Born and raised in the Netherlands, Raymond's diverse career includes the travel, hospitality, entertainment, and marketing industries. Today, Raymond is the co-owner of the Relais & Chateaux property the Camden Harbour Inn, in Camden, Maine, its award winning restaurant, Natalie’s, and The Danforth Inn and Tempo Dulu in Portland, Maine.
How did you get into the hospitality industry?
My parents told me not long ago that when I was 6 years old, I said that I wanted to own a hotel or live in a hotel. As long as I can remember I have been passionate about hotels and restaurants.
Fast forward to age 16 when my parents gave me some money for finishing high school. My parents told me I could do whatever I wanted with the money and I decided to spend it on a trip to Asia; it was the most exotic destination I could think of.
At that time my parents were middle class at best so my trip came as a big shock to them and they tried to change my mind and convince me to use it towards the fees for my driver’s license, which is a very expensive undertaking in the Netherlands. There was really nothing they could have done or said, my mind was set on going to Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand.
At night I was dreaming of tropical destinations with grand hotels; lobbies with guests from all over the world. Beautiful rooms with rich, upholstered furniture and beds so comfortable that you would never want to leave your room. And of course, the best service with Bell captains, chambermaids and room service, as I had seen in a movies.
It was a life altering experience. After my trip the money my parents gave me was gone and I started to deliver newspapers and wash cars on the weekends to save up for the next trip. After four years I still wasn’t even close to being able to afford another trip and I decided to find a summer job as a tour guide in the Far East. The hiring manager of a luxurious tour company ‘De Boer en Wendel,’ which specialized in Indonesian and South East Asian tours, initially didn’t want to hire me, because he thought I was too young and inexperienced. But my persistence and the fact that I showed up every week at his office for months (over 2 hours from where I lived, by public transportation because I couldn’t afford getting my driver’s license) to ask him to please change his mind, resulted in my first job in the hospitality industry as a tour leader in the Far East.
My hard work and dedication soon landed me a job as Area Manager for a large tour company in the Far East. I was responsible for contracting hotels, restaurants, tours, and domestic travel by train, bus and air. When a wealthy Chinese family in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia asked me why their hotel was not considered a serious 5-star property and I was able to give them some clear pointers on how to improve service, my first steps in the hotel consulting business were made.
I am self-taught, for years I worked with the best in the industry, often unpaid, to understand what it takes to provide guests an unforgettable experience.
Tell us about Camden Harbour Inn. What inspired the idea and what is your vision for the hotel?
When my partner Oscar Verest sold his pharmacy in the Netherlands, we both were ready for a change. After a ‘leaf peeping’ trip in New England in the fall of 2003, I was sold on the beauty and friendliness of Maine.
After seeing close to a hundred properties a realtor showed us Camden Harbour Inn. It fitted all our needs. Our wish list included a property with a sense of place, that it be unique, large enough to offer privacy and small enough to be personal. A place that could hold a restaurant and would have the ability to become a destination in itself. It had to be a property that had character and would convey luxury without being pretentious.
The vision was to create a boutique inn with a fine dining restaurant offering the guests a unique experience and very personalized and detailed service. In addition, the restaurant had to offer farm to table fine dining with the same attention to detail and service. At all times I have tried to make it approachable. It had to be a place where people would feel comfortable and not forced into dress codes. It should balance the qualities of a 5-star large deluxe hotel and the personal approach of a comfortable bed and breakfast.
Luxury is not about amenities but about the experience you offer your guests. When you find a way to give them a sense of place, personalized and attentive service, and create unique experiences, then that is luxury. Of course a comfortable bed, top quality linens and well-designed rooms with beautiful art is important. However I have never heard anyone tell me that they enjoyed the hotel so much because of the newest flat screen TV or an iPad in the room; it’s the other details that make their stay extraordinary.
What strategic partnerships/marketing strategies have you implemented that have attributed to Camden Harbour Inn's success?
Camden Harbour Inn was the first hotel in Camden, Maine to receive 4 Diamonds for both the Inn and Restaurant. Recently the 2015 AAA inspector gave us an average of 4.6 stars -- that is almost a 5 star rating. It helped to initially differentiate us from other small hotels in the area but ultimately we have learned that our guests were not really looking at the diamond rating. Write-ups and awards received by the national and international press for both our inn and restaurant were more important reasons to visit us. Especially Departure Magazine (American Express Platinum Card holders) and Travel + Leisure have been game changers for us. In 2015 Travel + Leisure awarded us T+L Top 500 World’s Best Hotels and that is very special.
It was my desire to become a member of Relais and Châteaux. In the U.S., Relais & Châteaux offers some of the best and most recognized restaurants and small hotels in the country. With over 360 Michelin stars worldwide Relais & Châteaux offers an extraordinary fine dining experience. The hotels are known for offering a unique experience and a sense of place with luxurious accommodations.
With Relais &Châteaux we were able to separate ourselves from the other hotels in Maine. We became a destination and were internationally recognized for our cuisine and hospitality. We were honored to become a member of Relais & Châteaux in 2013.
What industry trends are you noticing and how do you capitalize on them?
Guests more than ever like to be themselves, feel comfortable without pretense. More and more it is about the experience and less about the amenities. Sleeping under the stars in the dessert; staying at an eco lodge without electricity in the middle of the jungle for $3000 per night; or when you stay at Camden Harbour Inn, catching lobster with a real lobsterman and enjoying your own caught lobster for dinner at our restaurant.
The seasoned traveler is looking for a lifestyle where they feel comfortable, that is recognizable and makes them feel being part of something really unique. A hotel today is so much more than a bed and a shower. Music, furniture, toiletries, service, everything we do has to have significance and should be part of the story we tell. Guests like to leave a hotel inspired and renewed.
You also see how fine dining is changing and fewer guests like to dine in formal settings. The same applies for hotels. Guests don’t mind spending money but they don’t want things to be cookie cutter. Luxury big box hotels are unable to keep up with the continuous changing demands. Service feels scripted and the décor corporate. You don’t feel connected with the surroundings and often have the feeling the resort could be anywhere in the world.
At Camden Harbour Inn and at our other property in Portland Maine, The Danforth, we work hard to create exclusive experiences and give a sense of place. We have our own sunset cruises on a historical schooner, with hors d’oeuvres from Natalie’s and a glass of bubbles. Both our restaurants offer a 5-course Fine Dining Lobster Menu, unique in Maine.
I don’t think I have a life motto per se. In general I believe you need to be passionate about the things you are doing in life. I don’t do things because I believe it will make me rich, I do things because I believe it enriches my life. And although sometimes I forget, I believe making sure to thank people gives a lot of extra mileages on the road of life.
Your greatest success as Proprietor of Camden Harbour Inn? Most difficult moment-how did you overcome and what did you learn?
We are as good and successful as the review of the last guest checking out. So when a readers’ survey of Travel + Leisure puts us on the list of the 500 best hotels in the world than I consider that a success. Becoming a member of Relais and Châteaux was also a big personal achievement. But at the same time I don’t relax with the success, as I believe that you need to move forward and get better. We received many, many, many awards but I would never put them on the wall. I would rather think every day that I have to prove myself to my guests and the critics. I am my own worst critic; I know exactly what we do extremely well and where we can improve. It’s a process that never stops.
One of the most difficult moments for me was when my grandmother of 97 years was hospitalized after she fell and broke her hip. Initially it looked like things went well and she was going to recover, but two weeks later she unexpectedly stopped eating and fell into a coma. We were in the middle of high season and because things initially went well, I had decided not to fly to the Netherlands. We were in our second year, just got out of recession and I didn’t think I could leave my business behind at the peak of our season.
When the health of my grandmother was degenerating rapidly, I unfortunately couldn’t make it home in time to be with her in her last moments, because of the long trip and time difference. That has been extremely difficult for me and it felt like was held hostage by my own business. I have made changes since to give my staff more responsibility. I also hired a general manager and I am a little less involved in the day-to-day operations. I allow myself to fly home and visit my family more often and also tell my Dutch partner to make sure to visit his Dutch family as much as he can.
Your advice to an aspiring hotelier?
Do it because you can’t imagine doing anything else. Otherwise you’ll find it too much work, too many hours and lousy pay. Running a hotel and or restaurant is not glamorous or sexy. But it is so much fun.
Describe the ideal experience at Camden Harbour Inn.
This is so personal. Our goal is to make sure our individual guests have the experience they were hoping for. We offer very personalized service and attention to detail.
Camden Harbour Inn is located on a hilltop in the prettiest harbor town in Maine, if not New England. With 180-degree views over the harbor, arriving at Camden Harbour Inn immediately puts you in a lower gear. While our bell captains are bringing up the luggage our guests are often admiring the view from our wrapped around porch of our classic Victorian seaside hotel. When walking inside the building our guests are immediately taken by the modern European décor, it is quite the transformation from the very traditional New England exterior to the modern interior.
We like to keep our check-in really short. Guests don’t have to give a credit card upon check-in (we already have it on file) and after a brief explanation of all the guestroom or suite amenities they can enjoy the luxury accommodations, spectacular views and amenities including the traditional saunas in our Grand Suites.
In the evening our guests dine at our restaurant, which has been awarded top 100 in the country. Again it is all about personalized and detailed service with exceptional food.
All of our guests enjoy a glass of welcome champagne, a welcome gift in the room, complimentary turn down service with our dream cards (with a personal note from our innkeepers), handmade chocolates, linen floor mats, slippers, water on the night stand, lavender pillow to enhance sleeping and a full cleanup of the room, Champagne breakfast, newspaper in the room, coffee, tea, snacks and fruit the entire day.
We like to give our guests a sense of place and a unique experience. Something they will remember for a long time. I realize every day that guests are spending a lot of money to stay and/or dine with us. I will always make sure we do our utmost to exceed expectations. When a guest tells me that they had a hard time leaving the comfort of the inn even to explore the beautiful harbor town, I know we were able to pull off some of our magic. We receive over 300 thank you cards and notes by mail, every year. The fact that people spend $700 on a room night and then write a personal thank you note tells me that they had an amazing experience.
How important are architecture/design to the success of Camden Harbour Inn?
We like to offer a sense of place. I believe the experienced luxury traveler is not looking for a big box luxury resort. Why would you want to stay at a hotel that is not telling a story, that doesn’t have history and is so generic that you don’t get a sense of place at all.
So yes the architecture is very important to our success. And so is the design. Guests are also looking for comfort, privacy and something unique. All our rooms and suites are different. All the rooms fit the overall design, but have different color schemes, art and furniture pieces. Our guests are able to select the room they like best online. Again, personalized service, this way you know exactly upfront what you are getting, instead of a room category spread out over 10 floors and different locations in the building.
We made some bold design decisions and are the first true boutique hotel in Maine.
The fact that we trying to help guests find a furniture piece they saw at our inn, or assist with buying the same bedding we offer in the rooms almost every week, shows that the design is extremely important.
How do you motivate your employees?
By example and giving them a lot of room to take responsibility and making decisions. I consider them my family and I am sincerely concerned about their well-being. Each individual employee needs different support, has different goals and wants to be recognized. It is my job to make sure we accommodate the best we can, the same way we accommodate our guests the best way we can.
Our success is largely because of our always-committed employees. We have a very flat organization; I appreciate criticism and I am open to ideas. I like the creative energy to be flowing. I would rather have someone take responsibility and make mistakes while doing it than somebody who doesn’t take responsibility at all.
By listening to my staff, sharing passion and showing what you can achieve by working hard, I believe I motivate my employees to be the very best they can be. In addition I make sure that credit goes where it belongs.
One food and drink left on earth, what would you choose?
To share it with the people I love, because a meal is as good as the people you are sharing it with.
What literature is on your bed stand>
Travel and food magazines mostly. Currently reading One More Thing by BJ Novak, very funny.
Role model - business and personal?
My mother, one of the most successful and famous entertainers in the Netherlands ever. She taught me that passion, hard work and believing in yourself pays off. She also taught me to stay modest, that you are only as good as your last review and that you need to be thankful for what life gives you. She is the most grounded person I know and she is the hardest working person I ever met. Most of all she is a beautiful person and I love her dearly.
Hotels and Restaurants
That will never change. I am currently opening The Danforth and Tempo Dulu, a new boutique hotel and restaurant, in Portland, Maine. I am very passionate about that, and personally involved in every decision we are making including designing the rooms, creating a restaurant, marketing, PR, logo design etc., etc.
Hard work but so much fun. After the opening the next project is looming.
Favorite travel destination?
Many, the world is so beautiful and I am so lucky to have seen so much of it. I will always go back to Thailand and Indonesia. That’s where my career started and I guess the tropics are in my blood. I also lived on Curacao (the Dutch Antilleans) and I think it is the best island in the Caribbean. Like a good hotel it has personality, sense of place and is a unique destination.
What's next for Camden Harbour Inn?
Continue to grow our business, ADR and occupancy. We are maxing out in high season, so adding additional rooms is definitely something we are looking at. Also adding a spa and expanding the restaurant kitchen is on my wish list.
First open up The Danforth in Portland and then move on with the next project. Perhaps it is time to do something fun on Curacao. Who knows what the future will hold. In a perfect world we would create a nice collection of high-end small boutique hotels. Always holding on to the ingredients that made Camden Harbour Inn so successful in the first place.