“We cannot afford not to be here”

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Only five out of 50 luxury Indian hotels passed the quality audit of acclaimed hospitality association Relais & Châteaux. Announcing the India launch of Relais & Châteaux, Jaume Tapies, international president, and Jacques-Olivier Chauvin, CEO, spoke to Open on why India is uppermost on their minds.

Q After leaving India unnoticed for over 50 years, how come you have included five Indian properties in your 2010 listing?

A Jacques Chauvin: There’s been awareness that we do not have a presence in this huge market where the history and heritage is amazing. There is so much to explore through the senses.

Jaume Tapies: Though risky, we started to promote the Asian market three years ago. The board said 'no' to Asia because they wanted to stabilise in Europe, but we still went ahead with Asia, particularly India. Asia is taking the lead in the world economy and we cannot afford not to be here. China will take time to mature. India is ready and full of surprises.

Q You’re more confident about India than China...

AJT: Relais & Châteaux experience is from the soul. You can’t buy that. It’s not about selling a room night. If that’s what you want, you can sleep anywhere else. Money can build you incredible luxury, but the heart you can’t buy. China’s concept of luxury is an expression of expensive ingredients, Indian luxury hotels are offering something far more experiential and exceptional like those in France. No doubt these are rather costly but they are also unforgettable.

JC: We believe in the luxury of being versus the luxury of having. You do not go to a Relais & Châteaux to be seen by others.

Q Besides Mahua Kothi, which is operated by the Taj, and CC Africa, all the other owners are young Indian entrepreneurs with small properties. Is this a deliberate selection?

A JT: We are seeking this. What makes a property unique is a personality. We’re always looking for people who produce magic. We make business with this magic. Every Relais will surprise you. The chef will take you to the kitchen to choose truffles from a basket that they’ll cook to your style. It’s non-standardised hospitality that gives every guest a new experience. We look for innkeepers with a soul.

Q Beyond the five Cs—charm, courtesy, character, cuisine and calm—you’ve added a sixth test, the ability to surprise. Share some…

A JT: At The Serai, they ask if you want to see the sunrise. At 5 am when you head out into the desert, you find that they are cooking a breakfast live, only for you in the middle of the dunes, which is totally unexpected. It’s an experience that stays in your memory.

Q How many properties were audited in India?

A JC: We visited 50 properties. Of these, about 15 have potential. Five more Relais & Châteaux India properties will be announced this November, as part of our 2011 listing.

JT: India is the only country to go from three properties to 10 in three years. That’s a record.

Q Le Dupleix in Pondicherry, why has it been dropped?

A JT: There’s a family spirit to being a part of Relais. They loved associating with the brand, but they didn’t have its values. This is not about purchasing an accolade, so they were excluded.

Q Tell us about the mystery guest and the quality audit.

A JT: We have a team of ten professional inspectors who arrive with a charter of quality and a bank of personal experience. They spend anything from one to three nights, assessing everything from the reservations system to the spa. They sign off with a story of their impressions, a written picture of the property. This report is accepted or rejected by the board in Paris. Complaints merit a repeat inspection.

JC: It’s a tough job being an inspector, you need an immense memory. You cannot take notes every single minute because you have to preserve your anonymity. Even if you have eaten foie gras for four days, on the fifth you can’t say I am fed up, because a normal guest would not do what you’ve done. You have to keep the eye of the guest at the centre of your mind.

Q What are the qualifications of a hotel inspector?

A JT: Obviously someone who loves to travel, who is interested in luxury hotels and has a refined palate. We have four Michelin reviewers, three hoteliers, one gastronomic writer. All have hospitality experience. Anonymity is the key. At my own property there was a mystery guest who came, stayed, had a massage and many meals, but no one knew who he was. He was invisible.

Q What’s the cost of associating with Relais & Châteaux?

A JT: To become a candidate, we charge €1,500 which includes the inspection. If the property is listed by us, the annual dues are €7,500–30,000, depending on the size of the property. The average dues are about €15,000.

JC: If you compare it to the average turnover then it is about 0.8 –1.5 per cent. But what you get in return is much more, due to the Relais pull.

Q What’s next?

A JC: We are doing something very special in India, we’re taking the first steps by pre-selecting properties. This is the reverse of mature markets where we open applications every day. This is because the success recipe refined over 25 years for new destinations is to establish a strong foundation of members. South Africa, South America and Japan only became significant when we reached a critical mass of 20 members in those countries. We’re using the same success recipe in India so people can realise this civilisation and culture in an unforgettable way.