The debut of the Thompson Toronto brings new energy to the King St. W. neighbourhood

Nine years ago, when Stephen Brandman joined forces with developers Michael, Larry and Jason Pomeranc, they set out to open a new, sophisticated hotel that promised to be different from the myriad properties already crowding the New York City marketplace. Fast forward a decade and that relationship has blossomed, with the team creating one of North America’s hippest hotel chains — Thompson Hotels Group. Boasting 10 fashionable properties, the exclusive group now includes Thompson Toronto, the company’s first international hotel.

The unveiling of the latest jewel in the Thompson crown marks an interesting time for Toronto’s lodging industry. The 16-storey, 102-room hotel comprising 110,000 square feet of sophisticated space is the first of five new luxury properties set to open in Canada’s largest city over the next year, and being the first off the mark brings with it certain advantages.

With Thompson’s involvement as managers of the property and ownership by local condo kingpin Peter Freed (through Freed Development, a real-estate company with a portfolio reputed to be worth a billion dollars) and Tony Cohen (president of Global Edge Investments, a restaurant and hotel investment company), the project benefits from strong DNA. “What’s great about our relationship,” says the dynamic Brandman, “is we all think like owners. Tony and Peter are outstanding developers. It’s like a marriage — and you want to make sure you’re marrying good people.”

While analysts typically define Thompson as a chain of boutique hotels, Brandman says the definition pigeonholes the brand. “I understand why people do it, but it misses the broad strokes. We have quality and consistency of product,” he says, adding it has allowed the company to do well, even during a recessionary period. In fact, Thompson’s first hotel, the 60 in downtown New York, was also one of the few properties to hold occupancy in the years post 9/11, testament to its pedigree from the get go.

Brandman prefers to think of Thompson as a small, luxury hotel chain as consistent as the Four Seasons. “We’re a special hotel. We have terrific restaurants, great rooftop pools and bars and a lot of different elements,” boasts the Cornell grad. “We cater to a broad audience,” he adds, explaining that the hotel appeals to people between 30 and 55-years-old. It’s an eclectic group that includes musicians, fashionistas, bankers and lawyers.

“We like to say we treat rock stars like regular people and regular people like rock stars,” quips Cohen. What unites them all is they’re looking for different experiences. “We’re an aspirational brand,” explains Brandman. “We’re providing an opportunity and a niche market in an area where there aren’t a huge number of lifestyle hotels.”

Part of what made the close to $50-million project enticing for the partners is the hotel’s location. “We saw potential in the area,” says Brandman. “It was the right design and all the pieces fell into place.” Cohen agrees. With a nose for hotels, the ex-Montrealer, whose portfolio also includes an ownership stake in Hotel Le Germain down the road, is excited about the revitalization of the King West neighbourhood. He credits Freed with developing the area through an influx of 3,000 condo units in the past four years. “The psychographics show that people here work hard and play hard,” he says. “We see the area as Toronto’s version of the meatpacking district in New York.” With a mix of advertising agencies, hip eateries and cool event spaces like the Spoke Club, as well as the hotel’s proximity to the entertainment core, King West has suddenly become the place to see and be seen.

The mixed-use development — a first for Thompson — includes the hotel and an adjacent condo boasting 336 residences. Together, it spans an entire city block from Wellington St. to King St. The partners are also building a second Thompson condo with an additional 315 units directly behind the hotel, in a location that once housed a Travelodge. It’s set to open in 2013.

The Thompson Group is quickly getting schooled in the benefits of mixed-use projects. Pre-selling the condos has helped fund the development of the hotel, but it also feeds the property with a captive market. “As a hotel, we offer all the services to the residences that we provide our hotel guests,” says Barbara Lopez, managing director of the Thompson Toronto. Offered on a pay-per-use basis, the services include housekeeping, 24-hour room service, access to the rooftop pool and fitness area, and even a dog-walking service. “Residents can set up house accounts and charge whatever they need to their condos,” explains Lopez.

The partners expect the hotel will become a destination — not just for guests but for locals or anyone that wants to explore the neighbourhood. “People choose our hotels because they want a complete experience,” says Brandman. “It’s like a resort development. We’ve built our brand on that concept.”

While most operators will send guests off property to discover the city, Thompson aims to provide those elements and keep them in the hotel. “We don’t want our guests to leave the compound,” says Cohen. “We’re an urban playground; you can check in on a Friday and check out on Sunday and never do the same thing twice,” he boasts. “A lot of the design was built around engaging the community in different ways.” For Cohen, that meant creating a space where people would come to socialize — whether it’s having drinks in the cool lobby bar, dining in gourmet restaurants or watching a movie in a private screening room.

With rooms starting at $300 per night, and rising to $1,500 to $4,500 for suites, guests can expect all the accoutrements of a hip hotel. Swathed in cool white hues punctuated by splashes of orange and set against a backdrop of rich hardwood flooring, the spacious rooms are minimalist in tone but feature all the bells and whistles discerning guests expect. This includes media centres with flat-screen TVs, lutron lighting, built-in workstations featuring desks with dataports, and luxurious Carrera marble bathrooms with heated floors. Floor-to-ceiling windows offer stunning, panoramic views of the Toronto skyline and serve as natural art pieces.

Designed by New York’s Studio Gaia Architecture & Interiors, no expense was spared in creating a luxe environment that will ensure guests return. That vibe is evident from the moment visitors enter the lobby, where a huge 125 by 12-foot hand-painted mural of the Toronto cityscape greets them. Created by Javier Mariscal — a Valencian artist and designer of landscapes and interiors whose work graced the Barcelona Olympics — the three-dimensional mural serves as the visual focus of the space. But a glowing white underlit bar that features a dramatic hand-blown glass and bronze chandelier helps draw guests in and positions it as the ideal meeting place in the lobby.

“With 30,000 square feet of dining and event space, we have a disproportionate amount of amenity area,” admits Cohen. “We feel this community really wants a unique place for events.” And, adds Lopez, “The beauty of our space is that we have rooms attached.”

Restaurants are also critical to Thompson’s success, and with three different concepts to choose from, guests will be hard-pressed to decide where to eat. Even before opening its doors, there was huge buzz in the city surrounding Scarpetta, Thompson Toronto’s swank 150-seat signature restaurant, which is helmed by New York chef Scott Conant. The eatery — which is a copy of Conant’s successful  New York City resto — ushers in a new era in Toronto hotel dining by serving up inventive Italian fare without the stodginess of a hotel dining room.

The property also houses a 24-hour diner, called The Counter. Designed by Brenda Bent (wife of renowned chef Susur Lee), the 105-seat eatery is part of the hotel, but its own entrance off of Bathurst St. helps it feel like an independent restaurant. Wabora, a 150-seat sushi bar, rounds out the culinary offerings. Other amenities include a rooftop infinity pool and bar — a signature item in all Thompson Hotels — a 40-seat, private screening theatre and a stunning fitness room that overlooks Victoria Memorial Square, one of the country’s most historic parks. For curb appeal, the hotel also features a reflective pool in the summer, which transforms into a skating rink in winter.

With a staff of 200 servicing 102 rooms, guests can expect a high-level of personalized service. According to Lopez, running an effective team means you need to treat staff like family. “You also need to have fun,” she adds. “Employees spend 10 to 12 hours a day working here, so it’s important they’re happy.” Lopez and the hotel’s F&B director were brought in directly from New York to ensure product consistency.

“Thompson likes people who are Thompsonized,” jokes Cohen, quick to add the company is great at giving owners space to maneuver. “We haven’t been bound and shackled by all these standards,” he says. “They always tell us, ‘You guys have the vision and as long as the parameters are there, we’re happy.’”

Though the hotel is set to open this month, Lopez has been in Toronto for the past six months assembling her team, overseeing the sales department and meeting with members of the community to promote the hotel. In terms of sales, some rooms have been booked for summer, but “the real push comes when you open,” she says. Most meeting planners hesitate to book business until they can actually see finished rooms, she explains.

Though it’s too early in the game to know how the hotel will fare against a competitive set that will soon include such heavyweights as Ritz-Carlton, Trump International, the Shangri-La and a new Four Seasons, Cohen isn’t worried. In fact, he’s confident he has a winning formula on his hands. “Thompson has a great balance of being cool and hip with a strong F&B component,” he says. “At the end of the day, it’s the perfect combination of what Toronto needs.”

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