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INTERVIEW - LAURENT GARDINIER, PRESIDENT OF RELAIS & CHÂTEAUX: "THE DEFINITION OF LUXURY HAS CHANGED A LOT IN RECENT YEARS TOWARDS A QUEST FOR AUTHENTICITY"

Having succeeded Philippe Gombert as President of Relais & Châteaux on 1st of January, Laurent Gardinier's ambition is to continue his predecessor's work by devoting himself to serving the members, ensuring the unity of the association and maintaining an ambitious development and performance policy.

INTERVIEW - LAURENT GARDINIER, PRESIDENT OF RELAIS & CHÂTEAUX: "THE DEFINITION OF LUXURY HAS CHANGED A LOT IN RECENT YEARS TOWARDS A QUEST FOR AUTHENTICITY"

Having succeeded Philippe Gombert as President of Relais & Châteaux on 1st of January, Laurent Gardinier's ambition is to continue his predecessor's work by devoting himself to serving the members, ensuring the unity of the association and maintaining an ambitious development and performance policy.

Category: Worldwide - - Interviews
Interview made by Guillaume Chollier on 2023-03-10


Last 14th of November, on the banks of the canals of Venice, at the end of the 52nd congress of the association, Laurent Gardinier was appointed President of Relais & Châteaux, succeeding Philippe Gombert.

After a six-week handover period, the former delegate for France and member of the board of the association for 17 years is now at the head of this ship of 580 establishments in 65 countries, founded in 1954.

A true hospitality enthusiast, this lover of painting, literature and gastronomy is also co-owner with his brothers of the Gardinier group, which includes the Relais & Châteaux Domaine Les Crayères in Champagne and the restaurants Le Taillevent and Drouant in Paris.

For the Journal des Palaces, the new president of Relais & Châteaux gives the guidelines that will shape his governance throughout his five-year term. A rich and ambitious programme based on three major themes: reducing the environmental footprint, preserving diversity and respecting each employee, viewed through the prism of greater social responsibility.

Journal des Palaces: What has been your career path?
Laurent Gardinier: Son of Xavier Gardinier, an entrepreneur like my grandfather Lucien, founder of the first Gardinier entity, I had a happy Parisian childhood alongside my older brothers, Thierry and Stéphane. Passionate about literature, history and philosophy, I followed a fairly classic school curriculum, hypokhâgne, Sciences Politiques Paris, La Sorbonne and Dauphine, between economics, finance, history, political history and political philosophy. I always wanted to build a bridge between my personal interests and the common interest, to understand them in a complementary way. After my studies, I joined my brothers in the family business because it was a family business. Otherwise, I would never have entered the entrepreneurial field. Receiving, passing on know-how and values is important.
What makes me most proud is certainly being able to contribute, with the teams and members of Relais & Châteaux, to shape the future of our beautiful Association.

What is your definition of luxury hotels?
I prefer talking about excellence. The art of hospitality and the art of cooking with respect for the environment and the people, considering the uniqueness of the countries with authentic excellence. The definition of luxury has changed a lot recently towards a quest for authenticity. In addition, travellers in the exceptional hotel sector are turning away from the material and asking more for experiences. During the pandemic, we all lost a lot of time, and many are trying to make up for it at all costs. Time is the greatest luxury for me, and the hotel industry is naturally moving towards 'slower' modes of travel and more introspective experiences.

What do you see as the key challenges and opportunities facing the luxury hotel industry?
Recruitment and retention of our 42,000 employees is, for me, the biggest challenge we face. With the pandemic, there has been a massive change in our industry to the point where we are now facing a labour shortage in some markets.

For those who stayed and the young people who arrived into the hospitality sector, we are seeing new concerns, new needs and new desires, which are quite different from what we have experienced before. Moreover, the competitors understood this and are increasing their creativity in order to convince these young people to join them. Our companies themselves have changed to offer competitive wages, more flexibility and numerous benefits.

It is important to realize that this is not just a constraint, but a real opportunity to enhance the value of these professions and to create new vocations. Our teams now expect more consideration, a better balance between personal and professional life, opportunities for career-long development and real relationships with their managers, whom they consider to be mentors. It is by listening to the needs of the new generations and developing transmission that we will emerge from this crisis better.

In terms of opportunities, we aim to further strengthen our network and develop it with new members, in line with our values. At the same time, we are constantly seeking to better understand the behaviour and habits of our customers and prospects. For example, we recently published the results of an Usages and Attitudes study on the new trends of our customers. Three strong elements emerge from this study:

- the importance given to a hotel’s commitment to sustainable development by the youngest customers,
- an increase in the number of customers travelling with young children (20%) for whom adapted services must be put in place in terms of activities, equipment, catering and adapted rooms,
- Finally, an increase in stays in private villas, with almost half of the customers looking for privacy and autonomy when travelling with a group, or hotel services for smaller groups. This is a fact that will make the launch of the Villas by Relais & Châteaux Collection in 2021 a success.

How do you feel about being elected to lead Relais & Châteaux?
I am very lucky. On the one hand, because my brothers agreed to take over my responsibilities within our family business to allow me to focus myself fully on my new duties. On the other hand, because I will be working with a high-quality management team that looks after the image of Relais & Châteaux, its dynamism, its associative life and the interests of its members. Innovative communication increases the brand's reputation and highlights its actions, both in terms of the environment and service to members and guests. The Relais & Châteaux employees, involved and motivated to the association and its 580 members, work to perpetuate and develop the brand. Their attitude during the COVID was an indication of their involvement at the heart of the storm. Considering their dedication and expertise, I am looking forward to my presidency with serenity.

What are your goals?
I intend to devote myself completely to the presidency of Relais & Châteaux, without turning everything upside down. Relais & Châteaux is an association under the law of 1901, unique in the world, with 580 members in 65 countries. It is an association that is not in crisis, managed by an efficient, dedicated and competent management team. We must remain attentive to the quality of our network, to the values we share and with which each member must feel in harmony. I think it is necessary to extend the 2014 Manifesto, to remain ahead of the game, to give it an even greater societal and eco-responsible dimension if we want to motivate and retain our employees, bring more meaning to their jobs, keep and strengthen our current members and, importantly, attract guests who are increasingly sensitive to our commitments.

Can you describe the assets of Relais & Châteaux?
Even if the notion of luxury, which cannot be self-proclaimed, is important, it does not differ us from our competitors. On the other hand, Relais & Châteaux, by signing on 18 November 2014, in front of Unesco, a militant manifesto to "make the world a better place through food and hospitality" and "elevate the arts of living to the rank of the 10th art", has positioned itself as the carrier of new values, which are essential for people and for the planet.
Relais & Châteaux is not only a very efficient booking platform, a marketing and communication support for its members, it also gives them the keys to make their house a part of this better world. Philippe Gombert, its former President, and Olivier Roellinger, its former Vice-President, were truly pioneers in this field. They defined the art of receiving and the art of cooking with the respect for the environment and the people, considering the specificities of the countries, their habits and carrying authenticity, an essential notion.

How do Relais & Châteaux hotels differ from its competitors?
Relais & Châteaux is an association of owners of human-sized houses, with an average of 30 rooms, in unique locations, sometimes in the middle of nowhere, with architecture that is as unique as it is evocative of past centuries or contemporary design. And above all, houses that offer personalized service and non-standardised cuisine, awarded 340 Michelin stars.

Sustainable development is an important theme for your association. What strong actions do you intend to take to pursue this policy?
Sustainable development is at the heart of our concerns. We have just published our first sustainable development report, "In search of hospitality in harmony with nature", which reveals our action plan for 2030. It provides an in-depth analysis of the ecological, social and societal impact of the international association and presents 15 concrete objectives for 2025 and 2030.
It aims to measure, share and accelerate the progress of the association, chefs, hoteliers and restaurateurs, and to highlight the positive contribution that hospitality can make to the environment, diversity and local cultures and economies. We are committed to continuous improvement and are constantly updating our roadmap: educating and supporting our members on issues such as recycling, plastic-free cooking, energy reduction and product seasonality.

We also want to write and publish a new manifesto in 2024, in line with that of 2014, but which includes current issues and considers the sensitivities of each country. I plan three strong axes: the reduction of the environmental footprint with the implementation of economically realistic solutions; the preservation of diversity under the impulsion of the chefs in particular; respect for each of our employees and greater social responsibility.

Do the member hotels have a common recruitment strategy, or is each one independent to act as it wishes?
Recruitment remains the priority for our members on an international level. Our members are all independent hotel and restaurant owners and therefore drive their own recruitment and HR strategies. However, our first ambition as an employer is that we all speak with one voice. This is why we are working to support our members and their recruiters.

We offer them tools dedicated to managing their staff, from recruitment to end-of-contract management, such as our recently launched Relais & Châteaux career site, the development of a recruitment platform, and the creation of career pages dedicated to our members.

We run HR clubs in our various delegations so that everyone can share their best practices and pass them on to other members. And we insist on the need to develop the HR functions in our houses.

You want to focus your employer brand, can you tell us more?
Our employer brand is one of the flagship projects for this year, but it is a long-term project. We intend to encourage and mobilize the younger generation to join the hotel industry and make Relais & Châteaux a reference choice.

Once again, Relais & Châteaux represents 580 independent employers in 65 countries. For this reason, we cannot make fundamental decisions about the employer dimension of the brand and how to deploy it without considering the opinion of all the members. We wanted to mobilize our members to define our common attractive factors, to gather their aspirations, and to understand how far they were willing to engage themselves in a common way.

The participation of our members in these workshops has always been very active, with a strong awareness of the need to adopt common rules and for them to be evaluated through an employer charter.

What benefits do you offer to hotel employees to retain them?
By joining us, the employees of our hotels benefit from exclusive training alongside professionals who are masters in their fields, as no book or training course would allow them to do, in the art of entertaining or cooking. We also develop the talents of our employees by offering them exclusive training through our in-house training centre, the R&C Academy.

In addition, we offer a 'Team Relay' programme, which allows our employees to benefit from preferential rates in most of our houses.

Many of our houses also offer benefits such as on-site accommodation with single or shared rooms, healthy and balanced food, team building events or outings with an average of two to three events per house.
In addition, as our community life is particularly rich, many residences organize their own mobility for those of our employees who wish to discover our different hotels.

How is the integration of new employees into the association's residences carried out? Again, is there a common policy or is everyone independent?
It is the role of the house managers to take the time to welcome and support their new recruits, as this will necessarily have a positive impact on their loyalty. Moreover, 83% of the houses have an integration programme for new employees on their arrival (CSR report). Some have also developed a mentoring programme, which allows newcomers to be assigned to a mentor. Our employer brand will strengthen all these practices and standardize these key moments for new employees.

Do you have partnerships with schools to facilitate the recruitment and integration of talent?
For several years now, we have identified schools all over the world, and we keep regular relations with them. We are regularly involved with students, whether it be through lectures, evaluating exams, graduation ceremonies or job fairs. There is nothing like sharing experiences with professionals in the field for students. Reaching out to students means reaching out to our potential future talent. It is therefore essential for us to remind them of who we are and to share our values and aspirations. Furthermore, one of our strengths is the average age of our employees worldwide, which is only 32. It's an environment in which young recruits will feel at home.

In your opinion, do the talents who join you have sufficient "practical experience" or are they still too much in the theory that they have been taught?
Today there are clearly two profiles: specialists, whether students or not, in the hotel and restaurant industry and talents who are in the process of retraining and want to experience the hotel and restaurant industry.
As for students and professionals who already have experience in the hotel and restaurant industry, even if they are students, they often have experience that goes beyond theory, as they mostly carry out internships during their studies. They are often a bit like "diamonds in the rough". It is up to us to help them reveal their potential, by helping them to grow and develop professionally and instilling in them our uniqueness and the values that unite us.

Concerning people in transition: we are fortunate to have houses on a human scale: the average number of rooms in our hotels is around thirty. This is a favourable environment for passing on both our business expertise and our culture to those who do not have previous experience in the hotel and restaurant business.

What advice would you give to a young person who wants to work in the luxury hotel industry?
I would recommend them to be committed and passionate, to always strive for excellence while remaining humble, to enjoy working in a team and to be driven by the desire to learn with and from others, and finally, to have great patience and the ability to constantly reinvent themselves.

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About the author

A journalist for 20 years, Guillaume is a fan of exclusive places where comfort, quality of service and gastronomy are combined. All this, tinged with a simplicity and a smile that are the prerogative of the ultimate luxury.

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