Way back when humans first started to travel, we would stop and sleep at an inn, which was basically the house of some villagers. There, you would be given a bed, and possibly food, and so the hotel was created.
I had an opportunity to go back to basics where the hotel is just someone else’s house when I decided to have my wedding celebration in France. I’m not an Airbnb person because I have vowed only ever to stay in hotels… and castles. Chateau De Fontenay, built 900 years ago, was my venue.
Unlike the old days I didn’t find this 15-bedroom chateau while pushing my cart full of hay. I did a quick search before I set off – “Castle in Europe” was my keyword, and castlerentals.net is where I went. Booking was straightforward, and before we left Thailand our gracious host reminded our party that the temperature might drop, but a heating system could be arranged.
We arrived at the chateau and our host was there to greet us. It was just like any other hotel room orientation except this time we all paid attention. In hotels, room orientation is like an extended service where you tip the staff so they speed up, shut up, leave your room, and don’t come back. Here wasn’t so simple; everything was built a very long time ago and kept that way. All the furniture was antique, and carried hundreds of years of history. The Steinway piano, originally from New York, dated back a century. Such surroundings create intrigue and fascination, not to mention making us very careful about what we would be doing in the next four days. In a hotel it’s just a simple “this is a TV,” and “this is how to turn the light on”.
We were soon left alone in peace, although our host was sharing the chateau with us in the other wing. But any time we needed something, our requests were answered immediately. Being a host means more than just a nice wai or a smile on your face. You need to be able to deliver.
Apart from visiting Bourges, which was an hour away and where civilization was, there wasn’t all that much we could do. Hunting was one possibility, but none of us seemed to buy that idea, so learning the history of our host family through their castle was one thing we did. Some of us also enjoyed quiet time working in the study room, indulging in photography, or taking long walks around the ten-hectare estate. As for me, I just enjoyed doing absolutely nothing. It’s been such a long time since I’ve stayed somewhere without a schedule, no meetings with the GM, no interviews to conduct, no spa to try, and no workshop to run. Just staring at the fireplace, blending in, and imagining I was taken back to the 1900s. This was a perfect case of there being something for everyone.
Our breakfast was at leisure; supplies were in store and we cooked or ate whatever we wanted, which compares favorably with a hotel breakfast. After all, how much do you actually want for breakfast? We certainly had no complaints – we were happy with our capsule coffee and TWG tea. No need for the world’s finest coffee blends or premium teas. We knew exactly what we wanted for breakfast and we bought it and prepared it, unlike when we are in a hotel where we walk around the buffet lines a few times and still don’t know what to eat.
I had my birthday dinner there the night before my wedding. Our host was invited, and unlike when you are joined by a hotel management team, they made us feel as though it was our house. First they showed us how to respect the chateau through the orientation, and then they made us feel as if it truly belonged to us, and they were now our guests. For me, that’s an art, and it’s something we don’t quite get in an Asian hospitality. We tend to be overly friendly and too familiar, or go the opposite extreme.
Our wedding itself went exactly as planned and just how we wanted – simple, personal, and meaningful.
I hate wasting money on things I don’t believe in, and hotel weddings are one of them (sorry). Instead of spending on a ballroom with a buffet, and people lining up to attend, I spent it on three nights at the chateau, car rental, tickets for me and my employees, and food that I actually like and want. For all of that, the cost worked out a lot cheaper than having a wedding in any 4-star hotel in Bangkok. Plus, I didn’t have any hotel staff or wedding planners to tell me what I could or couldn’t do with my setup.
I’m not suggesting that everyone will want to come to France and have a wedding and that hotels will lose business – but if we could all learn something here and make a hotel stay a better experience then why not, right?
There are a few things I would like to share with you here, apart from the wedding. Did I mention I just got married?
How can you train your staff to be true hosts of the house, where guests will respect your house (hotel) and its belongings, and where your staff earn respect.
“Feels like home” shouldn’t be a thing. You don’t want to see how I am at home. As a guest, I pay a lot and I want to feel like I’m at my rich cousin’s home or a President’s home – but certainly not at my own home in Sukhumvit. When I was at Chateau De Fontenay I felt like I was at my family hunting castle. I even used #Castlelife.
Some people travel for hotels (or castles) as a destination, so embrace your authenticity. If your hotel used to be a barn, sell it as that. If it was a slaughter house, make it a restaurant. We always talk about the authenticity of guests’ experience but the true story is it’s all a façade or PR stunt and nothing more. There is no point in having a city hotel fetching tea from a different country because you need to create some stories. Not every hotel around the corner needs stories. Sometimes guests just want a good bed and good service. So don’t sweat it and over spend on that.
In France, everyone says “Bonjour” no matter where you go. There is a book called “The Bonjour Effect” which basically explained that if you don’t start a conversation with “Bonjour” you won’t get far in French culture. Which made me realize that in other cultures we may greet people that we know, or people we have to interact with, but in France, even strangers will say “Bonjour”. I could never see myself going to a supermarket in Thailand and saying “Hi” to every person in there – and if you can’t imagine what’s like, the opening scene of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” should give you a good idea. Now, how do we get our hotel staff to greet everyone like that? Because Iet me tell you, not all of your staff greet me!
Four days in a chateau seemed far too short and I’m already looking for my next holidays. I spend a little bit of time every day clicking through castlerentals.net daydreaming about my next castle visit. There are plenty to choose from but this one in particular will always have a place in our hearts with all the memories we have and the friendship we built with the host and their dog! You can create an experience, but can you create a memory?