A Legacy of Leadership – International Luxury Hotel Association

By Fred Loewen, Chief Operating Officer, International Executive Search Firm

Philippe Gombert has recently completed his tenure as President of Relais & Châteaux, a role he stepped into nine years ago marking a career milestone in an industry he was born into.  The Gombert family legacy in the hospitality sector runs deep, and Philippe’s passion as a hotelier even deeper.  We recently sat down for a retrospective on his time as President, reflections on his career as a hotelier, and his expectations for the future.       

Philippe Gombert

You have recently completed a distinguished, nine-year tenure as the President of Relais & Châteaux.  When you reflect on your time as President, what has been your primary mandate?    

My relationship with Relais & Châteaux dates back thirty years when our family’s property, Château de la Treyne, became a member of this leading global hospitality association at the 1992 Congress in Venice.  Completing my tenure as its President at the 2022 Congress, also held in Venice, was especially poignant for me.  Our theme for the 2022 Congress was Embracing the Future.    

Upon stepping into the President position, my primary mandate was to build trust with our members which are foundational to our business model.  This meant demonstrating a clear commitment to our members by providing them with a host of value-added services specifically designed to drive business directly to their properties.  An equally important mandate in those early years of my Presidency was to launch our renewed vision of the Relais & Châteaux luxury brand, which we did in partnership with UNESCO in 2014 as part of our 60th-anniversary celebrations.  Sustainability, authenticity, and sense of place have since become synonymous with our brand, and an important element in connecting the Relais & Châteaux brand with the next generation of guests.  

Chateau de la Treyne.

When you consider the mandate(s) you have been executing on, how has Relais & Châteaux changed, grown, and progressed under your leadership?

Four years ago we were growing, on average, at a rate of ten additional properties each year.  At a certain point, we needed to consider our pace of growth in relation to how best to shape the organization.  We determined that our structure is best designed for a membership of 600 properties.  Strategically, this decision allowed us to look at the organization and to make other decisions in a different light – including the selection of new members.  Considering the pandemic years we’ve been through, these decisions have served us exceptionally well and we have come through to the other side as a stronger association.  

How have Relais & Châteaux’s membership selection criteria changed during your tenure?
Our world is evolving and, with it, the expectations of our guests – particularly the ever-increasing expectations related to quality.  For our members, this translates into an expectation that they continually reinvest in their properties.  Another significant change, borne of a decision we made five years ago, has been to consider properties that are at pre-opening stage.  Historically, Relais & Châteaux had only ever considered very well-established properties, which came at a cost of losing out on some exceptional newcomers.  In the past four years, 29 pre-opening properties have since joined our membership and have benefitted from the Relais & Châteaux brand and the services we provide in ensuring a successful opening.           

Personality of the candidate has become another increasingly important selection criterion.  This is reflected in the emotional score we have put in place, which takes into consideration guest emotions related to different aspects of their stay at a property.  Our thinking around the importance of the emotional score comes from our understanding of the strong connection between human emotion and memory.  

At what times, and in what ways, have you been particularly challenged in your role as President? 
Top of mind was the pandemic crisis; it was unprecedented.  I also never felt that this would be short; I believed that with the pandemic would come a long journey of recovery and reorientation and that the impact would be global.  For an organization whose business model depends on international travel, staying closely connected to our members worldwide quickly became imperative.  We swiftly moved to make decisions on our membership fees, our reserve fund, and on other strategic initiatives that have allowed us to maintain a strong financial position and an equally strong team well-poised for the future.   

In passing the Presidential reins on to your successor, what lies ahead for Relais & Châteaux?  What will the winds of change bring in terms of both challenges and opportunities? 
I think it’s a never-ending process of needing to adapt ourselves to new sustainability goals.  We are also facing the challenges of recruitment worldwide, so our workforce is an issue everywhere.  This means that we need to adapt to the changing needs and patterns of this, and the next, generation of hospitality employees.  With our worldwide staff, we operate in a global ecosystem that allows us to facilitate their own interests in travel and in living new experiences in other countries while we simultaneously continue to invest in training and developing them within the Relais & Châteaux family.  Elevating our employer brand in this and other ways is paramount and will increasingly become a critical decision factor for properties considering membership in a hospitality network.  Investing in new approaches to talent recruitment and retention is a continuous process in response to an unending challenge.   

I am also a proponent of a future distribution channel for Relais & Châteaux that is more exclusive.  My personal view is that, as a luxury brand, we should distribute our properties in a manner that is less mainstream.  Relais & Châteaux serves a niche sector where luxury means exclusivity.  This needs to be reflected in our brand, in our quality, and in our choiceof distribution channels.    

The Gombert family legacy in the hospitality industry is generational.  What do you hope to be the legacy of your Presidency at Relais & Châteaux?
I am passionate about hospitality, and this is thanks to my mother who was a hotelier.  Her goal, always, was to warmly welcome her guests like friends in her private home.  I am equally passionate about the Relais & Châteaux brand.  I would hope that my legacy here is one of a sense of authenticity and humanity, where all our guests at each of our hundreds of Relais & Châteaux properties feel welcome in a very special way and that the memories of their unique experiences keep bringing them back.  In this way, our vision of sense of place will have been fulfilled.

About the author

Fred Loewen

Fred Loewen is the Chief Operating Officer of an international executive search firm, based in Canada.  From his PwC roots in professional services, he has a built a 25-year career interviewing senior executives.  In contributing to Luxury Hoteliers magazine, he brings together his professional passion for leadership & strategy and his personal interest in the luxury hotel sector.  

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