How Relais & Châteaux hopes to pandemic-proof travel

June 30, 2021, 6:00 PM UTC
Secret Bay, a Relais & Châteaux boutique hotel on the island of Dominica.
Courtesy of Relais & Châteaux

At family-run Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tenn., guests of the 4,200-acre property can sample the cheese, honey, and produce sourced on the premises and transformed into culinary magic by acclaimed chef Cassidee Dabney. Visitors to Clayoquot Wilderness Lodge, on Canada’s Vancouver Island, arrive via seaplane and sleep in a luxury canvas tent with a view of the rain forest at the edge of their bed. And those who stay at Hotel Solar de las Animas can sip cocktails at the foot of a volcano in Tequila, Mexico.

They’re all part of a group of some 80 hotels and restaurants in North America alone, 580 around the world, that make up Relais & Châteaux. The brand’s strength lies, in part, in this diversity of offerings but also in its consistently high standards. While each venue is owned and operated by independent innkeepers and chefs, guests expect a heightened level of hospitality and luxury, whether they’re on safari in Namibia or sitting on a beach in Bermuda.

The Imanta Punta de Mita resort in Mexico is a member of the Relais & Châteaux hospitality group.
Courtesy of Relais & Châteaux

But by the end of March 2020, many had closed as a result of state and federal regulations and international border closures prompted by the pandemic. It was just the beginning of what experts are calling the worst year in tourism history, with an estimated loss of $1.3 trillion in export revenues alone. Like so many others in the industry, the nearly 70-year-old brand faced the Herculean task of navigating these new regulations, while also plotting how to restart and purposefully move forward.

And the diverse offerings that had always been a boon to the company posed a hurdle: how to reopen a global brand, contending with regulations and guidelines that changed from country to country, city to city.

“Nothing could have prepared anyone for the devastating impact of the pandemic, and it’s something that has challenged the hospitality space like it has never been challenged before, not just for Relais & Châteaux,” says Philippe Gombert, the company’s president.

As part of its strategic response, the brand helped its employees and member properties navigate an ever-changing set of challenges with real-time initiatives and solutions, such as tapping top doctors and Bureau Veritas—a global company specializing in testing, inspection, and certification—to provide guidance to its North American members.

In Marrakech, Morocco, the Relais & Châteaux Villa des Orangers.
Courtesy of Relais & Châteaux

In line with other expert opinions, though, Gombert predicts the pendulum will swing back. “Hospitality was one of the hardest hit industries, but what we are expecting is that the rebound will also be the biggest for our industry.” As countries around the world are opening their borders at a steady clip and travelers are dusting off their passports, the rebound outlook seems promising.

As part of this rebound, Relais & Châteaux worked to pivot at the consumer level, appealing to guests who now prioritize privacy and seclusion. The response includes the newly launched Villas by Relais & Châteaux, a curated collection of 600 residences around the world that cater to a demand for private accommodations and experiences.

“What we have learned over the past year, is that travelers crave privacy in a way they have never before,” Gombert says. Indeed, hospitality brands and services that lend themselves to privacy are seeing a boom, including Love Home Swap. A platform that lets travelers borrow homes around the world—often in more secluded places that favor space and privacy over a front desk and elevator—Love Home Swap saw a 282% increase in bookings in 2020. And according to Airbnb, bookings for rural listings surged last summer, up 25% from 2019, earning hosts over $200 million in June alone.

The Dimora Il Borro, a Relais & Châteaux property in Tuscany, Italy.
Courtesy of Relais & Châteaux

Scattered over 30 different countries, the villas are similar to the brand’s existing offerings in their diversity—from mountain cabins in Patagonia to an estate in Tuscany—each has its own sense of place. Also similar: the level of luxury and hospitality guests have come to expect from Relais & Châteaux; the company says it used “deliberately ruthless selection criteria” to ensure a high quality of service at each venue.

What’s different, though, is the added level of autonomy and intimacy. Instead of rooms and suites in hotels with on-site Michelin-star restaurants, there are instead full cottages and homes that may come with the option for a private dinner, created by the restaurants’ chefs. Spa treatments now occur privately at home, or perhaps by the property’s outdoor pool. With the exception of villas in urban or some mountain destinations, each has its own separate entrance.

“The collection seeks to give guests more control over their stay and confidence in the safety of the family and friends they are traveling with,” Gombert says. The current consumer desire for more space and privacy has accelerated in recent months, according to the company president. “It is here to stay and a traveler habit we will be seeing for a very long time.”

The villas were created to cater to the suddenly booming consumer demand for privacy, but they also lend themselves to longer-term stays, which are also on the rise, thanks to the proliferation of remote work that also seems poised to become permanent.

“We have seen all around the world companies shift to a more flexible work environment. And although the office culture is slowly coming back, with major offices reopening around the world, that flexible remote work environment is a trend that will stay for many years to come,” notes Gombert. As each comes with a roomier layout and extra space beyond a bedroom, properties can have remote offices or classrooms, too.

The Nautilus Maldives, from Relais & Châteaux.
Courtesy of Relais & Châteaux

In the past year and a half, the travel industry has been tested in countless ways, but it has also opened the door to some new options for travelers, propelling organizations to innovate.

“The pandemic gave opportunities for restaurants and hotels to really think about how they can future-proof their brands, to protect against anything of this nature moving forward,” Gombert says. “Hotels used times of closure to renovate, reconfigure, and redefine their experience that not only catered to short-term trends in the space, but the longer trends that are here to stay, as well as the need for privacy and customizable hospitality experiences. These are all elements of the villas, so we believe offering this type of product will not only cater to travelers of today, but for the future.”

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