Anthony Torkington has built a long and respected career affiliation with Relais & Châteaux, both as a hotelier and at the association leadership level. Today, as General Manager of the world’s most prestigious hospitality collection, Mr. Torkington heads up Member Services, Partnerships, and Network Quality and Development of the not-for-profit association currently comprised of 580 unique hotels and restaurants in 67 countries. In our recent interview, he shares the highs and lows of leading a worldwide hospitality organization through a global pandemic, and the leadership lessons learned.
At your association’s recent virtual gathering, celebrating Relais & Châteaux’s 51st Rendez-Vous, the theme chosen for the international congress was “The Heart of Relais”. Tell me about the meaning and intent behind the theme, why it was chosen, and why now.
Early on, we determined that our primary goal through the pandemic would be to keep the members of the Relais & Châteaux family united. Technology became a critical component of the strategy, allowing our members to interact more frequently and in bigger numbers and with increasingly diverse audiences, to share information and best practices, and to adopt lessons learned from one another as each progressive wave of the pandemic swept across our global regions. What we began to experience was a family that not only remained united but that has, indeed, drawn closer. The irony has not been lost on us, how in staying apart we have never been more connected. ROE (Return on Emotion) has emerged as a new business metric, where greater value is given to the human factor.
These experiences led to our selection of “The Heart of Relais” theme, which speaks to the point that, above and beyond all that our guests experience at a Relais & Châteaux property, it is our people who are at the heart of that experience. Our 51st international congress became the first in our history to be opened up to all staff across our global family. This was our opportunity as an organization to re-calibrate and re-balance, in consideration of those who are the heartbeat of Relais & Châteaux.
With “talent” as the #1 conversation in the industry today, an important outcome of the congress includes an increased emphasis on all areas of talent management. What is your vision of Relais & Châteaux’s renewed “employee experience”? How do you expect this will inform and manifest itself in perhaps a renewed “guest experience”?
As an association uniting 580 independent hoteliers and restauranteurs around the world, one of the challenges is in determining how best to work together in addressing global topics – such as employer brand. Conceivably each property has or is developing, their own employer brand. Some of the brands are very strong and, in the respective market, sometimes stronger than the Relais & Châteaux brand so the question becomes, how do we bring it all together and in the form of a globally recognized employer brand?
COVID has taught us that today’s luxury traveller is (or will soon be) seeking smaller, more intimate properties emphasizing privacy, hygiene, security, a departure from large urban centres, farm-to-table offerings, and values around sustainability. Each of these elements speak to key aspects of the Relais & Châteaux brand. Research tells us that the generation now entering our industry aligns with these same qualities, and passionately so. Our message to them is that Relais & Châteaux offers career and career-development opportunities as varied and as diverse as those who seek them, across a global organization united around a common purpose. Delivering that message to a global audience, appropriately and effectively, is an important next step in our employer-brand story.
The Relais & Châteaux brand is synonymous with themes of sustainability, in all its forms of self-care and earth-care. Coming out of this year’s congress you now have a plan to, in a sense, expand the theme of sustainability to include talent-care – which fits beautifully with your brand. In your vision of linking the Relais & Châteaux brand to that as a hospitality employer of choice and industry role model, what can current and future hotel and restaurant members expect to see and receive from their affiliation with the association?
Much like we’ve already done in the areas of operating and quality standards, our Board will be working on a set of common standards related to our employer brand. Our purpose in doing so would be to roll out an employer brand that coherently and consistently delivers to employees what we promise in terms of building a career with our brand. That’s a wonderful challenge for a worldwide group of 580 independent properties. What are the employer values that we, collectively, want to promote? Commencing with our delegation meetings this Spring, we will be working with our members and the Board in agreeing on how we promote Relais & Châteaux as an employer. This is fundamental. We would like to imagine a time, in the not-too-distant future, when new members will join our association because of what we are doing from an HR perspective – the values we share, the way we promote them, and how we bring them to life. I see a journey similar to the one we embarked on in developing our 2014 UNESCO manifesto for a better world.
Given the increased focus on talent-care going forward, how will the selection criteria change for those establishments who aspire to be invited into the Relais & Châteaux family? What will Relais & Châteaux be looking and listening for, perhaps more intently than you have in the past?
We’ve recently renewed our quality charter, including an even heightened emphasis on sustainability. In addition to this and other technical criteria, our inspection process will be balanced with the introduction of a new element – emotional criteria. This is a direct outcome of the human factor we discussed earlier, in terms of what guests experience in their interactions with management and staff. By incorporating this into the new quality charter we are, very clearly, saying that the human factor is critically important. In deciding what is, and isn’t, included in our quality charter we are also sending a message to our members regarding the importance of ensuring that what we promote is exhibited in the guest experience.
“The Heart of Relais: The Future of Human Resources in the Hospitality Industry” represents an ambitious undertaking given the current talent environment. At the same time, it speaks to the spirit and core values of Relais & Châteaux – passion and purpose. With culture as an important business and brand strategy for Relais & Châteaux how would you define the higher purpose, associated with your culture, that motivates the stewards (employees) of your brand – today and tomorrow?
We are definitely on a quest to embrace a more progressive approach to hospitality staffing, particularly when we reflect on the new priorities that have come out of COVID. Relais & Châteaux is all about bringing together the most exceptional collection of independent hotels and restaurants in the world. Our vision is to create a better world for future generations, both through cuisine and hospitality – two traditions that have always been part of the Relais & Châteaux world. Our purpose is to inspire travelers worldwide to discover the world in the most beautiful way through conscious travel, responsible travel, and engagement with local communities. A timeless travel experience.
About the author
Fred Loewen is the Chief Operating Officer of an international executive search firm, based in Canada. From his PwC roots in professional services, he has a built a 25-year career interviewing senior executives. In contributing to Luxury Hoteliers magazine, he brings together his professional passion for leadership & strategy and his personal interest in the luxury hotel sector.