Let’s say you’ve been scanning the travel press, maybe the Forbes Travel Guide or Travel+Leisure. Your eyes fall on a couple of jaw-dropping hotels and restaurants, maybe Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tennessee and Auberge du Soleil in Napa.
Or, maybe, Eden Roc at Cap Cana in the Dominican Republic and The Wickaninnish Inn in British Columbia. Your mouth starts to water over the featured cuisine as your body tingles at the pictured bedding and its stratospheric thread count.
What you likely don’t realize is that these luxe establishments, thousands of miles apart and each providing a notably different experience, are threaded together by an elite organization, Relais & Chateaux, that commands 328 Michelin stars and an untold number of Forbes stars and AAA diamonds.
That each of these properties provides its own unique experience and sense of place is central to Relais & Chateaux’s mission, which is enhanced by Relais’ insistence that membership be limited to establishments that are small enough to be extremely personal; no inn can have more than 100 rooms, and the median number rooms is 30.
“We’re really the un-chain of luxury lodging and dining,” says Daniel Hostettler, the incoming Relais & Chateaux Eastern Regional Delegate, which means he represents the innkeepers and restaurateurs of the Eastern US and the Caribbean. “Relais was all about localized travel before it was the rage,” he continues. “And now, with travelers in all demographics intent on localized explorations and experiences, we’re more engaged than ever with the current ethos.”
Indeed, in the current, “authenticity”-driven era of travel, spurred by the passions of both millennials and their elders, the focus of this venerable organization, founded in France in 1954 and a presence in North America in 1983, seems particularly on point, due to the growing emphasis in the industry on localization of travel destinations.
Hostettler takes on his Relais & Chateaux responsibilities as Patrick O’Connell (The Inn at Little Washington), who has been delegate as well as North American President for nearly 12 years, steps down. For Hostettler, as it has been for O’Connell, this means juggling those duties with his own innkeeping responsibilities; Hostettler is GM and President of Ocean House, a Forbes Triple Five Star-rated oceanside resort in Watch Hill, Rhode Island.
Among Hostettler’s new duties will include inspecting other properties—essentially his peers. (The properties are also inspected by one of the organization’s 11 independent inspectors, initially as well as every three years, as a non-negotiable condition of applying for and retaining membership.) “Of course, most of our places already go through the rigorous inspections from Forbes and AAA, and in some cases Michelin as well,” Hostettler says. “But we’re looking for something a bit different to ensure they belong in Relais.”
: That je ne sais quoi?”
Daniel Hostettler, Relais & Chateaux: “Oui, oui!”
Solomon: Can you be more specific?
Hostettler: Well that would kind of suck the je ne sais out of it, wouldn’t it?
Solomon: Could be!
Hostettler: But sure. The “sense of place” is really essential. In our inspections, we’re looking for a taste of the locale in the restaurants, in the furnishings, in the overall feeling. Travelers don’t go to an urban Relais property like The Ivy, an 18-room brownstone in Baltimore, looking for the same experience as at Twin Farms (a Forbes Five Star property in the most rural of rural Vermont). You don’t go to Meadowood (one of the largest Relais properties, with 99 rooms, in the heart of Napa Valley wine country, for the same experience you are looking for at The Inn at Little Washington (one of the first Relais restaurants and inns in North America, even now, after years of expansion, only offering 28 unique, stage-designed rooms).
Solomon: Even after 40 years! [My article on the Inn at Little Washington’s 40th anniversary is here.]
Hostettler: Yes, it’s kind of an extreme level of “sense of place”; Patrick [O’Connell, proprietor of The Inn at Little Washington] likes to keep it individualized, even down to differentiating room to room.
As far as cuisine, you don’t go to Eleven Madison Park (Daniel Humme’s restaurant in Manhattan, ranked the #1 restaurant in the world for 2017 by the World’s 50 Best Restaurants Academy) looking for the same experience as at Menton (Barbara Lynch’s famed restaurant in Boston). So, while we are looking for quality and consistency of service and presentation, we are also looking for the opposite of consistency in a sense: that you truly represent what the traveling public wants to achieve by truly traveling: getting somewhere, and having it be spectacular—and spectacularly local. There are more than 300 criteria, that fall into five categories, but for me, this is one of the biggies.
Solomon: What’s next on your agenda, or wish list, or dreams, for Relais & Chateaux?
Hostettler: I have two items in particular on my list. First, to build the presence—the mindshare–of Relais and Chateaux in North America. Most of the hotels and restaurants we have talked about today are famous in their own right, known to luxury lodging aficionados and the food-obsessed as pillars of their craft; but most people probably do not know that they all belong to this fraternity of chefs and independent hoteliers many of them less well-known, who all practice their craft with equal zeal and enthusiasm.
Solomon: And item two?
Hostettler: Item two is to increase the value to our members. Many members stress to me the value of our peer gatherings and our rigorous inspections–
Solomon: John Graham, of Twin Farms, told me the other day, I don’t remember his words exactly, something like “My favorite part of Relais is being part of a dedicated peer group that have become my friends and keep me on my toes.”
Hostettler: Exactly, and I want to continue this while building on our joint recruiting and staffing efforts in order to retain our great team members [employees] in the Relais family; and also, to continue joint promotional efforts so that we can all share our valued guests with each other and allow them to experience the many different faces of Relais and Chateaux in North America and the rest of the world.