On a Monday lunch time in early May 2014, The 60th Birthday celebrations of Relais & Chateaux took place at the home of long standing Michelin three star Georges Blanc in Vonnas. After a Sunday evening flight into Paris for an overnight stay, the next morning an early start at Paris Gare de Lyon, a huddle of the internationally invited (a mere two from the UK) were guided (photo above left) to a private first class carriage to Macon, then onwards, with true birthday spirit (that reflected the 60 year occasion), in 1950s vintage cars and buses to Vonnas.
A feast for the senses ensued that only our French neighbours could host with such aplomb. Remarkably, the two day visit proceeded perfectly with a level of smoothness and clockwork precision that dispelled any lingering worries of hic-cups en route. Indeed Relais & Chateaux hospitality was impeccable throughout, with my contact Emma Mannane, a most charming host.
All present were in the debt of Marcel Tilloy and his wife Nelly!
According to various accounts of the history of the original ‘Les Relais de Campagne’ (above centre) Marcel sought to promote his property to those French holiday makers that were traveling from Paris to the south of France: The key challenge for top hotels and restaurants in the 1950s and 1960s was that new, much faster motorways were being planned and built that significantly sped up the traveling time from Paris to, say, Nice. Marcel found that his hotel and those owned by many like him would be literally bypassed by these developments thus coming under significant financial pressure or worse bankruptcy.
In 1954 Marcel found the cost of advertising his hotel alone in a top French magazine was just too expensive, the natural conclusion was to reach out to like minded establishments, to club together and form an association for joint promotion.
Today Relais & Châteaux is a network of hotels and restaurants all around the world. All 520 members located in 60 countries on five continents, is an association governed by a 1901 Act of French law. Back in 1954 there were eight establishments, perhaps best known for the shared advertising slogan ‘la route du bonheur.’ They also shared the same values, values common throughout time to the Association. The originating members were (in addition to Marcel Tilloy’s Cardinale): “L’Auberge des Templiers” in Bézards, the “Moulin des Ruats” in Avallon, “La Roseraie” in Cirieux d’Azergues, “Le Chapeau Rouge” in Feurs, “La Petite Auberge” in Sauveterre, the “Châteaux de Meyrargues” and “L’Abbaye de la Celle” in Brignoles. There were at least 50 kilometres between each of these properties. He invited them according to specific ideals: quality of the property, calm, pleasant décor, perfect welcome and fine cuisine. They had to be outside towns on the same route from Paris to Nice, passing through Chalon sur Saône or Moulins.
In 1955 the first black and white guide book contained 25 establishments. It was by 1960 that the first addresses outside France entered the guide with those from Spain (Hostal de la Gavina) and Belgium (Le Moulin Hideux). The following year saw the first colour guide. Perhaps these now vintage cars (above) represented the wealthier type of clientele making those historic route du bonheur
The proximity clause in Les Relais de Campagne Charter prevented several properties from joining the association because there was already a member property nearby. This prompted the emergence of a rival association called “Châteaux-Hôtels, Gentilhommières et Vieilles Demeures” founded by René Traversac, owner of the Château d’Artigny. The two associations existed to help develop upscale hotels.
In 1971, Marcel Tilloy handed over the reins to Joseph Olivereau (below far right). Almost immediately, Pierre Troisgros, the renowned Roanne chef, and Joseph Olivereau created the“Relais Gourmands,” to recognise great cooking and chefs in the Les Relais de Campagne association. In 1975, the two competing associations merged and became Relais & Châteaux with Joseph Olivereau at the helm. Some time later the Relais Gourmands became known as Les Grands Chefs.
In 1987, Régis Bulot, owner of the Moulin de l’Abbaye in Brantôme, was elected the International President of Relais & Châteaux and Relais Gourmands. Together with the members of the Board of Directors, Régis Bulot set about developing the Association’s international dimension. At this time, the Association had 42% French member properties and 58% foreign ones. By 2004, the French proportion had shrunk to 30%.
In November 2005, Jaume Tapiès (Above left) was elected the International President. Born in Andorra, Jaume Tàpies is the owner of the Relais & Châteaux El Castell de Ciutat in La Seu d’Urgell, Spain. He was a member of the Board of Directors for 12 years and secretary general for eight. When looking at member properties Jaume saw a number of priorities: “Personal generosity” in meeting the individual needs of guests, making much more effort than would normally be expected. He believed that this was best complemented by a “a sense of place”, each of the group’s properties being unique in offering a variety of sensations – sight, smell, taste – which captured the essence of the area. “Harmony” of the components an establishment can offer – room, meal and service – essential to providing a memorable guest experience.
A new concept of luxury, not necessarily determined by material well being and price, but more by relishing unique aspects of Memory, Time and Space was to encapsulate the Relais & Châteaux vision and experience under Jaume’s presidency. Given that 80% of the group’s clients were private individuals, any corporate image would have been unpalatable in a regime of individuality.
For many years, Relais & Châteaux have upheld the same values symbolised by the “5 Cs”:
Courtesy: the quality of the welcome and attentive service. Charm: well-appointed properties and elegant interiors. Character: each property has its own unique style whether it’s a château, manor house or abbey.
Calm: a tranquil setting guaranteeing quiet and relaxation. Cuisine: of the highest standard as the Les Grands Chefs.
The 5C club of members who are loyal Relais & Chateaux guests now find themselves numbering well over ten thousand – this program provides significant benefits to those loyal customers – “All around the world, unique in the world!”
Late 2013 saw the election of Philippe Gombert (left, above centre) to the presidency of Relais & Chateaux. Philippe remains committed to the sense of ‘Art de Vivre‘ and highlights key experiences and values:-
While each property is distinctive and individual, Philippe points to a common philosophy that is shared by every member, best summed up by five values and experiences:
- THE SOUL OF THE INNKEEPER: Each Innkeeper puts his or her highly personal stamp on their place, its surroundings and the hospitality, service and cuisine they provide.
- THE TASTE OF THE LAND: For our members, the local terroir is expressed via each property’s architecture, landscaping, leisure activities and the fine dining offered by Relais & Châteaux Grands Chefs and chefs.
- THE PASSPORT OF FRIENDSHIP: Each property is unique, yet all share the same welcome, inspiring in guests a genuine sense of belonging and a yearning to discover other members.
- THE CELEBRATION OF THE SENSES: Relais & Châteaux properties provide a natural setting for the awakening of the senses and feelings of well-being on a daily basis and for every special occasion.
- AN AWAKENING TO ART DE VIVRE: At the heart of the Relais & Châteaux philosophy is the notion that travel should be a journey of discovery into the pleasures of the Art of Living. The ultimate goal of the Relais & Châteaux Innkeeper is to introduce guests to these delights.
Philippe’s stated early objective is to convince all members that more than ever before need to be united behind a strong, major global brand that reflects authenticity, generosity, exclusivity and excellence. He believes that these striking and significant values are what resonate with today’s guest.
Philippe has stated an early ambition is to achieve a complete digital revolution: Relais & Châteaux will have a global internet showcase, an attractive platform on which to position our worldwide brand, and blogs about the art of travel and cuisine. By the turn of 2014 Relais & Chateaux had already launched the core website in Portuguese, introduced an Android Tablet app to complete the collection of apps for iPhone, iPad & Android smartphone, as well as created a Russian version of the app too.
Some sixty-six Grands Chefs of Relais & Chateaux properties, from past and present, gathered at Georges Blanc’s legendary Michelin three star haven in Vonnas to honour the 60th birthday of the Association. The map (very top, right) shows the location of Vonnas at the bottom centre of the map, directly between the southern end of burgundy (Macon) and likewise the southern area of the champions of produce in poultry (Bresse). An embarrassment of riches in both food and wine, brought together by the association of great chefs, in place near where the association all began. A fitting time and place for a celebration lunch!
The celebration lunch was a feast of frogs legs and poultry from Bresse, matched with Moet & Chandon Champagne. Andrew Stembridge sat at the same table and engaged in enthusiastic conversation about the role of Relais & Chateaux, particularly in the two properties he currently runs – Chewton Glen and Cliveden. Andrew was effusive in his observations of the progress made by Relais & Chateaux in recent years, giving this quote, “I’ve been honoured to sit on the board of Relais for the past five years and it’s been both fascinating and rewarding to witness the association flourish from the inside and be in a position to contribute to its’ recent evolution. R&C has long been regarded as the best luxury hotel brand however of late it has really become a force to be reckoned with in terms of what it can deliver for the 500+ member properties around the World. As our guests’ expectations have risen so have the needs of the individual hotels and restaurants, and being part of a ‘club’ is no longer sufficient. The list of member services increases every year and with it, so does the ‘Return on Investment’ (ROI) and unique to R&C ‘The Return on Emotion (ROE), the latter being particularly pertinent in the context of hoteliers and chefs who are so passionate about their businesses. In an era of homogenised chain hotels and mechanical service it is crucial that an organisation such as R&C exists to support and promote the independent gems that might otherwise struggle”
The international structure of Relais & Chateaux is currently reflected by the association of like-minded hoteliers and restaurateurs led by an international group of members selected by the Chairman of the board. The Chairman (Philippe Gombert) is democratically elected by the entire association membership and has a chosen board:
George GOEGGEL, Fist Vice-President (Americas) from the Auberge du Soleil, USA
Silvia LAFER, Vice-President (Europe) from Johann Lafers Stromburg, Germany
Olivier ROELLINGER, Vice-President (Chefs) from Les Maisons de Bricourt, Cancale, France
Jaisal SINGH, Vice-President (Asia) from Sher Bagh & The Serai Ja sailmer, India
Olivia LE CALVEZ, Secretary General from Hôtel de Toiras & Villa Clarisse, France
Thomas MAECHLER, Treasurer from Beau-Rivage Hotel, Switzerland
Mar SUAU, Member from Son Brull Hotel & Spa, Majorca, Spain
Andrew STEMBRIDGE, Member from Chewton Glen, Hampshire, United Kingdom
Perhaps the increasingly international flavour of the membership is being reflected in the board of the assoication. The Vonnas event felt ‘very French‘ indeed but this was just one of many events planned. Maybe one day Andrew Stembridge will follow in the footsteps of Derek Brown (of one time Pan European editorial control of the Michelin red guide fame) but purely in the sense of being the leader of a ‘guide abroad’. We shall see…