via the toll free number to exploring itineraries face to face with clients, like a traditional travel consultant.

This office also handles all PR and marketing activities for Relais & Châteaux London Ltd, which includes events in the UK and around the world. To give you a couple of examples of our marketing activities, in the first week of February we are hosting show-cases in London, Manchester and Edinburgh to present our properties to prospective and existing clients – they do very much appreciate it when we go out to them. In March we go to New York to launch our new package ‘Charming British Escapes’.

Another recent project brought to fruition by the UK office was a beautiful coffee table recipe book, A Taste of Relais & Châteaux. All our UK chefs contributed recipes and we offered our Club 5C members (I’ll talk about that later) the opportunity to buy a copy of the book signed by their favourite chef.

The 2010 Relais & Châteaux Guide is launched on December 7th 2009?

Yes, at The Connaught, which we’re very excited to welcome to our association as a new flagship accommodation and destination hotel in the capital. We have not had a property in central London for some years, and we are obviously delighted that our London offering is one of the world’s most famous hotels. Part of the Relais & Châteaux strategy is to provide customers with world class travelling itineraries. For that to work, it is important to be able to offer the highest level of food and accommodation in a gateway city such as London or Paris.

Our customers typically travel around a country (or several countries) seeking the best on offer, and tailoring their itineraries accordingly. Having The Connaught join this year brings benefits to the hotel, the association, the destination and, most importantly, to the customers.

Tell us about Les Grands Chefs

Relais & Châteaux wants to bring to customers premium properties that offer fine food and we currently boast 23 Michelin stars across the UK & Ireland and have honoured many of our top chefs with Le Grand Chef status; Le Gavroche and Hélène Darroze at the Connaught in London, The Fat Duck, The Waterside Inn, Gidleigh Park and Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons, all boast stars and a Grand Chef at the helm. I believe we are the only hotel and restaurant association to hold more than 300 Michelin stars worldwide: undoubtedly the best starting point for committed foodies.

Les Grands Chefs were known as Relais Gourmands until recently. We altered the name for the sake of our international clients – we felt that ‘Grand Chefs’ expressed more simply and clearly what sets the particular property kitchen apart. Food is one of the most important components of a good holiday for all our clients and many will seek out those properties where Les Grands Chefs are working their magic.

What is the philosophy of Relais & Châteaux?

Relais & Chateaux has had its Quality Charter in place for many years. At the heart of it are what we call ‘the 5 Cs’, which are the essential requirements of membership. Fortunately the concept works in French and English! The 5Cs are:

• Courtesy – The quality of the welcome in a Relais & Châteaux is impeccable and the service is always attentive.
• Charm – member properties are stylish establishments with a relaxing atmosphere and elegant interiors.
• Character – Each Relais & Châteaux has its own style whether it is a château, manor house or abbey.
• Calm – every property offers a tranquil escape.
• Cuisine – food of the highest standard is essential

Properties generally apply to become members – we rarely solicit membership. But they are all still anonymously inspected and our inspectors look for much more than the 5Cs. We have another checklist that we refer to as the ‘Five Ideals’, which are all about the customer experience, and these go to the heart of our philosophy. Our five ideals are:

• Soul of the innkeeper – a personality at the heart of the property
• Taste of the land – a dining experience with a sense of place
• Celebration of the senses – harmony and balance in all aspects of the stay
• Awakening of the Art of Living – new discoveries in a life-enhancing stay
• Passport to Friendship – enjoyable and enriching human contact

Building on the 5Cs, we invite most regular customers to join our Club 5C. Naturally we want to recognise and reward their loyalty, and Club 5C members receive special benefits (I mentioned the exclusively signed copies of A Taste of Relais & Châteaux before) such as upgrades and gifts on arrival. They also receive a Club newsletter with exclusive special offers and suggested ‘Route du Bonheur’ itineraries. We also hold regular evening events in our Maison in London and invite the members to come and meet our hoteliers in person.

How does a customer acquire a copy of The Relais & Chateaux Guide?

All Relais & Châteaux properties stock complimentary copies. We also encourage people to break their shopping, sightseeing or working day in London to drop in to the Maison in Beauchamp Place for the chance to rest their legs and sample Relais & Chateaux hospitality. They can pick up a Guide there, and we also have a distribution list, which anyone can join via Naturally we will offer them a hot or cold beverage whilst we assist with their enquiries.

What’s new for Relais & Châteaux in UK & Ireland?

A new package called Charming British Escapes will include dinner, bed and breakfast in two categories across our members in UK & Ireland. We are always looking for third parties with the same market profile as ourselves with whom we can co-operate, and from January 25th to 31st we will be working with Harrods to promote three launches: the 2010 Relais & Chateaux Guide, the Charming British Escapes packages and the second edition of the UK & Ireland Guide.

It’s worth emphasising what an excellent tool the UK & Ireland Guide is. Each property has several pages dedicated to it, with a description of the character and activity options in the local area, and special insider tips from the local general manager. So it really serves as a travel guide and companion, and an inspiring source of ideas for future itineraries combining Relais & Châteaux properties to explore our beautiful islands.

Where did the new approach of route planning and itineraries come from?

It goes back to the founding principles of Relais & Châteaux, which was called Relais de Campagne when it was launched in 1954. A group of eight hoteliers travelled south from Paris along the N7, breaking the journey in eight places along the way. They called this original journey the Route du Bonheur. Relais & Châteaux has noted that most travellers are seeking multi- destination routes for their trips and may require two, three or four properties. The aim is to help them discover their own personal Route du Bonheur – in the spirit of the founders of the Association.

And this is a fundamental part of strategy for the future of Relais & Châteaux?

In terms of membership, there are three strategic objectives: to expand the number of member properties; to extend the geographical reach of Relais & Châteaux, for example in Asia and Latin America; and to develop the membership in key cities across the world. The latter is important as we are convinced that the right properties in these key city locations will act as gateways to all our other member properties when customers are planning their ‘Route du Bonheur.’ Again I must stress that these objectives work always within the context of our quality charter and philosophy.

From a promotion perspective Relais & Chateaux will be investing in its internet presence and taking this to another level. We recognise that 50% and more of bookings already come through this channel and it’s absolutely essential that online booking is as easy and appealing as possible. We have always moved with the times technologically, and most recently we introduced a new and significantly upgraded centralized reservation system in 2009, making the online reservation process faster and more efficient. .

I’d like to highlight the two important areas where we are concentrating our efforts. One is the promotion of our ‘5 Ideals’ which we have already discussed; the second is extending our involvement in training. We are developing relationships with all the world’s key hotel schools and regularly take trainees to give them experience of the best in 5-star luxury hospitality world wide. We view it as an investment in the future of our Association and the industry.

At Relais & Châteaux we are tremendously proud of the achievements of all our member chefs and hoteliers, and aware of our role in driving up standards and setting the benchmark for aspiring hoteliers fired by ambition and passion for the noble business of hospitality. The question of a formal youth training scheme, or even a Relais & Chateaux hotel school, is something I am often asked about, and we often discuss it. That’s all I can say on the subject at the moment. Watch this space!