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SPOTLIGHT ON Laurent Gardinier, President, Relais & Châteaux

By Fred Loewen, Chief Operating Officer, International Executive Search Firm
23 February 2024
9 min read
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Relais & Châteaux Il San Pietro di Positano in Italy

Fresh off his first year as President of Relais & Châteaux, Laurent Gardinier leads an iconic global brand for which 2024 marks its 70th year.  In our recent conversation, we explored the years past and the journeys ahead, as Relais & Châteaux positions itself for the next 70.  As a brand, Relais & Châteaux wisely builds on its history to inform its future.  In doing so, it has evolved to become a global movement celebrating sustainability and world cultures through the very highest standards in hospitality and gastronomy.       

It has been a year since you stepped into your role as President of Relais & Châteaux.  In what ways does Relais & Châteaux look different today than it did a year ago?

As a member of the Board for more than 17 years, and now as its President, managing a beautiful worldwide organization like Relais & Châteaux is an honour and a privilege.  Having nearly 580 members across 65 countries means that continuity and staying the course are important leadership considerations.  My predecessor, Philippe Gombert, and those before him have successfully led Relais & Châteaux in a manner that allows us to be celebrating 70 years in 2024.  Their steadfast commitment to the original vision for the brand has allowed that vision to remain equally strong today.  My leadership approach has been to maintain, as opposed to disrupt, the vision upon which we were founded.  I am fortunate to have been given well-polished keys to our association as a result of the 70 years of leadership that have gone before me.       

This doesn’t mean, however, that our environment hasn’t changed over the years, or that we haven’t needed to implement change, but it’s been done with a primary focus on two areas – quality and sustainability.  Quality of the Relais & Châteaux network relates equally to the physical aspects of a property as to the less-tangible elements, such as the service and spirit of a property and its proprietors.  Sustainability of the network relates to how a property interacts with, contributes to and sustains the environment surrounding it.  In turn, and taken together, these efforts contribute to the long-term sustainability of the Relais & Châteaux brand. 

President of Relais & Châteaux, Laurent Gardinier

Relais & Châteaux Fogo Island in Canada

As President, your primary mandate is to take the legacy Relais & Châteaux brand into the future.  How is the brand working to engage a new generation of travelers for whom Relais & Châteaux may represent a less-familiar experience?    

The average age of our guests is approximately 48.  The more emphasis this demographic places on quality, the closer they are aligned to our brand’s DNA.  Also leaning into this is a deep appreciation for such things as architectural, geographical, and cultural heritage and the broader ecosystem incorporating gastronomy and hospitality.  The brand’s strong and long-standing emphasis on the heritage of a location directly aligns with the expectations of today’s new generation of travelers.  The Relais & Châteaux brand has always been defined by smaller, more intimate properties, less than 50 rooms on average, and managed by hoteliers and their teams who inherently understand the importance of staying closely connected to each guest.  In our world, small is beautiful. 

History has taught us that focusing on, and being seduced by, the shifting whims of each new generation of young travelers comes at the risk of losing the soul of our beloved brand.  We are not, nor can we be, everything to everyone.  We need to remain true to the Relais & Châteaux brand and its legacy and to recognize when and where the expectations of a particular generation intersect with our brand DNA.

Founded in 1954, Relais & Châteaux will celebrate 70 years this year.  As a hotelier, restaurateur, board member, and now President who has been long-affiliated with the brand, what will be important for the association to put in place today in order to help ensure the brand’s relevancy for the next 70 years?

Ten years ago we published our manifesto, which would form the pillars of the next generation of the Relais & Châteaux brand.  The manifesto’s emphasis on sustainability placed us at the forefront of the industry, but it pertained primarily to the gastronomic element of the brand which, since that time, has become rather commonplace.  If we are to remain at the forefront, we need to view sustainability in a broader context and to also shift our focus from declaration to implementation.

Relais & Châteaux Ellerman House in Cape Town, South Africa

The association and its membership have experienced remarkable growth and transformation over the past 70 years.  Beyond a curated collection of iconic culinary and hospitality properties, the brand has birthed a movement “to make a better world through cuisine and hospitality.”  As our world and how we travel continue to change, in what ways might Relais & Châteaux’s “20 Commitments for Cuisine and Hospitality” need to change?  

I don’t think our commitments need to change but, rather, we need to change as it relates to focusing on and implementing what has been committed to.  Each Relais & Châteaux property has its own identity, its own way of welcoming guests, its own way of relating to Mother Nature.  However, what we share in common across the network is an expectation that these experiences are delivered to our customers and with the very highest standards.  As President, part of my mandate is to continue to move this forward.  It’s not to change, rewrite, or rearrange our stated commitments but, instead, to maintain a steady focus on their implementation and successful execution by the approximately 42,000 employees who are the ambassadors of Relais & Châteaux and whose expectations it’s also important for us to meet and exceed. 

Sustainability is an apt word to describe the brand’s past, present, and future as well as Relais & Châteaux’s desired impact on the world around us.  Tell me about the genesis of Relais & Châteaux’s “sustainability report” and its purpose and intent.

If you want to act, you need to measure.  The idea and intent behind our sustainability report has been to measure what we are good at and, also, what and where we need to improve.  Over time, the level of participation in contributing to the report has been increasing across the network which is a reflection of the subject’s importance and has helped to provide us with a big picture perspective on our performance as it relates to the brand’s sustainability initiatives.  While the report is telling us that we have room to improve in a number of areas, we have also learned that we have many properties that are doing great things.  This then allows us to share best practices across the network, including the importance of creating an ecosystem of pre-approved suppliers who would help our members to advance their sustainability efforts.     

What does your vision of the future look like for Relais & Châteaux?

It looks much the same as the community we have today and that, over the past 70 years, has been built on a foundation of friendship, solidarity, and commitment to the highest standards of quality.  The vision is of a brand sufficiently iconic that, by association, it is what first comes to mind when one thinks of travel in terms of quality, sustainability, and community.  This would be my dream. 

Relais & Châteaux Monaci delle Terre Nere in Sicily

As you consider the brand’s next 70 years, what are you excited about and inspired by?

You never know what can happen but when you look at the past, each former President and their management team put their building block in place.  Seventy years ago we were an association of just eight members who decided to purchase, and to divide by eight, an advertising page in a local magazine in the south of France.  In time, the membership grew to include other areas of France, Switzerland, Belgium and Luxembourg.  From there, the network moved across the Channel to include the UK and then across the Atlantic to North America and across the Pacific to Asia and across the Mediterranean.  Progressively, we entered the digital era and, along the way, needed to define and refine our place in the market and our values as a brand.  Over the course of 70 years, each President has contributed to the heritage of the brand and of what the brand has become today.

What do you hope to be the legacy of your Presidency at Relais & Châteaux?

I hope that my legacy will be the advancement of our work on sustainability and on the quality of our network.  As difficult as it is to plan for the next 70 years, I do hope and expect that Relais & Châteaux will continue to be managed and directed by people that have the same passion as those before us. 

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.