Luxury Hotels

What does the luxury traveller want? Relais & Châteaux’s Laurent Gardinier may have the answer

The recently appointed president of one of the world’s most luxurious hotel groups says the future is full of promise for bespoke properties

Laurent Gardinier, president of Relais & Châteaux, is helping luxury hotels to become more sustainable as a result of customer demand. Picture: Philip Ducap

Late in 2022, the luxury hotel group Relais & Châteaux released their first Sustainability Report, an ambitious manifesto that set out fifteen objectives for 2025 and 2030 as part of the foundations for Relais & Châteaux’s sustainability action plan. While the second report is due in Q1 of 2024, after which it will be an annual event, it was a key moment for Laurent Gardinier, who succeeded Philippe Gombert as the new president at the beginning of this year.

“I think that the most important thing is that we have done, as I would say, a declaration, saying that we were local, that local cuisine was very important and that we had to maintain the seasonality of our product in the kitchen.”

The use of plastic has been a key focus too. Mauro Colagreco, head of the Relais & Châteaux culinary council, is head chef at Mirazur, which became the first restaurant in the world to receive ‘Plastic Free’ certification in January 2020. “Now we need to move forward and be very sound,” says Gardinier. What he has suggested is creating a service, run by Relais & Châteaux, that is 100 per cent dedicated to sustainability. Given that the organisation is not-for-profit, with over 580 members all over the world, the challenge is great. Each territory has its own rules regarding sustainability, and red tape that must be adhered to.

That said, Gardinier says it is not only necessary for the planet, it is driven by customer demand. “It is something people ask when they are checking now, it is part of the service, the offering for all of our properties.” With that in mind, Lars Seifert, chief communications and sustainability officer for the group, is intent on creating a suite of sustainability experts in each territory to deliver tailored guidance. “We have an American, English, and me as a European expert,” says Seifert, “for navigating the sustainable transition. But the roadmap is pretty clear. For us, we know where we want to go. And it's sophisticated. But we need the experts as we’re humble enough to know when we don’t have the answer.”

Everything from sustainably managed toiletries to linen is being asked for at the highest level in luxury, says Gardinier, driven by a younger customer who has no problem sharing their feedback online if the hotel doesn’t meet those standards. But what does a modern, sustainable hotel look like? It boils down to three things, according to Gardinier. “If you are the owner, what do you want to do? Do you want to save energy? Do you want to recycle the fluids as possible? And of course, you want to maintain the building that you have.”

Jiva Hill Resort

There is one place, Jiva Hill Resort in Crozet, France which Gardinier cites as having led the way in their group in the sustainability field, introducing geothermal energy, water retention ponds, solar panels and a full paperless policy. The seasonality of food is of particular importance to Relais & Châteaux too. “We are the first gastronomic organisation in the world, and nowadays to be gastronomic means seasonal. In terms of what the modern luxury traveller is looking for, it is as before, but with circularity in mind. So you still need to have the same, I would say, goals in terms of guest experience. And then you need to work on sustainably doing that.”

In terms of what the modern luxury traveller is looking for in a broader sense, experiences have become key for hotels as well as more boutique offerings. “There is a preference for small hotels which has been good for us, and for travelling with friends and families. You have a lot of international brands that have created small hotels. It's the X or Y big player, it’s just done it under a totally different name.”

One of the revelations of Covid, says Gardinier, was that despite borders being closed, hotels remained at almost full capacity. What has happened since then though, while there is a renewed impetus to travel, is that every business has been challenged to recruit and retain staff. Relais & Châteaux run their own form of job desk, using the cross-pollination of properties to help fill employee gaps even if it is on an international basis.

Currently, there are seven Relais & Châteaux properties in Ireland: Cashel Palace, Park Hotel Kenmare, Ballyfin, Ballynahinch, Sheen Falls, Marlfield House and the recently added Liss Ard Estate all of which share a level of excellence in terms of service. They are all positioned quite separately too. As to whether there will be more Irish properties, he is circumspect. “So there is no limitation, but there is one: we don’t want to have a property that does not meet the 500 criteria that we see as the most important.”

In terms of the ambitions for the future, he is focused on what he calls the “network” of hotels, maintaining their “family spirit”. “We need to have general managers who are leaders and who are aligned with the values of family, with the value of friendship of sharing, or the best practices of sharing. It’s a non-profit organisation. We have to be balanced. We don’t have to make a profit. We simply work for our members.”

At the end of his five-year tenure, he would like to see secret sustainability inspectors. “At the end of my five years if we have few sustainable inspectors I would be very proud.”

Cashel Palace in the historic town of Cashel in Tipperary Photo by Naoise Culhane

Cashel Palace Hotel’s sustainability credentials

As one of Relais & Châteaux’s seven properties in Ireland, Cashel Palace has been proactive in terms of sustainability. The new parts of the hotel were designed and built to NZEB (Nearly Zero Energy Building) specifications, meaning they have a high energy performance while using a very low amount of energy which is powered from renewable sources.

The public areas are heated by underfloor heating and use night-time electricity, while outdoor lighting is LED where possible and runs on photosensitive panels.

When creating the hotel, a water well was made on site which provides some of the hotel’s water needs and supplies the guests’ bottled water. Food waste is used to create compost for the gardens.

The push has been to source much of the food within Cashel Palace’s homeland county of Tipperary, while a kitchen garden provides some seasonal produce in addition to to greenhouse produce which comes from the hotel owners, John Magnier’s nearby Coolmore Stud. Herbs, lettuces and micro-greens come from a vertical farm in Ballyporeen, Co Tipperary.

The hotel is also part of an All Ireland Pollinator Programme, overseen by their head gardener while a hops garden now in situ.