Relais & Châteaux, the association of luxury boutique hotels and restaurants, was founded in 1954 with eight establishments in France. Today, it has more than 500 member properties, representing 12,000 rooms, in 60 countries.
“The Asian market is not [yet]as developed as it should be [for us] but it is a market for our future. The share of our Asian clientele should triple with the next five years,” says Stéphane Junca, the association’s director for Asia, based in Bangkok.
In 2011, the organization will release the 50th edition of its annual guidebook at a hefty 680 pages. And for the first time it will also be in Chinese, to add to yearly English, French, Spanish, Italian and German versions.
Every luxury business wants the high-end Chinese consumer, but apparently Relais & Châteaux member hotels on Canada's West Coast already have them.
“Canada is one of the most in-demand destinations from the Chinese clients,” Mr. Junca says.
Thanks to mainland tourists, properties in and around Vancouver have proven to be some of the most popular bookings out of Asia for the association.
“Canada has become a more important market for China’s high-profile people. More and richer Chinese are seeking opportunities in Canada either for their investments or for their children’s education,” says Rachel Wang, a former Vancouver resident and now managing director of Great West Travel, a Relais & Châteaux partner travel consultancy in Shanghai.
Vancouver, which offers direct flights from many Chinese cities, has become a top destination for wealthy mainlanders. Great West has arranged packaged itineraries that include not only the usual sight-seeing and shopping but also schedules to suit the needs of rich Chinese: tours of real estate for sale and family visits to potential schools.
In Vancouver, a number of Ms. Wang’s clients have chosen to stay at Relais & Châteaux member Wedgewood Hotel & Spa because of its downtown shopping area location and because it is different, the kind of place that appeals to the discerning, big-budget Chinese tourist. Its fine dining has also been attractive to wine-loving mainlanders.
“Relais & Châteaux is not a chain, but more a fellowship made of independent properties, sharing the same vision and values for hospitality, quality, lifestyle, ‘art de vivre,’ and cuisine,” Mr. Junca says.
Another top draw for Chinese clients: the Sonora Resort a short flight away from Vancouver.
“It is very exclusive and takes about 45 minutes to get there by private helicopter,” Ms. Wang says. “For those rich Chinese, this trip is something they didn’t experience in their own country and shows their status and [gives them]something to talk about – fishing, eco-tour, whale-watching. We make this an optional trip for Chinese clients seeking something different and unique.”
Tofino’s Wickannish Inn has also been a hit with Ms. Wang’s clientele. “They are able to discover the Pacific Rim National Park [Reserve]and region. From Victoria to Tofino, there is scenic road to drive, letting our clients discover what the West Coast of Canada could offer them. It makes our high-profile clients feel special and [gives them the sense of]exclusivity.”
Relais & Châteaux started ramping up operations in Asia in 2008. Though the majority of its 400,000 regular clients are still mainly from Europe and North America, in those two years, the share of room reservations by customers in Asia has gone to 5 per cent from zero.
“Generally speaking, Asian clients are looking for the ‘romantic Europe’ [from us] The idea to have hectares of vineyards around, centuries of history behind and delicious food in front, with all manners and sophistication, is a main attraction,” Mr. Junca says.
Europe has emerged as a strong offering for most Relais & Châteaux Asian clients and, for mainlanders, Canada is a “work and play” destination.
“This is the beginning of what I hope will be come a significant change in the profile of our clientele,” Mr. Junca says.
The urban population from all of Asia’s big cities -- Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok, Jakarta – will become more important in the years to come.”
Special to the Globe and Mail
Alexandra A. Seno has written about economics and business trends in Asia since 1994. She is a regular contributor to Newsweek, the International Herald Tribune and The Wall Street Journal Asia. She lives in Hong Kong.