Having been captivated by Jean-Luc Naret’s contribution to January’s Excellence by Vendôm event in Paris, The Insider was thrilled when the legendary hotelier agreed to an in-depth interview. And even more thrilled to receive a sneak preview of his next commercial endeavor…
Jean-Luc Naret’s eyes light up and immediately it becomes clear that this new venture – revealed to The Insider ahead of its formal launch – has stirred the passions of a man who possesses one of hospitality’s most creative and restless spirits.
Hatched pre-Covid, but sidelined by the pandemic lockdowns, “Fifty Best Hotels” aims to bring back a more discerning touch to curated travel content. As this issue of The Insider went to press, the concept was set to receive its formal unveiling, with the accompanying website due for launch in September this year. There’s also a celebration event planned for ILTM Cannes in December, and lavish coffee table books set to follow later.
“We’ll be putting together lists by travel writers and other expert sources, as well as ultimately from the community of guests who make bookings via the website. I’ve already done my pitch deck and I’ve got some great investors from the industry willing to follow me on that,” he says.
It’s yet another new chapter in Jean-Luc’s extraordinary hospitality career; one which began in the most luxurious of surroundings back in May 1982, with his appointment as Train Manager on the relaunched Orient Express.
“I was plunged into the most luxurious travel product ever attempted at that point, and it gave me a feel for what the luxury customer really wants,” he explains. “Although I was very young at the time, such a step already felt inevitable to me. Even as a child I was fascinated by restaurants and hotels, which I saw as living theaters, and from then on I had a very clear idea of what I wanted to do. When your passion becomes your job, you don’t work a single day in your life.”
“I was plunged into the most luxurious travel product ever attempted at that point, and it gave me a feel for what the luxury customer really wants. Although I was very young at the time, such a step already felt inevitable to me. Even as a child I was fascinated by restaurants and hotels, which I saw as living theaters, and from then on I had a very clear idea of what I wanted to do. When your passion becomes your job, you don’t work a single day in your life.”
Such passion powered Jean-Luc up the luxury hospitality ladder at lightning speed. By age 25 he was number two to the General Manager at Paris’ prestigious Le Bristol, before a move to One&Only Resorts saw him take the GM’s chair at the tender age of 29 – an exceptional career progression for that era of luxury hospitality.
Creating the ‘plus one’
As a newly-minted hospitality leader, Jean-Luc quickly seized on the opportunity to bring innovation to the luxury service concept – something he calls the ‘plus one’.
He explains, “All my life, and in all the hotels in which I worked, I’ve wanted the team of people working with me to be the effective R&D department; to think ‘what can we do for the guests today which is different from yesterday?’. Guests have certain expectations from a luxury hotel – cleanliness, great check-in, a hand-written welcome note – and so what we constantly need to find is the ‘plus one’ that goes beyond their expectation.”
Nowhere was this more apparent than during Jean-Luc’s stint at The Residence Mauritius, the opening of which he managed. The hotel had as a motto ‘Take refuge from the norm’ and this is exactly what Jean-Luc instilled in the team.
“I wanted everyone to be able to come to me and say ‘why don’t we try this?’. Because hospitality is one of the few industries where you can gauge straight away whether an idea is working or not, as you can see it in the guests’ reactions.
“Hospitality is one of the few industries where you can gauge straight away whether an idea is working or not, as you can see it in the guests’ reactions”
“As a beach resort we naturally concentrated on that area. So, for example, we offered a personal welcome with a towel, an ice bucket delivered to the guest’s lounger, fresh fruit delivered on a stick at 10am, then complimentary ice creams in the afternoon. All these things are now standard in any luxury resort, but they were our ‘plus ones’ at that time.”
How to wow tomorrow’s luxury guest
As ‘plus ones’ become everyday services, hoteliers must strive to come up with the next innovative ideas to add the wow factor. Where does Jean-Luc think these might be found?
“I think around greater authenticity. We have established standards for how hotels should look and the services they offer – whether Forbes, LQA, or whatever. And now, if you look at 3-star and 5-star premises you’ll see a similar quality of bed linen, bathroom fittings and the rest, because that’s the norm right now.
“So the 5-star difference must be made through service – things done in a different way and with more authenticity in relation to the team. We are at the point when guests’ service expectations have never been higher, but at the same time the basic need is a simple one, and that’s for the team to be more authentic and genuine, spending quality time with them. I always say to my teams to be fully with the guest, and if it takes half an hour I don’t care – spend the time required to build that relationship.”
The ‘war for talent’ is heating up
Of course, this level of bespoke service requires a special skill set alongside the right personality. Individuals with that profile are already intensively sought-after, and Jean-Luc sees this ongoing ‘war for talent’ becoming ever more intense within the luxury hospitality segment.
“As hospitality employers we’re getting squeezed by the demand for our best talents, as more and more luxury properties open around the world; and now pressure’s also coming from the wider luxury industry, which is stealing people left, right and center because these brands are recognizing the value of having client-facing staff with fantastic interpersonal skills.
“That said, even though amazing brands like Chanel, Dior and Louis Vuitton can be incredibly tempting, you will still progress faster in hospitality if you have the right stuff. Today it is common to find hotel GMs under 30, and in what other industry could you find yourself running a multi-million dollar business like a luxury hotel at that age? Not many!”
Jean-Luc’s initial experience as a hotel GM culminated in a stint at the world-famous Sandy Lane resort in the Caribbean – a destination he chose in preference to the equally renowned Burj al Arab hotel in Dubai. But having reached the age of 40 he decided to take his career in a new direction, travelling the world with The Serena Group of Hotels as Group Operations Director, a role that reported directly to the company’s owner, His Highness the Aga Khan.
The Michelin (Guide) Man
Then an out-of-the-blue call from a headhunter saw Jean-Luc’s career take off in a totally different direction, and one which perhaps sowed the seeds for his new “Fifty Best Hotels” venture.
“I was approached to head up the Guide Michelin – the first time someone from outside the company would take the role,” he notes. “The process took a year, culminating in a full day of interviews with the entire Michelin board at their Clermont-Ferrand base. I’d been in Kabul when I got the call and it took several days to get to France due to heavy fog in India stopping all flights; but by the end of the day I’d been offered the job.”
This was September 2003, and Jean-Luc immediately set about transforming the business in keeping with what was fast becoming the digital age we know so well today.
“My first step was to say we are not in the publishing industry, we are in the rating industry; rating hotels and restaurants in different formats including online, on phones, etc.
“In my interviews with the company I’d also questioned why the guide was in relatively few places, and not in the US or Asia at all. So, once I joined as Managing Director we created our first guide for the United States, focused on New York. It was more like a city guide than a traditional Michelin Guide, and in the first year we sold 150,000 copies. Then we moved into Asia, starting in Tokyo, and we launched that guide with a big splash locally, selling 150,000 copies in one night!
“At the same time, we knew we had to make money outside of publishing. So we took the opportunity of buying what was then a small online reservation company called The Fork/Lafourchette (a business later sold to TripAdvisor).”
During his time at Michelin, Jean-Luc was also presented with the Legion d’Honneur, France’s highest civilian award. It’s a memory he cherishes, not least for being able to share the moment with his late father, who was alive at the time. As the years progressed, however, the lure of his first love, hotels, became strong again.
“I had the most beautiful time in my life; eating in the best restaurants, staying in the best hotels, and being interviewed by the best journalists – I could have easily stayed at the Guides for the rest of my career… but when I hit 50, I decided I wanted to get back into the hotel business.”
Back amid the cream of luxury hospitality
An exceptional ‘second career’ in hospitality followed, which saw Jean-Luc manage the global Food & Beverage operations for Jumeirah Group, take the GM’s office at One&Only’s flagship Reethi Rah resort in the Maldives, and be appointed CEO of La Réserve Hotels & Spas, working alongside the legendary hotelier Michel Reybier.
Now he operates his own hospitality consultancy, JLN & Co. But his title of CEO is not what it seems. When The Insider’s Martin Green met him in Paris, the business card he presented was marked ‘Chief Emotional Officer’. Why?
“Because we are in the business of emotion. Creating new emotions, sharing emotion with our guests… and I am emotional as well – I love to share my passion for life and for being a hotelier. I’m very transparent about that.
“Being a consultant suits me, because I’ve never been a conformist and I’ve always tried to think outside the box. Sometimes the clients listen to you, and you can build success together; sometimes they don’t, and you shake hands and walk away.”
Just before closing the interview, The Insider took the opportunity to get Jean-Luc’s prediction for the ‘next big thing’ in luxury tourism and hospitality. He was unequivocal in his answer.
“Saudi Arabia, for sure. The amount of money the government there is willing to spend, and the traditions they are prepared to give up in order to attract tourists, makes it a really compelling proposition. It’s going to be the big thing in the next five years, and although it won’t be for everyone, I would say that if you are starting in this industry and you want to make a mark, go there.”
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