Jaume Tàpies, president of Relais and Châteaux and owner of El Castell de Ciutat in the Pyrenees
Jaume Tàpies was born with hotels and hospitality in his blood. Both his father and his grandfather were hoteliers and by the time Jaume was six he was handing out menus at the family château in northern Spain, but not taking orders as he could not write.
By the time he was 16, Jaume had been packed off to Italy to learn the trade properly, later graduating in 1989 from the highly respected Hotel Management School in Glion, Switzerland.
He worked as deputy manager of the Chewton Glen Hotel in Hampshire, England before taking over the family property El Castell de Ciutat in La Seu d'Urgell, Spain in 1992.
Along the way he was three times Spanish cross country skiing champion and now, at 40, he is in his third year as president of the prestigious Relais and Châteaux network.
Despite its exclusive reputation - it includes amongst members some of the most highly regarded hotels and restaurants in the world - it is an organisation which wants to expand its membership and, more importantly, embrace new regions.
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These are notably in the Far East, like China and Japan where Relais is looking both for new members and new customers. This, said Mr Tàpies, is quite a new development for Relais.
Currently members range from some of the top restaurants in London, Paris and New York to properties in the African Bush. What distinguishes them and makes them suitable to be Relais members is their rating on a quality chart consisting of five C-words: character, charm, courtesy, calm and cuisine.
"We have nine inspectors, five of them British and they use a quality chart. But it is not like a questionnaire because all of our properties are different. We want that so we have adapted our inspection to look at the culture of the place. We want the best culinary experience in the culture of the country," he said.
The organisation has more than 450 members in its 2009 Guide including 30 newcomers. About 25 from the 2008 guide have been omitted. In the last eight years, 170 properties have been asked to leave. This, said Mr Tàpies, is the worst part, telling often old friends they have been dropped. It can lead to tears.
But Mr Tàpies has added a sixth test: the ability to surprise. "Most of our properties have fewer than 100 rooms. Normally they are family run and are very personal. They are there because they love the job and feel they are doing more than they are paid for. It is a passion.
"But it is the permanent ability to surprise, the little things that make the difference so that the guest can feel comfortable no matter who they are."
Not surprisingly Relais is attracting a growing number of businesses who see their different properties as ideal places for meetings, bonding and team building. One group which booked into Mr Tàpies' property was given a helicopter ride to the edge of a wood and were cooked paella among the trees. "They never expected to leave their meeting room," he said.
"Often the company will take the whole place. It is usually the top end, the directors. They have formal meetings but it is also something that really involves them. The success is down to using the imagination for something different.
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"In a large hotel chain, everything is standardised. But a Relais property is unique so you can do something different," he said.
Corporate meetings and events now accounts for up to 20% of Relais' total business. The UK and Ireland region, which has 29 members, regards this as so important it is in the process of appointing a sales manager specifically for the meetings and events market.
But with the economic downturn and both personal and company budgets for travel being trimmed if not slashed, Mr Tàpies is aware that Relais and Châteaux face a daunting challenge. He has already noted a change in travel patterns with customers taking fewer breaks but staying longer when they do travel, although he puts this down partly to environmental concerns.
"We have seen the market stay even up to the summer and we are now seeing some changes. But it is a concern as to how the market will change and how luxury is perceived. How people will see it we can not say," he said.
Some markets were suffering more than others, notably the US and Spain while others, like the UK and Germany, were doing well as they can still count on local business. "We don't know what the situation will be but we have a new guide out, a new website, a new advertising company and a new reservation system where you can book with three clicks.
"We are also looking to develop in other regions of the world. The new website has both Chinese and Japanese languages on it."
Meanwhile, Mr Tàpies continues his own frenetic activities to promote the organisation. In the week he launched the new guide in London earlier this month, his timetable involved leaving his home in Spain on Sunday for Paris on Monday, Barcelona on Tuesday, London on Wednesday, Normandy on Thursday and back to Paris on Friday before home for the weekend and then on a Monday flight to New York.
"It is great experience. I am learning so much and working with these very prestigious members. I have the best job in the world," he said.
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