As the oldest hotel in Toronto, the King Edward is steeped in history and tradition. Opened in 1903 at a cost of $6 million, the iconic hotel was built by George Gooderham, a developer and wealthy Torontonian. Through its storied history, it has played host to royalty, dignitaries and a mix of celebrities including Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Elvis Presley and the Beatles, not to mention, it also made headlines in 1964 as the place where Liz Taylor and Richard Burton had their romantic tryst while married to others.

Through its illustrious life, the King Eddy, as it’s affectionately known, became the place to celebrate special moments and events, all the while becoming the hotel of choice for the luxury set. Originally designed by Chicago architect Henry Ives Cobb and Toronto architect E.J. Lennox, the hotel was the place to be seen, featuring its popular afternoon tea and showcasing a dining room that attracted the city’s business elite.

But over the last decade, spurred first by the economic downturn of 2008 and then the opening of newer luxury hotels such as the Four Seasons and the Ritz-Carlton, the grande dame lost some of her edge. “People started to cut this and cut that,” explains Christophe Le Chatton, the hotel’s GM. “We had a bit of a void after the Chiaro’s (the hotel’s former fine-dining restaurant) era. It was time to reposition.”

Late last year, only two months after showcasing a multi-million dollar renovation by then-owners, Toronto-based Skyline International Development and Texas-based Omni Hotels & Resorts, the hotel’s management company and minority owner, Omni announced it had acquired full control of the hotel.

“Over the past few years we have seen the Omni King Edward Hotel exemplify the exceptional service of our Omni culture,” says Peter Strebel, SVP of Operations, Omni Hotels & Resorts. “We have invested time into growing market share for the hotel. As full owners we will continue to make investments that further grow business and build upon our successes.”

Thanks to a $40-million renovation, the hotel now sports upgrades to its 301 guestrooms and suites as well as its meeting and dining rooms. The team is hoping the investment will return the storied hotel to its former glory and set the stage for its next chapter.

Toronto-based Moncur Design Associates Inc. set the tone for much of the upgrades, maintaining the classic feel of the hotel, but also imbuing it with a modern touches and upgraded amenities. “Understanding that the King Edward hotel is Toronto’s first luxury hotel, we endeavoured to immerse the guest in timeless elegance that creates a sense of calm but is, at the same time, dynamic,” explains Robynne Moncur, principal.

The hotel also introduced the exclusive Royal Club — 29 stylish guestrooms and suites with special amenities including access to the VIP Royal Club Lounge, breakfast, light bites in the afternoon, evening hors d’oeuvres and on-site guest services. And each of the hotel’s three ballrooms (the Vanity Fair, Sovereign and Windsor Ballrooms) also had a nip and tuck.

“There is a tendency to want to put a modern face on a property when doing a full renovation. My 39 years of hospitality design experience has taught me that rather than masking the character, you should embrace it; that’s where the interest lies,” says Moncur.

The renovations were challenging, as the hotel remained open throughout the entire process. The 301 rooms were completed floor by floor, starting from the top down in May 2014 and completed by February 2015, leaving the meeting space next on the agenda, followed by the lobby and the restaurants. To accommodate guests, a makeshift lobby, with a separate entrance from Leader Lane, was created at the east side of hotel, while the actual lobby remained closed for weeks. “It became like a boutique hotel,” quips Le Chatton.

While the lobby showcases contemporary, sleek, high back chairs in hues of ivory, gold and purple, and restored decorative plasterwork on the ceiling as well as wood-panelled walls, not much else was upgraded. Quoting a historian, Moncur describes the main lobby as “grand, classical in style and at the symbolic heart of the hotel.” According to the designer, the two-storey, skylight-lit colonnaded space inspired a sense of awe in all who came through the main lobby doors. Moncur’s intent was to “reinforce this ‘sense of awe’ created by the momentous interior architecture, by elaborating on the existing elements, while providing the guest with a space that can be utilized as an active social hub. The introduction of giant chess pieces into the space provides a ‘wow’ factor, while simultaneously defining the seating area and creating a sense of intimacy,” she says.

As part of the renovations, the hotel converted the third, fourth and fifth floors of the hotel, once home to a garment factory, to 145 residences at a cost of $750 to $850 per sq. ft. With the reno now complete, Le Chatton is quick to admit there is renewed interest in the landmark. “A lot of our corporate business is now starting to come back. In our comp set, we are growing and if you look at the STR report, we are a leader in the market.” Last year’s occupancy rate hovered between 75 and 78 per cent, with an average room rate of $250. “I’m very happy with the result,” he says. “We’ve grown our rate by $22 in 2014 and more than $20 in 2015.”

The hotel attracts a mix of Canadian leisure and business travellers, primarily from Quebec, B.C. and Alberta, with about 20,000 group nights sold each year. “The King Eddy is a brand that attracts Canadians. That’s our biggest driver. But with Omni we see more Americans coming into town, especially with the U.S. dollar being so strong.” As for attracting international travellers, Le Chatton says the hotel’s excellent TripAdvisor ratings helps fuel business from Europe.
Though Toronto is now home to a plethora of new luxury properties, Le Chatton says his goal is not to compete with Four Seasons and the Ritz-Carlton. “I don’t necessarily want to be a five-diamond hotel; we want to be in between the InterContinental, the Fairmont brand and the super-luxury hotels.”

With a footprint that spans several continents, the charming Paris-born hotelier has extensive experience in helming iconic properties including Toronto’s Fairmont Royal York, the Fairmont Peace Hotel in Shanghai and most recently the Langdon Hall Country House Hotel & Spa in Cambridge, Ont. Having begun his career in food-and-beverage, Le Chatton plans to dedicate more time and resources to the hotel’s culinary offerings, so executive chef Daniel Schick and his culinary team of 22 have updated the dining menus to feature more local, seasonal ingredients. The à la carte Sunday brunch, priced at $53 per person, is a throwback to the classic brunch of yesteryear and features such standards as Beef Wellington and foie gras, but also carving stations featuring porchetta and roasted lamb.

Meanwhile, the hotel’s long-standing tradition of afternoon tea continues Friday through Sunday. “There have been some ups and downs but there is more interest these days and it’s making a comeback,” explains Schick. Priced at $43 per person, the tea attracts about 250 guests over the weekend, the majority of whom are locals. “It’s a ritual,” explains Le Chatton, adding the hotel’s tea service has become a preferred destination for mothers and daughters. “They even wear the hats,” he says.

Given the hotel’s classic and elegant feel, it’s always been a favourite destination for weddings and events such as Bar Mitzvahs. “Wedding planners love what we’ve done and they’re very excited,” says Le Chatton. “That’s an aspect we’re really putting a lot of focus on right now. It’s not just about feeding the hotel, it’s about feeding the city.”
Interestingly, the debate regarding the future of the Crystal Ballroom, located on the 17th floor and empty since the 1970s, still rages on. Through the years, various owners have tried to resurrect the stunning, historical space named for its crystal chandeliers. Omni Hotels & Resorts, for example, had earmarked $7 million to restore the hidden gem known in its heyday as the place to host society weddings and fancy balls. The plan was to resurrect it in time for New Year’s Eve 2016. “To operate it, there’s a lot of work to be done there, from a safety standpoint, mostly with the sprinkler system,” says Le Chatton, “and we would also have to add a kitchen.”

In addition, the hotel’s executive team is considering opening a signature restaurant at the corner of King and Victoria Streets in a space owned by the hotel. “The space has been empty for at least 15 years,” says Le Chatton, pointing out that Omni Hotels would like to develop it possibly as a steakhouse, adding an announcement is imminent.

While there is still work to be done and several decisions yet to be made, almost two years after arriving at the Toronto landmark, with a full-scale renovation under his belt, and Omni Hotels firmly ensconced as the hotel’s owner, Le Chatton and his team can now confidently turn the page on a new chapter in the long history of Toronto’s most regal hotel.

Volume 28, Number 1

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