Stéphane Junca, R&C’s Director of Member Services, Asia Pacific, tells us what makes this association of hotels and restaurants so unique and why the next time you plan a trip, you should look them up.
Long before Zagat’s, Lonely Planet, Fodor’s, Frommer’s or Luxe, there was the much coveted Relais & Chateaux Guide, which any sophisticated world traveler worth their salt wouldn’t dare leave home without, gleefully ticking off the pages of hotels visited or bending back the corners of ones still to go on the ultimate European road trip. Traveling cognoscenti know that staying at a Relais & Chateaux property is not only like being a member of a very exclusive club, but also part of a family you want to spend time with over the holidays.
• Many Australians and Americans are not familiar with the R&C brand, can you tell us a little of its history and heritage?
Relais & Chateaux is an institution that began in 1954 in France and is an exclusive collection of the finest hotels and gourmet restaurants in the world. It started when a few owners of small and remote properties got together after the war and realized they needed each other because alone no one would discover them and by being together they would be stronger and communicate better. This was post-war Europe and there was a lot construction going on and new highways were being built from Paris to Nice. The hoteliers realized they had to give travelers a reason to come and visit them, so they focused on establishing a common set of values centered around gastronomy, architecture, cultural discovery and created an Association originally called “La Route de Bonheur” that shared a certain way of life and art de vivre. Historically, they were the first group of independent hotels to get together and form an association.
• What is its continued relevance today?
From eight hotels and one road we grew to other parts of France, Europe, America, Australia and the rest of the world. The “road” is now global and is still linked by the same values about food, culture, ambiance, etc.
• What is the “Route de Bonheur”?
It is the original name of the R&C group and it means the “Road to Happiness” because it was the road (Route 7) from Paris to the Riviera coast where everyone went for their summer holidays. 50 years ago, the founders foretold that this road would eventually go all the way around the world linking all the properties to each other, and so it is today. We have some interesting itineraries on our website specially curated by some of our VIP members and Ambassador’s such as Carole Bouquet, Cadel Evans and Thomas Keller.
• How many members are a part of the R&C family?
Today there are 523 properties in over 60 countries. Just this year, we added 45 new properties in the 2012 Guide – 25 new properties in Europe, 7 in Asia, 3 in Australasia and 10 in the Americas. 2012 is a record year for the Association!
• What does it take for a hotel to become a member of R&C?
They have to be an independent hotel, not part of a chain; a small property with minimum of 20 and maximum of 100 rooms. And they need to meet the 5C criteria: Charm (which of course is very subjective, but I think we have a good eye for this), Character (architecture), Courtesy (service), Cuisine (gourmet food) and Calm (in a quite area).
• Can anyone join?
R&C is free for travelers to use. Only hotels pay to join but first they have to be invited by the selection committee and meet the criteria, which is quite strict as we maintain a high standard.
• What are the benefits for travelers?
Any traveler who visits an R&C property can be assured of a high level of quality and experience. The Innkeeper is an important part of the experience ensuring a more intimate and personal exchange than you would typically get at a bigger hotel chain. We call it the “soul of the innkeeper,” and it pervades all our properties – each one with their own personal touches. We also have a loyalty program (by invitation only) for regular R&C clients. They can enjoy special concierge services, a VIP welcome, a copy of the guide book and invitations to special events… there are also some value-added perks like spa treatments, a unique experience or a bottle of champagne.
• What are the “maisons” and where are they?
We have three “Maison’s” that work as an embassy – in London, Paris & New York – which are open to the public. You can get gift certificates, brochures, information and concierge services there. We also host special events there for VIP’s, members, trade, media, and private events, but usually by invitation only.
• Gastronomy is an important part of the R&C experience; can you tell us more about this?
Gastronomy is a great way to discover a culture and taste its seasonal produce. In France, every region is different and it is often through the local cuisine that you best get to experience and understand the people. It is part of the discovery process of a territory and also a very social moment to be enjoyed. We associate dining with moments of happiness and sharing and discovering. There are 750-800 restaurants in the R&C family. So cuisine is a big part of what we offer… we have more restaurants than hotels! And many of them are a destination in and of themselves. We have 160 Grands Chefs in our association whom we celebrate every year with a “Dîner des Grand Chefs” at a different location around the world. This year we took 45 Grand Chefs to New York.
• What is the best way to navigate your way through the R&C world?
I would recommend travelers spend some time on our website. We have lots of videos and our own TV channel with some beautiful films about many of our hotels. They can book through R&C online by themselves or call one of our concierges or go through an independent travel agent.
• Tell us about the R&C Ambassadors and the role they play?
It is an unpaid, honorary position by invitation only; although many of our 5C members are Ambassadors in their own way. Some are quite famous and very generous in sharing their love of our properties and are passionate evangelists about our brand. Douglas Kennedy was our first official R&C Ambassador – with us he found peace and quiet to write some of his best-selling books. Carole Bouquet has a passion for wine and created her own special viticultural itinerary through France. Richard Gere was our Ambassador last year and is also the proprietor of the Bedford Post Inn in Connecticut. This year, we are honored to have Paul Coelho acting as our Ambassador.
• Can you tell us about about your guidebook and maps?
The guidebook is a beautiful directory of all our hotels with pictures, information and maps. It can be bought online from our website or directly from our properties. Good travel agents and R&C offices can also supply them to guests. We also have road maps that we put together with the Michelin guide that show all the interesting places to stop at along the way between all the R&C properties in Europe and in other countries where there are enough properties and a good road system. In New Zealand for instance, we have a great itinerary from the North to the South Island that connects our 7 properties there.
• Asia is a booming market for travel, can you tell us about some of your latest developments in the region?
Yes, Asia is a big market and also a destination relatively unknown to many people. We only started in this region 6 years ago. I actually started out at R&C as an Innkeeper in Bali and was one of only about 4 properties in the whole of the Asia Pacific. After 9/11, the Bali bombings in 2002 and then SARS in 2003, no one wanted to come and visit and we felt very alone, so we decided like the founders that we had to all get together and do something to develop Asia as a destination in itself. Now there are 53 properties and we represent 10% of all of R&C. I traveled non-stop for 8 months and selected about 12 properties in the first year and added as much every year in 6 years. It was a great experience for me.
• What are some of your favorite destinations and why?
I have had very exciting moments in many places. Last year I went to Yunnan in China and there was a hotel not yet finished and they took me to see the tea trees and showed me how they manage them and I got to meet the local community and workers in a very interesting area with a lot of different cultures. So for me it’s more about the experience than the hotel and that experience comes directly from the Innkeeper who is sharing and integrating you within his or her community and culture. To me that is very special.
• You have a birds eye view of the travel landscape. What do you perceive to be some of the current trends and how do envisage travelers planning trips in the future?
Travelers today are often just as savvy if not more so than travel agents. They don’t need them so much anymore. The Internet has made it easy for independent travelers to plan their own trips and find the best deals. They can create their own itineraries and find their own accommodation, transportation, guides, and find all kinds of information if they know where to look. We find a lot of people often have very precise ideas about what they want and will take time to organize it. They want to have a unique experience. For instance, many Europeans really want to come to Asia to have a cultural experience. So if we can organize a private candlelit dinner in the middle of an ancient temple, they love that. People want to do extraordinary things that make it a memorable moment and are willing to pay a premium for something different or special.
• Is modern technology an important factor in how you service your clients and customers? How important is social media to your brand?
Yes, more and more so. We still print paper guides because it is our tradition, but it is not practical. We have an iPhone and iPad application now that gives our customers lots of information about each of the destinations and what they can do with links to other places. It is a more cost-efficient way to get the information out there and to create interest, engagement and buzz, but it is a cheap way of communicating. This has its benefits and downsides. It allows users access to more information, but not necessarily good quality information.
• What are your favorite travel websites?
Besides wandermelon, I also really love Louis Vuitton’s travel website, which is good for dreaming – it has beautiful images and captures evocative journeys. I also use Destinasian.com, traveldaily.com.au and Travel + Leisure a lot as I’m always looking for new places and often exchange information with them.
• What personal tips do you have for travelers?
Be open-minded and curious when you travel. Respect other people and cultures. Tourism can be very helpful in some countries developing revenue, but it also can alienate them from their own cultures because they become too caught up in Western culture and ways. It’s better if we don’t try to change them, only respect and understand them. My greatest pleasure when I travel is when I have an enriching cultural exchange, sometimes with people whom I can’t even communicate with, but we share a look, a smile, a drink, a meal or just a special moment – and that to me is genuine hospitality, which is priceless.
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For reservations call:
1 800 735 2478 (USA)
1 300 121 341 (Australia)
0800 540 008 (New Zealand)
00 800 2000 00 02 (Europe)
To find out more, watch the video below where Chairman of the Board Jaume Tàpies presents an overview of the Association.