To culinary-focused travelers, Relais & Chateaux needs no introduction. Since its founding in France in 1954, this association of independently owned luxury hotels has been synonymous with outstanding hospitality centered on meals worth traveling for. Today, as the company nears its 70th anniversary, it has close to 600 hotels and 800 restaurants around the world—which collectively represent 340 stars in the Michelin guide.
As Relais & Chateaux continues its mission of making a better world through cuisine and hospitality, the association’s new president, Laurent Gardinier, is helping evolve that mission further in the way of sustainability. Relais & Chateaux’s first annual sustainability report came out at the end of 2022 to set objectives and measure impact. Before that, in 2014, the organization presented to UNESCO its Relais & Chateaux Vision manifesto of 20 commitments around environmental conservation, sustainable cuisine, and social empowerment. The organization plans to collaborate more deeply with UNESCO in 2024. In the year ahead, Relais & Chateaux will also begin measuring such efforts as waste management and single-use plastic with the help of both its inspectors and third-party experts.
AFAR recently caught up with Gardinier, who co-owns Relais & Chateaux Domaine Les Crayères in Champagne and Le Taillevent restaurant in Paris with his two brothers. He shared what the future holds for the organization, from efforts in helping member hotels measure their sustainability impact to emerging destinations where travelers can find more Relais & Chateaux properties in the near future.
This interview was edited for space.
What are the most important things for travelers to know about Relais & Chateaux today?
We have the largest collection of Michelin stars of any hospitality brand in the world. If you add up all our sales, we end up at $2.8 billion U.S. dollars and 42,000 people working within the greater Relais & Chateaux community. We’re also a nonprofit organization. The 580 members own the brand, and the values we share are very important to us: values of friendship, being aligned in the community where you operate, gastronomy, and of course sustainability. And the fact that we’re an association means that there’s no real competition among the members; we’re more about helping each other.
What’s your vision for sustainability at Relais & Chateaux?
When we speak about sustainability, we have to avoid one big danger: greenwashing. When you operate in 60 different countries, you need to be consistent and very ambitious, because the range of efforts varies from one destination to another. When I talk to the owner of Great Plains Conservation, my friend Dereck Joubert, he’s talking about rhino conservation in Botswana, and you also must consider the hotel member that is focusing on removing single-use plastic in the rooms as part of their sustainability goals. I’m identifying the tools I need to help move this effort forward.
What plans for sustainability measurement do you have in the near future?
Right now, our inspectors analyze the quality of our hotel experiences. The process is strict and regulated: The French government routinely audits us and has even allowed us to inspect other organizations with it. We don’t do it, but it gives you a sense of how serious we are about our process. Now we’re planning to add sustainability criteria to our analysis for both existing and new members. The timeline for identifying the relevant criteria will be within the next six months, and I hope to announce our full plan within a year.
How might this look in practice?
When you speak about sustainability, there are two sides to it. You have the guest experience—all inspectors will analyze the guest experience regarding sustainability. As a guest, what do you see regarding sustainability? And then you have the technical side of sustainability, the back of the house one. How do you control the water system? What do you do in terms of waste management? Composting is very complicated; there are different kinds. We won’t ask our quality inspector to inspect the back of the house or talk to suppliers because it wouldn’t be anonymous anymore, and they don’t have the technical or engineering knowledge. It’s two different skill sets, so we plan to partner with a big organization that will have the technical knowledge.
Tell me more about the Relais & Chateaux sustainability committee you’ve put together.
I realized that there’s incredible knowledge among our members that we’re not taking advantage of regarding sustainability, including Dereck Joubert of Great Plains Conservation and Malik Fernando of Resplendent Ceylon in Sri Lanka. So I created a sustainability committee in the association, a body of governance that will be there to guide us, flag any challenges, and ensure we’re heading in the right direction.
You named Mauro Colagreco of the three-Michelin-starred Mirazur in France—the world’s first restaurant to receive Plastic Free Certification—as vice president dedicated to environmental responsibility. How will he influence sustainability from a culinary standpoint?
Efforts to change things, like becoming plastic free, start with the great chefs like Mauro. Little by little, there’s a trickle-down effect where the rest of the culinary industry changes. It’s like seasonality with local food. These days, a gastronomic restaurant wouldn’t consider serving you a tomato or a truffle out of season. But 20 years ago, the fact that you served tomatoes year-round made you gastronomic.
When we bought Les Crayeres [in 2000], it already had a very well-known Michelin two-star restaurant, and we served truffles all year long. And this was the key part of the Relais & Chateaux experience. The change started with vegetables, and now with Giuliano Sperandio, our Italian chef, he doesn’t serve certain types of fish when they’re out of season. And within the next 10 years, you’re going to see seasonality with meat. There will be more awareness around the fact that you can’t eat lamb all year long. It starts with the gastronomic restaurants and expands little by little. The chefs who don’t have two or three Michelin stars look at those chefs and a cultural shift happens.
The 580 members own the brand, and the values we share are very important to us: friendship, being aligned in the community where you operate, gastronomy, and sustainability.
What regions will Relais & Chateaux be expanding into in the next few years?
We don’t have a business model where we need to add 100 new properties to be able to pay a headquarters to operate. We are well represented in Western Europe, the U.S., South America, Japan. We have a very small number of properties in China and India. Nordic cuisine is expanding very well in the world, so little by little, we are expanding in this region. It’s a process: Everything must be consistent. Does that destination have a high enough level of food, services, and architecture at the small property level? It’s easier to find this in mature markets.
What does it take to be a Relais & Chateaux hotel or restaurant?
At Relais & Chateaux, we have about 500 criteria for hotels and about 180 for standalone restaurants, and we have 10 to 15 anonymous inspectors. We have about 500 applications per year. And we take about 15 or 20 depending on the year.
What other Relais & Chateaux properties have you stayed in recently that you love?
I have few of them. I was in Casa Palopó on Lake Atitlán, Guatemala, and it’s owned by a fantastic woman named Claudia Bosch and her children. The grounds of the hotel sit along the lake and they have a beautiful garden that’s perfectly maintained. And then you focus your eyes a little bit further, and you see this huge volcano. In the mornings, you have clouds so you don’t see the top of it, but all of a sudden a wind comes and then you see the beautiful massive mountain. This was an absolutely unexpected experience for me.
I was in Botswana at Duba Plains Camp, and then Jabulani and Londolozi Game Reserve in South Africa. I love how the three properties reflect the personality of the owners. At Jabulani, you sit in front of a small lake as the sun is going down, and you have all those elephant families that are just walking nearby. This is the kind of moment where you have to ask yourself: Am I working? I’m lucky to see all of that.