On Business


Canada's Elite

The Chosen Ones
Relais & Chateaux membership has its privileges. Only the qualified - those who deliver the "5 Cs" - courtesy, charm, character, cuisine and calm - can join the prestigious circle of establishments.

Late leaving the city, exasperated by traffic and miles of construction, we finally arrived - almost two hours late for our dinner reservation, betting there'd be no one left in the kitchen to toss a salad - to a gracious welcome at the Inn at Manitou in McKellar, Ontario.

Without introduction, the doorman greeted us by name and ushered us into a sumptuously decorated lobby where he presented us to the owner, Sheila Wise. She led us into the romantic corner of a dining room glowing with candlelight and flowers, crystal and silver. How could we feel anything but charmed by the immediacy of the personal attention, the heavenly ambiance, the sommelier proffering flutes of champagne, the waiter's delicate plates of amuses bouches? Minutes off the frantic highway, we were ensconced in an oasis of calm.

This deferential welcome exemplifies the premise - and promise - of the prestigious Relais & Chateaux (R&C) circle of hotels, and the Quality Charter of "5Cs" by which its members have governed themselves for 50 years. Courtesy extended in a warm welcome and sonsistent attentive service; charm reflected in well-appointed properties and elegant interiors; character evident in each property's unique style; cuisine of the highest standard; and calm. These comprise the signature treatment anticipated by the R&C's discriminating clientele.

My husband and I first fell in love with the Relais & Chateaux experience in 1982, during our first tour of France. In each place, the enchanting hospitality and meals made us loathe to leave, only to find another sweet experience in then next village. Two years later, we revelled in Val David, a tiny village in Quebec's Laurentian Mountains, at Hotel La Sapinière, the first Relais & Chateaux in North America. A few years later, while exploring Quebec's Eastern Townships from our base at Auberge Hatley, we were impressed by the owner Robert Gagnon and his gracious wife. Since retired, Gagnon was then R&C's figurehead in Canada, aiming to attract worthy members to an association that was renown in Europe but little known in Canada.

Forging the brand
Over a memorable meal, Gagnon relayed the association's history. In 1954 Marcel and Nelly Tilloy created Relais de Campagne - linking eight properties along the Paris-Nice route - and market it as the "Route du Bonheur" or road to happiness. In 1962, a rival group, Chateaux-Hotels, was born. In 1972, Pierre Troisgros and Joseph Olivereau formed Relais Gourmands, representing establishments serving exceptional cuisine. Three years later, the three merged under the Relais & Chateaux - Relais Gourmands label on Jan. 1, 1975.

In 2004, the Relais & Chateaux association celebrated its 50th anniversary, recognized as the hallmark of charming hotels and excellent cuisine worldwide. Today R&C's global presence encompasses 450 properties in 50 countries, with 60 members in North America, including 12 in Canada. The international head office is located in Paris. Bill Bennett, owner of Langdon Hall in Cambridge, Ont., fills dual roles as Canada president and North America vice-president, working closely with president David Garret, owner of The Point and Lake Placid Lodge in New York. Bennett also serves on the international board of directors.

Present panache
Seated regally in Langdon Hall's wicker-filled sunroom, Bill Bennett embodies elegance. Clad in tweed jacket, pristine shirt with knotted tie and gleaming shoes, his passion is palpable as he describes his raison d'être - indeed, that of all Relais & Chateaux members who have carved a niche in the upper echelon of the hospitality industry. Himself a builder, Bennett entered the hotelier life in 1983 at the Millcroft Inn - a Relais & Chateaux in Alton, Ont. - with then partner George Minden when the association included only 10 members in North America. In 1987, after being captivated by a historic Georgian property in Cambridge, he turned it into Langdon Hall.

The challenge for R&C members is simple yet exacting, explains Bennett. "Every day you must present a product that exceeds people's expectations. And this philosophy must filter to every level of employee - from the housekeeper to the gardener." For example, manager Jill McGoey, who honed her skills at the Windsor Arms in Toronto, instructs staff to contribute something unexpected: a smile, an anecdote.

Bennett has made it his métier to expand and effectively market the R&C brand in Canada. "As Relais & Chateaux hoteliers, knowing who we are and defining ourselves is essential." Bennett adds, "We can't be all things to all people. For example, [Langdon Hall] is not a bed and breakfast. [Relais & Chateaux properties] are not Holiday Inns or Hiltons where we try to be vanilla - we try to offer the best, most unique flavour of experience."

"As Relais & Chateaux members, we're stronger as a group than as individual properties," he continues. "For individual hoteliers, it's a matter of focusing on who and where you are - be it a seasonal resort or year-round country house - and building your product with a sense of excellence."

Canada is ripe for R&C's expansion, says Bennett. "We have stunning geography and exquisite food and wine. Interestingly, during last year's series of unfortunate [medical and international travel] crises, the Canadian Relais & Chateaux members fared better than the average hotel. Langdon Hall actually [bettered] its position since people were reluctant to travel abroad. And recent polls in Travel & Leisure and Condé Nast Traveler magazines rank Canadian members among the 'world's best.'" Among them: The Aerie Resort, Malahat, B.C.; Post Hotel, Lake Louise, Alta.; Wickaninnish Inn, Tofino B.C.; and Langdon Hall.

Membership to this prestigious circle has stringent conditions. Speculative dreamers need not apply; the property must be privately owned (not a member of a chain or other marketing association) and established under the same ownership for at least two years. It must have less than 100 rooms, a full-service gourmet restaurant, and it must meet the quality criteria of the 5 Cs. As R&C properties are subject to the association's undercover visitors, there has been a thorough culling of properties over the past few years, explains Bennett. Last year saw 22 new members in 12 countries join while 33 left the association.

Maintaining R&C's standards ultimately benefits the owners, says Maria Schuster, owner/manager of The Aerie Resort. "They must be strict because we are the Rolls-Royce of hotels." Harry Chancey, co-owner of the Kingsbrae Arms in St. Andrews-by-the-Sea, N.B., concurs. "One benefit of catering to and entertaining people who travel in the Relais & Chateaux universe is that we know how to succeed as hoteliers, and our guests know we will exceed their expectations." That mindset is echoed by Charles McDiarmid, owner/manager of Tofino's Wickaninnish Inn. "Unlike chain hotels which abide by the cookie-cutter approach, our guests anticipate the surprises of our ambiance and rustic setting."

"Meanwhile, there are wonderful benefits, particularly for a property like ours, which isn't exactly around the corner from anywhere," adds McDiarmid. "Being listed in Relais & Chateaux's International Guide - with one million copies distributed in four languages (English, French, German, Spanish) around the globe - entices visitors from far-flung places to visit our destination, rather than just make Vancouver their only stop on a tour of Canada."

The employee exchange program is another valuable membership perk, says Jordanna Lipson, co-manager of The Inn at Manitou with her mother, Sheila Wise, a lakeside seasonal resort tucked into the wilderness north of Toronto. "Quality attracts quality," she says. "Staff from Relais & Chateaux in Europe and England are eager to work here - not just to travel, but to add us to their resumé."

In accordance with Bennett's mantra - "We're judged by the company we keep" - R&C has forged several strategic partnerships, including a shared central reservation system with Leading Hotels of the World; venerable champagne houses like Moet & Chandon; and an alliance with Silversea Cruises. For example, as guest chef on Silversea's Silver Shadow, the Kingsbrae Arms' chef Mark Latulippe will represent his property to an elite clientele.

Relais & Chateaux properties across Canada are cultivating programs to offer the ultimate experience in their unique destinations. Many properties offer culinary programs as part of themed weekends. Now de rigueur, full-service spas soothe guests with spectacular views: a rugged ocean coast at The Wickaninnish and a serene lake at Les Trois Tilleuls & Spa in St-Marc-sur-Richelieu, Que. At the Kingsbrae Arms, Chancey aims to turn the waterfront into a playground for his guests, organizing private whale-watching tours and golf at championship courses. The Wickaninnish's exclusive activities include kayaking and deep-sea fishing, while Lake Louise's Post Hotel offers canoeing on glacial lakes and heli-skiing. The Inn at Manitou, which built its reputation on tennis, recently launched a full-service spa, an onsite Golf Academy and the first nine holes of its championship Ridge at Manitou Golf Course.

For all their finesse, owners and managers anticipate R&C's annual national and international conferences. In April 2005, the North American group (Canada, US, Mexico and Caribbean) will meet at The Wickaninnish Inn. "We can count on superb professional camaraderie, wonderful exchange of ideas," says Chancey. McDiarmid agrees. "Relais and Chateaux members believe hospitality is more than a formula and that the hospitality challenge is solved in myriad ways." Issues on this year's agenda include travel and culinary trends and marketing strategies.

Undoubtedly, the gathering will echo that distinctive mantra, substantiated by Manitou's Lipson. "Relais & Chateaux gives us worldwide credibility. It's recognizable and says exactly who we are to the sophisticated traveler. It places us in excellent company."

Groucho Marx once quipped, "I don't care to belong to a club that accepts people like me as their members." Relais & Chateaux's members would beg to differ. Marx's words just don't apply.

The Application Process
Properties submit applications to the Relais & Chateaux international office in Paris, which are forwarded to the regional delegation. Over the following six to 12 months, professional inspectors arrive to test for conformity to the "5 Cs." Courtesy, charm, character, cuisine and calm. New members are induced at the international congress in November. Membership is not guaranteed and, as with the Michelin rating system, if the property fails, the member may be asked to the leave the association.

Copyright: Toby Saltzman 2005



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