Damien Bastiat is proof that the hotel industry is developing its talents and is offering exceptional career opportunities. The forty-year-old, who graduated from the Cap Breton hotel school in southwest France in 1997, has just been appointed general manager of the hotels ALMAE Collection.
The first meeting with Damien Bastiat is frank and natural. The man embodies the legendary bonhomie of the southwest and carries with him the fundamental values of hospitality. Smiles and seriousness mingle to give way to fascinating discussions on the philosophy of service and guest relations.
At only 15 years old, the young Bastiat entered the Louis Darmante hotel school in Cap Breton. Miss Labat, one of his teachers, quickly noticed an interest in the profession and a welcome enthusiasm. "She had to force my hand to get me into an internship at the Relais de la Poste Relais & Châteaux, a two-star restaurant in Magescq in the South-West," remembers Damien Bastiat. He then discovered the charms of a very small house where guests return for the human interaction, "which is what makes the job special", he recalls.
After an escape to the Hôtel du Palais in Biarritz, he realized his attachment and his need to evolve in a human-sized hotel, where the link between the staff and with the guests is more "personal".
Aware of the need to speak English to fully develop in this profession, he flew to England for six months... a stay that would last for more than eight years. "I left for the language, and I finally perfected my skills in this profession," he says with amusement.
"I left to acquire a language, and I finally perfected my skills in this profession"
He embraced the Anglo-Saxon culture, which not only offered him perspectives, but also greater support with "very beneficial" training. In 2006, he joined the 2-star Relais & Châteaux restaurant Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons as a maître d'hôtel, on the advice of Loïc Glevarec, the restaurant manager of the Hôtel du Palais in Biarritz. He spent two years there before joining the establishment that would change his career.
In 2009, he joined as assistant to the restaurant managerof the Gidleigh Park, a two-Michelin-starred Relais & Châteaux in Chagford, Devon, nly to leave six years later with the title of general manager. "I've been very lucky", Damien Bastiat sums up with humility. Luck that was, in fact, brought about by the talent and passion that driven him in every action and every new project.
One meeting was later decisive: Sue Williams, then general manager of Bath Priory (Bath, Somerset) and Gidleigh Park, owned by the Andrew Brownsword Hotels group, spotted his potential. She encouraged him to apply for the St Julian's Scholarship, a programme that provides access to training at the EHL Hospitality Business School.
He was awarded the scholarship, which enabled him to attend the Improving Business Performance, Accounting and Finance programme in the summer of 2012. On his return, Sue Williams appointed him Operations Manager and then Managing Director of Gidleigh Park. A position that enhanced his experience and led him to Ireland.
"Our aim was to do the best we could”
He spent seven years at the helm of Ballyfin Demesne. Here, the owner, Fred Khrehbiel, gave him carte blanche, an exceptional opportunity for the young man. He quickly became a mentor for the young Damien. "He taught me a lot on a personal and professional level. He is one of those frustrating personalities because they always have the right answer to every question, they have a real vision," he says.
On the other hand, "the cost of running a luxury hotel is enormous, so I was lucky enough to be able to run Ballyfin as if it were my hotel," he recalls.
A confidence that was rewarded when Ballyfin's hotel was named 'Best Hotel In the World' by Condé Nast Traveller in October 2016. When asked about the keys to such success, he says that he and his teams were very surprised by the award.
For the man is not in search of titles, but of quality service. "Our objective was to do the best we could, to communicate with the guests, to understand their expectations, to know what we could have improved", he explains.
Before returning to mainland France, Damien Bastiat left Ireland for a year in the sunny Caribbean islands. He will be staying at the Relais & Châteaux Le Toiny in Saint-Barthélemy in 2021.
"The collection is starting up, we are at the infant stage”
When Vincent Gombault and his wife asked Damien Bastiat to take over the reins of Almae, himself and his wife, who is also from the restaurant business, did not hesitate. The collection is in its first stages of development and the work tools are exceptional. Damien Bastiat is delighted to contribute to the development of such a project, to "put his stone in the building, to be part of the team that launches the collection". It is with this ambition that he leaves St Barth for Saint-Nicolas de Véroce, French Alps.
"The collection is being launched, we are at the infant stage. We need to continue to improve it and create a collection of properties that guests can relate to in terms of experience, regardless of which property they choose," he says.
"The owners have a real love of the noble products, such as stone or marble, and each property is a nod to the others," he continues. Furthermore, "the very human side, favoured by small properties, offers a very intimate identity to each establishment".
From his Irish and Caribbean experience, he remembers the importance of opening up his offer to an international clientele. "The clientele is more international in St Barths and Ireland, and I would like to work there for the Almae collection," he says. "These guests are looking for intimate and unique experiences," he adds.
An expectation that the five hotels in the Almae collection fully meet."My first challenge here will be to surround myself with quality people for each house and duplicate a quality service," he says.
Gastronomy at the heart of the project
Almae places great emphasis on the gastronomic offering in its establishments, which are sometimes set up in destinations where there is not always a restaurant offer, such as Saint-Nicolas de Véroce.
For this man, who comes from a restaurant background and has worked in two-star restaurants throughout his career in the UK, gastronomy is at the heart of the development project. "Each of our properties offers two types of catering, to whet the appetite of our guests and diversify the offer for our long-stay guests. Our gourmet restaurants are complemented by a bistro that also appeals to a local clientele," he says.
"Guests are looking for a more playful side to our gourmet restaurants. At La Nauve, our executive chef, Anthony Carballo, wants to design his menus in collaboration with the guest. We're looking for chefs in the teams who have that overall vision to deliver an exceptional meal, but who understand that guests may want simplicity with regional products," he concludes.
"You can train a person to do what they have to do, but the personality, the character, the desire to please the guests, is in themselves"
Aware of the challenge of retaining employees and realistic about the changes in the business since he began his career 25 years ago, he aims to "motivate young people and pass on his passion". To do this, he intends to draw on his Irish experience. The employees were often not from the ranks, but they were locals, passionate about their territory. "I recruited them, not for their professional skills, but for their personality," he recalls.
"You can train a person to do what they have to do, but the personality, the character, the desire to please the guests, is in itself", he asserts.
If Vincent Gombault has brought the village of Saint-Nicolas de Véroce back to life by opening the Armancette, a challenge remains to be revealed: to bring back the younger generations, to create an alchemy with the old inhabitants. "We now have some great personalities from the village, such as Nadine, the daughter of the former baker," he says with satisfaction.
If the management teams are almost complete, especially in the new establishment of the collection, La Nauve Hôtel & Jardin, which is about to open, the positions of chef de rang, commis or chef de partie remain to be filled in the restaurants.
"Lead by example”
This man of the field knows and accepts the administrative constraints of his new position, but intends to preserve the strong bond he has always maintained with his colleagues and guests. "I like to be out there with my colleagues, to have frank conversations in a good mood," he says. This wholehearted man has, however, one legitimate requirement: that everyone works with respect, "respect is earned" he says.
He needs to be in the field for the "cohesive side", but also to "exchange with the guests", to take the pulse of their satisfaction, to discover life paths, to learn from others. “I like the Christmas and New Year period because I don't receive many emails," he says, "the atmosphere is different with the guests and the teams. It's also a time that reminds people that they are working when their loved ones are celebrating with their families. It's a time to get everyone motivated," he adds.
"It's a fascinating job”
To young people who wish to enter the luxury hotel industry, he recommends "having the desire to please people, to have a taste for sharing".
For Damien Bastiat, going to a hotel school remains "a basic requirement", but he encourages candidates "not to get stuck in" if they have not been there. Thus, he looks above all for "personalities, interpersonal skills and empathy" in candidates. "If you have these qualities, don't hesitate to approach the directors," he encourages.
He appreciates candidates who go beyond sending a traditional CV. Showing up at the hotel, being curious, asking to visit an establishment, can be an interesting way to stand out.
"You have to stick with it. It's a fascinating job, which allows you to travel, to meet people with fascinating backgrounds, to be around people for whom luxury is the norm," he adds.
He also recalls the constraints of the profession, which you have to accept before joining it. "The profession is evolving and so are mentalities, but you will always have to work from Monday to Sunday, while others are having fun. The disadvantages are easily overcome if you are passionate about the job.
The biggest advantage of this job is that you don't have an identical day, because we work 100% with people. This morning, I was in a meeting with our architect, then I met with some guests, before a meeting with our Italian colleagues to work on improving the service, and right now, I'm being interviewed," he says.
His vision of luxury:"Luxury is being able to serve a cappuccino without chocolate on it because you recognize the guest.
"The luxury hotel industry is different because it is often a place where guests come to celebrate an event, where expectations are high," he says."We want to exceed our guests' expectations, which is sometimes difficult, but it's a nice challenge."
Damien Bastiat sees luxury as a driving force in the economy. "For some people, luxury is everyday life, for others it is a special element in their life, a once-in-a-lifetime experience," he adds.
Finally, for this service enthusiast, "luxury is the attention we can give to the guests who come to us. It's being able to serve a cappuccino without chocolate on it because you recognize the guest," he concludes.
As a journalist and luxury hotel expert inspired by the men and women who embody it, Vanessa aspires to enhance and sublimate the beauty and elegance of palaces through her writing. "In a palace, simplicity serves the quest for excellence" she admires.