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Joining the World's Most Exclusive Hotel Club

Original Story by Ann Abel for Forbes Online  

Most big chain hotels are commodities, David Garrett tells me over breakfast at his newest independent hotel, the Ivy in Baltimore. They provide the same basic things: bed, shower, technology, entertainment. “I’m not in the commodities business,” he adds. “I’m in the experience business.”

Garrett knows about hotel stays being emotional experiences, which are shaped by the hands of the humans who run them. The former investment banker’s first hotel, the Point in the Adirondacks, is widely considered one of the best hotels in world, and he sold it for the highest price per key ever at that point in history. He also owned and ran Lake Placid Lodge and the Inn of the Five Graces in Santa Fe. All three are members of Relais & Châteaux, and he served for many years as president for North America for that prestigious association.

When the owners of the Ivy approached him about consulting on their hotel, he quickly told them to aim for Relais & Châteaux, then took them to his former hotels in New York to show them what real hospitality is. That decision was partly based on name recognition. While some other hotel groups have lovely portfolios, none has the same level of brand loyalty—Relais junkies can be as passionate as Amanjunkies.

But what it takes to get into R&C is also what it takes to create an extraordinary small, independent hotel—by creating an extraordinary experience. That’s certainly the case with the Ivy, which opened last summer and feels more like a private club than a hotel. Aside from the very good restaurant (with a former chef from the Point and the first Robert Parker–branded wine cellar, filled with 100-point bottles), it wasn’t open to the public, and much of Baltimore was curious. The hotel relented a couple months go and began allowing locals for afternoon tea; reservations go quickly. (I stayed at the Ivy and the other hotels here as a guest of the hotels.)

The public spaces and 18 individually decorated rooms have a layered, colorful design, fireplaces, fabulously functional bathrooms and focal-point “barmoires”—a furnishing Garrett claims to have invented by turning disused TV cabinets from the pre-flat-screen days into large, well-stocked minibars. The interior design commissioned students at the Maryland Institute College of Art to decorate each one, then let their work guide her in the rest of the room.

But small luxury hotels are about far more than architecture. “Creating a hotel doesn’t stop the day you open,” says Garrett, who is based in Vermont but spends one week a month in Baltimore. “You have to keep doing it every day.” As he showed me around his nearly year-old hotel, he noticed a lamp that got in his eyes as he descended the 19th-century staircase and told a staffer to remove it. Also: “Being invited to join Relais & Châteaux is a matter of attitude. You can’t be withholding. It is an all-in commitment—operational, philosophical, financial. Relais & Châteaux is a family.”

Hospitality at the Ivy includes complimentary afternoon tea, cocktails, Wi-Fi, the contents of those barmoires and car service in an original London black cab. (Long story—the owner is a fan.) That generosity, along with beautiful design and excellent food, worked: The hotel was invited to join R&C just weeks after opening.

The idea of aiming for R&C is hardly new. When Charles McDiarmid opened his Wickanannish Inn on Vancouver Island 20 years ago, he had his eyes on the association from the get-go, having heard about it from guests at the Four Seasons properties where he worked for 13 years. “I liked the idea of small properties that were owner operated and had the unique terroir of their location,” he says.

Before construction, he courted the then–North American president, a fellow Canadian, to get the brand standards, like whether bidets were necessary or whether every room should have fresh flowers. “I thought it was simple,” he recalls. “I thought they’d have a sheet.” Little did he know that the criteria are ineffable, what the association calls the 5 Cs: character, courtesy, calm, charm and cuisine.

Still, he was relentless. When he finally reached an assistant at R&C HQ in Paris and asked for brand standards, she said, “It’s simple. Either you are or you aren’t.” So McDiarmid and his team stayed at other R&Cs to see the commonalities and then made a leap. He took “the Shawshank Redemption approach” and FedExed press releases about every construction and opening milestone to the New York and Paris offices. Eventually he wore them down, and the North American president came to inspect the hotel. An invitation was extended about a year after opening. “It was the pinnacle of my career to build a hotel and be welcomed into the Relais & Châteaux family,” he says.

A similar tenacity was behind the membership of Fearrington House in North Carolina. As developer R.B. Fitch was creating the planned community of Fearrington and its high-end restaurant in the 70s, his wife brought home an R&C guidebook from Europe. Not fully understanding how exclusive the association was, he applied for the restaurant, thinking another bit of marketing couldn’t hurt.

Unsurprisingly, he didn’t get in. He flew to Paris, where the top brass told him they were accepting only hotels in the US, not standalone restaurants. So he built a hotel, hiring a French architect and making a research tour of Relais & Châteaux–caliber hotels in England. They revised their North Carolina plans nightly and broke ground on a 13-room inn (now 32) right after they returned.

The Fearrington House Inn opened in 1987, and Fitch promptly re-applied. He saw no need to wait, because “that’s why I built the damn thing,” He got in.

That drive continues. When filmmaker Edward Walson set out to open his first hotel, the Royal Blues in Deerfield Beach, Florida, he wanted in. He’d fallen in love with R&C as a guest in France. “I was enamored with the quality of the cuisine, the wine, the level of service and the fact that they were all small,” he recalls. “I got the book and would always seek out Relais & Châteaux properties as special destinations. Relais & Châteaux is the only brand that doesn’t fail you. Even at the best chains, I’ve been disappointed by some of their properties.”

As he developed his 12-room hotel, he set his eyes on the prize. He contacted the association and asked it to recommend management candidates with experience at other R&C hotels. The association accommodated, and once the Royal Blues was accepted, shortly after its opening in 2014, it provided training and guidance. “It’s much more than an imprimatur,” says Walson.

He also knows that staying in is hard. Like Garrett, he says, “Membership is not something you just get once. It’s an ongoing process. You can always do better. We’re constantly concerned about getting booted out of the exclusive club.” And finally: “It’s as hard as making a film. It’s like when you see all the names in film credits. It takes tons of people to make it a success.”

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