Like Michelin’s restaurant ratings, the hotel organization began in France so the concentration of European properties remains much higher than elsewhere in the world and the designation is most recognizable among affluent European travelers. In recent years, however, more hotels and restaurants stateside and around the globe are joining the prestigious group.

Now, I seek out Relais properties wherever my travels take me because I know they will be one-of-a-kind. This year, I’ve fallen in love with The Point in New York and Imanta in the Riviera Nayarit. I’ve also recently stayed at a couple of incredible properties that were just about to join – Magee Homestead and Nayara Springs – which I didn’t discover until I arrived. Curious about the process of hand-picking new members, I reached out to Relais & Châteaux President Philippe Gombert.

Gombert comes from a family of Parisian hoteliers. He began his career in the hotel industry when his family acquired the Château de la Treyne in Lacave, France, some 150 miles east of Bordeaux, in 1982. A decade later, the family château joined Relais & Châteaux and Gombert has been serving as a delegate, secretary general and now president in the association for 12 years. In November he was re-elected for a second term as president. In his own words, Gombert shares some insight to explain the je ne sais quoi behind the Relais brand.

How do you define luxury when it comes to hotels?

Luxury is immaterial and relies upon a custom-tailored, human relationship along with expertise, and the local culture and distinct heritage that a place can offer.

My love affair with the Relais & Châteaux brand began quite by accident. In my travels around the world, I noticed that several of my favorite hotels – Sonora Resort, Meadowood and Manoir Hovey – all happened to have the same fleur-de-lis symbol on the wall and pinned to staff uniforms. Several of my most memorable fine dining meals – Canlis, Addison and Le Bernardin – have been at Relais restaurants as well. These properties stand out to me not only for their beautiful décor and excellent cuisine, but their unforgettable élan. There might not be consistent company standards and protocol as with a brand like Four Seasons, but the personal touch and genuine warmth I find across Relais properties is something that cannot be trained.

What does it mean to be a Relais & Châteaux property?

We are considered as a “label”, a guarantor of good practices as compared to haute couture. In order to be part of the Relais & Châteaux family, it is not enough just to fill the association’s criteria of excellence. Candidates have to share our core values: local focus, humanity, sharing and commitment. The cuisine is also a major criterion when recruiting a new member.

Our hotels are all warm and welcoming places, where you feel at home. They are also places with their own roots, history and attachment to a particular territory, from the Napa Valley vineyards and French Provence to the beaches of the Indian Ocean. One of the primary goals is to inspire our guests with regards to the quality of our cuisine and allow different culinary cultures the opportunity to fully express their creativity.

What is the selection process for new members?

We receive applications or spot properties, then the quality department audits the candidate according to our quality charter, which counts more than 300 different criteria. A secret inspection is also done to control the criteria of excellence. The property fills a formal membership application form which is reviewed by our network commission, composed of members, employees from our quality department and myself. Delegate and neighbor members are asked to share their opinion on the hotel and then an interview with me is organized. The objectives of the interview are to check the commitment of the owner, the soul of the property and to ensure that the candidate intends to comply with the values of our association. The board of directors bases the admission or rejection of applications based on the documents in the application file, the anonymous quality audit carried out and the interview with me.

Are there annual secret inspections that current hotels have to pass to maintain their membership?

Indeed, we are controlling regularly, all year long for our entire network, by secret inspections. We have almost 380 inspections per year, including 200 inspections of the membership network within the framework of regular inspections.

How do you balance growing the organization with remaining super selective?

Our interest is to create a family of the most exceptional hotels & restaurants around the globe who share the same values, not to add members in our collection to increase fees and budgets. We are a non-lucrative association owned by our members. We do not generate benefits; all our budget is reinvested at the service of our members. Our network has never been so dynamic and attractive. We welcome about 35 new members each year and about the same number leaves the association. We represent today 560 properties, and about 100 more restaurants without rooms. Our chefs network is rapidly growing, as food is an efficient way to answer our vision to protect local culture and biodiversity. Our chefs are part of a worldwide program called Menu for Change in partnership with Slow Food Association, to fight climate change, as we know food is responsible for 30% of the greenhouse gas emission.

Is it difficult to balance operating Château de la Treyne with your association duties as President?

This is the strength of our association; it is necessary that the president must be a member and therefore be immersed in the challenges and everyday life of a typical hotelier or restaurant owner. It requires good organization. I have the chance to run the Château de la Treyne with my wife Stephanie, who is now completely managing the property and without whom I could hardly ensure my position as president of Relais & Châteaux.

What are your biggest goals for Relais & Châteaux for 2018?

Our biggest goals for the year ahead include carving our niche within the ever-evolving digital landscape, this means increasing our social media presence in a meaningful way. This has and will be a continuous priority for the next five years. Also in the new year, our priority continues to be developing our association by recruiting the most exceptional hotels and restaurants in the world.