With 18 years experience running Relais & Chateaux properties and most recently running a Relais & Châteaux property near Bordeaux, UK-born Anthony Torkington this year took on the role of General Manager at Relais & Châteaux. We asked him how he arrived in this position…

For the last six years, I was at the Saint-James Bouliac near Bordeaux. I’ve known the current president Philippe for many years and we discussed some time ago the idea of me coming on board in the head office. The opportunity came around this year and I joined as GM, working in a management team of four people. I deal with the members, the chefs, the partnerships, helping members with all the problems and so on. So, I guess the two things that differentiate me from my predecessor is one that I am English, and two, the fact that I am a hotelier. There was a hotelier that was GM in Relais & Châteaux some years ago. I think the members were hoping and waiting for a hotelier to be a in that role as I understand their day-to-day lives, having done that for 20 years. Phillippe’s focus, since he’s been president for the past five years, has been very much on the fact that we are here for the service of our members, we push business direct to them and we do more and more for them, so understanding their needs is obviously beneficial and very helpful for me in day-to-day life. So that is how I came about heading up the team in the beginning of March.

What have you been up to since then?

I did a round-the-world tour when I started, because we do all our delegation meetings between March and June. All our members are linked into delegations; we have 21 delegations in the world, so I did all those meetings around the world and I got the impression that brand awareness was something they wanted more of, sales was something they wanted more of and probably one of the things that struck me the most was that a lot of the services we provide are not used fully by the members.

Which ones?

It depends, because we have 580 properties worldwide and different types of members, so there is not a generality where everyone doesn’t use the same thing out of all the services, and we provide quite a few. But I think perhaps perhaps half of the services are not optimised by our members. So, you have members that are thinking, “I am paying a membership and I am not getting everything out of it”, and you have our teams working for Relais & Châteaux who are thinking, “I am working on all these services for the members and they are not being used.” It is a question of communication, so I have launched an audit; not a quality audit, but I an audit of all the members, which has already started and is carrying on over the months up to next June, seeing what they use, what they don’t use, if they’re not using it why they’re not using it? Is it they’re not using it because they don’t want to, are they not using because they don’t know it exists? I want our members to optimise their affiliation with us. To make an affiliation work you have to work at the affiliation.

What are you working on right now?

We are working on creating a new service for human resources, we are launching the new brand campaign in March of next year, the biggest brand campaign ever done, which is a series of films highlighting showcasing five of our properties, we have a property in Japan, a property in the UK, a property in South America, a property in France, and a property in the US. The brand campaign is very digital and we’ve done our videos about ‘experiences’. We have a new brand signature that is coming out with the campaign, which is “Creating delicious journeys”. The videos highlight and showcase what delicious means at the five properties we have selected. Some of our members said why have you chosen five properties and how do you want me to promote something that is not about my property? Relais and Châteaux is all about individuality, it’s all about uniqueness… so there’s no logic doing a video for a brand that talks about everything in a video of one minute 30 seconds. Therefore, we have done videos about ‘what we are about’ and we are asking each of our members to then do their own videos, so in a few years’ time, we will have a few hundred videos about what ‘delicious’ means in all of our properties.

How are they doing that? Are they just doing it by themselves?

No, we give them guidelines. We are launching it in March but the idea is we give them guidelines, we can help them storytelling, so if they don’t know what ‘delicious’ is in their property, just to pinpoint something, we can help them with that. We have sourced companies who can do the film shooting in properties worldwide, and we have given them an idea of budget, so we are holding their hands in some ways and helping them with it so that we can have films that look similar in terms of the way they are structured. Each story will be different, but there will be some sort of continuity. They will be 30 seconds, in some cases, and up to a minute 30 or a minute 40 in other cases. The five first films have already been produced. They have been shown to all members at the Congress in Quebec a few weeks ago, and they will be launched to the public in March, along with a new revised logo. Logo still includes the fleur de Lys but we have redone the typeface of the characters for Relais & Châteaux, because they don’t work very well digitally. We have chosen bolder fonts. So, a slightly modified logo, a brand campaign and we are launching at the end of winter a new guest recognition programme. This will be a big step forward in terms of the way we welcome our guests and the knowledge we have about them. We will invite all prospects, all people who are looking to book, all those booked, and our current guests, to sign up for the guest recognition programme. They then fill out their details, they give us their preferences and that will be enhanced with every stay because the hotel managers or ‘Maîtres de Maisons’ will be able to give certain information on the guests – about what they like or don’t like. We want to have personalised information that gives us the capacity within every member property to welcome each guest, knowing what he or she likes, and knowing what he or she doesn’t like, which is something we currently don’t have. As I mentioned, we are also working with members on human resources, providing careers for youngsters who want to come into our brand. We are working together with them on guest recognition, and on the brand campaign, and all of these things need people to work together.

How are people reacting to the guest recognition scheme? In a lot of cases of a lot of people don’t want their details shared.

The guest signs-up, so if they don’t want to share information, they don’t sign up. The signature is an agreement that the information will be shared around the different members of the Relais & Châteaux. We have tested it amongst guests and the feedback is very good, we have tested it on members and again feedback is very good. It’s like a snowball. It’s going to take time to get it working, because we have to link up all our member properties to the system and we have to interface that. One of the challenges we have is that we have 120 PMS systems within our 580 properties so we have to interface all those systems to the guest recognition platform, so that is a challenge. That is a challenge, which is why the implementation will roll out over a three-year period. It will also take time to get guests to sign up, so it’s not something that will happen overnight, but we really believe in the programme.

What kind of parameters will be included?

There will be bed preferences, bathroom preferences, pillow preferences, food preferences, beverage preferences, newspaper preferences, what you like to visit, what sort of wines you like, many things like that. Furthermore, when you are booking in a region, we will be able to give you a playlist of music that will be adapted to where you are going, and we will be able to give you information about what to do, so it all links together. It is a programme that will build information on a per-stay basis, and will also include other parameters, such as someone who loves vintage cars, someone who plays golf, people who like visiting churches or whatever… it will be very, very flexible.

Added to this, we will have a programme within the programme, which will replace what we currently have – known as the 5C programme. It is for our best guests and is called ‘Les Amis’, or “friends” in which each property will have the possibility of sponsoring up to 20 guests – guests who the property feels are brand ambassadors, who love Relais & Châteaux, who breathe Relais & Châteaux, and who talk about the brand. You get sponsored into the Les Amis programme, which will give classical benefits, like potential upgrades and so on, and will more interestingly give you benefits such as events that will open up to the members of the programme to which the general public will not have access. Our loyal ambassadors and guests love meeting together and talking about their experiences with Relais & Châteaux and they love experiencing things that we can open doors to, because we have partners with whom we work, whether it be in the champagne industry, the watch industry, or in the car industry. It is very different, because the members decide who is in it. The current system doesn’t work like that so with almost 600 members, and 20 members potentially per property, we are talking about a programme with 12,000 people max.

How are you seeing wine tourism evolving today?

We look upon wine at the moment as being something we haven’t worked on, but that we should have, because we have a lot of properties that produce wine, and a lot of our guests who love wine, so currently we want to showcase and highlight properties that we have within the network who produce wine. We have quite a lot of those, we want to make it easy for our members to sell wine amongst themselves, so the properties who are selling their own wine can also sell wines of other Châteaux members. Generally, we feel that with the network of chefs and restaurants that we have, the densest concentration of Michelin star chefs in the world, we also have wine waiters and sommeliers who are exceptional, we have talent within our properties around wine and a knowledge about wine that we are not using. So, we have been working for the past couple of years on getting our chefs together and working on chef meetings and networking with all chefs and that something we will put into place with wine waiters and with the wine that is being produced.

I think more and more people are looking for holidays and trips away where are they learn and they want to learn about wine. They want to understand the chef, they want to understand where the chef is buying his products, with which produce he is working, and they also want the wine angle.

When you were working in Bordeaux that was obviously one of the things you must have been developing…

I had a wine list at the hotel I was running in Bordeaux with all the wines produced within our French properties and guests loved that because you are telling the story about Relais and you’re able to say to them, “If you like Relais, these are all the wines that you can choose from, so it’s a ‘no brainer’. There also a lot of wine tours by our members.

Any remarkable new properties that we should talk about?

Many. We have just launched, since June of this year, a pre-opening programme so we now accept properties that are not yet open, which we didn’t do before. We have six such properties in total that are coming on board. One of note is the Stock Exchange in Manchester in the UK which will be quite sensational. One of our French properties that will interest you is the Royal Champagne, which is ‘wow’! It is just re-opening. It was always a member, it was refurbished and now has reopened but it’s a stunning property. We have had more than 40 new properties over the past year, and with the pre-opening policy, we are no longer losing amazing properties to the competition.

What will be your biggest challenges in the next couple of years?

The biggest challenge our members have is finding staff… human resources… that’s why we created a new service to help them with that and throughout the world, all of our members say the biggest concern at the moment is not finding guests, it’s finding the staff who understand what the industry is all about and have the dedication that’s needed. That is a real challenge and it’s one of the big things we have to help them with.