Photo by Margaret Mulligan

A mix of bold thinking, a mission to be a community hub and a reputation as one of Canada’s coolest hospitality brands has contributed to another strong year for Drake Hotel Properties. The company’s portfolio, which includes downtown Toronto’s The Drake Hotel and the Drake Devonshire in Wellington, Ont., also boasts three Drake General Store locations in Toronto, three boutiques inside Hudson’s Bay locations in Ottawa and Toronto and Drake One Fifty — a 180-seat restaurant and bar in the city’s financial district. From the beginning, Drake Hotel Properties’ approach to the hospitality business has been unique, visionary and, on the surface, a little out there. In 2001, Jeff Stober, founder and owner of Drake Hotel Properties, bought the derelict Drake Hotel on a rundown stretch of Toronto’s Queen Street West. After three years and $6 million in renovations, the historic building was transformed into an eclectic 19-room boutique hotel, complete with a rooftop patio, lounge, music venue and café.

More than a place for travellers to just eat and sleep, The Drake Hotel sought to be an arts-and-cultural hub, appealing to travellers and locals alike. “On some level, it’s a bit of an oxymoron, where a hotel is so committed to the local community, when historically hotels have always outreached to the international traveller,” says Stober. “But our feeling has always been that when you travel, you want to immerse yourself in an interesting, culturally enriched local environment that immediately gives you a sense and feel for what’s going on in that city.”

And, while hot spots come and go, The Drake Hotel has managed to keep its cool for more than 13 years with ongoing cultural events, artist showcases, live music, comedy shows, educational workshops, culinary events and more.

The company’s motto, “there’s a curious culture seeker in everyone,” helps explain why the company succeeds far beyond its artsy Queen Street digs. “We proffer ourselves as a cultural community centre and we’ve become an engaging neighbourhood hub everywhere we go,” says Bill Simpson, director of Operations at Drake Hotel Properties and former general manager of The Drake Hotel. “[In each neighbourhood], we’re able to add to the social fabric, the cultural fabric and the community engagement that we live and breathe every day.”

Like The Drake Hotel, the 13-room Drake Devonshire in Wellington, Ont. offers a range of cultural programming, including artist talks and author visits, as well as hosting indie-music acts.

When it comes to the guest experience, Simpson says that at both hotel properties, “the cultural thrill-seeking experience is as important to us as the genuine hospitality and memorable guest experiences that we try to create.”

Between the two hotels, Drake Hotel Properties currently runs occupancies of more than 80 per cent and an Average Daily Rate of between $265 and $390, depending on seasonality and citywide/regional events.

Aside from steady sales growth, it was a big year for Drake Hotel Properties in terms of development projects. This past June, the hospitality company opened the 8,000-sq.-ft. Drake Commissary in Toronto. Positioned as a “bakery, bar and larder,” Drake Commissary features a 5,000-sq.-ft. production kitchen, as well as a 140-seat restaurant and 40-seat patio. The kitchen supplies baked goods, condiments, charcuterie and other prepared food to all Drake locations, while serving made-from-scratch dishes customers can take away or enjoy onsite. The facility — the company’s biggest launch since opening Drake Devonshire three years ago — is also home base for Drake Catering, which launched in February. Just as The Drake Hotel kick-started the transformation of Queen Street West, Drake Commissary is poised to help transform Junction Triangle, which is the future home of the Museum of Contemporary Art and a number of condo developments. “We really seek out these emerging areas and we seem to have a knack, as a hotel and food-and-beverage powerhouse, to go into these neighbourhoods and really have impact,” says Simpson. “We like to position ourselves as an impact hospitality company, a bit of a game changer and a thought leader.”

The company is also putting the final plans in place to commence construction on the Annex — an expansion of the original Drake Hotel. “That’s a pretty ambitious year,” says Stober. “We’re very proud of what we’ve created in general and certainly what we’ve accomplished this year.”

Stober adds that when the company opens a hotel, a restaurant or a general store, “we’re expecting to be there 10 to 15 years from now, carrying on with the same approach, the same core brand offerings, the same name. And so, we work backwards from a long-term perspective, knowing that as soon as we consider a location, it’s about community engagement from that moment moving forward.”

While Drake Hotel Properties is committed to community engagement, it’s equally focused on engaging its more than 500 staff members at head office and across its properties. “We are extraordinarily committed to our employees and giving them the tools to do their jobs most effectively,” says Stober. “It’s the employees, ultimately, who touch all of our many stakeholders, so we present an environment that is filled with respect, trust, love and goodness on so many levels — alongside all the fun things of creativity and culture.”

To keep staff engaged, the company holds the Drake Professional Development Series — six to 10 sessions throughout the year where hospitality staff can learn from the culinary team, be it wine or food knowledge or cocktail presentations. The company also has an internship program and a tuition-reimbursement program for professional-development courses, such as accounting or wine education.

And, while Drake Hotel Properties is closely tied to the arts-and-culture community, the company also has a number of charitable endeavors. This past February, corporate executive chef Ted Corrado organized The Drake Barn Burner, a hockey match between top chefs from Montreal and Toronto held at Essroc Arena in Wellington. More than 350 people attended the game and dinner at Drake Devonshire afterwards, which raised approximately $10,000 for Community Food Centres Canada, an organization that supports access to good food for all Canadians.

The organization also raises funds for The Stop Community Food Centre and is involved with Sketch — an organization that offers visual arts, music and culinary-arts programs to young people living homeless or on the margins. “We try to find charitable organizations that play in our arena, aligning ourselves with food, arts, culture and music,” says Simpson.

The next chapter for Drake Hotel Properties is the expansion of The Drake Hotel in three neighbouring buildings the company purchased in 2006. Simpson says the project started in earnest about four years ago, and the company has since been working with world-class architects and designers, as well as with the City of Toronto. “We had the Drake General Store housed in one of the buildings and we’ve done a couple of pop-up restaurants, but we wanted to build out a substantially larger hotel footprint,” says Simpson. “It will allow us to expand on our corporate and business very readily.”

The renovation, which is expected to commence later this year, will add 32 guestrooms to The Drake Hotel’s footprint. Longtime Drake collaborator John Tong, of design firm Tongtong, is overseeing the interior design of the hotel rooms and public spaces, in collaboration with Anwar Mekhayech of The Design Agency, while Don Schmitt of Diamond Schmitt Architects will head up the architectural team. “We want it to be compatible with the original hotel, so it’s a modern interpretation using the heritage aspects of [the buildings],” says Simpson.

Over the next two to three years, Drake Hotel Properties is looking to expand its hotel footprint outside of Toronto. “We do have brand recognition that exceeds our footprint here in Toronto so we want to expand on that,” says Simpson. “It could be anywhere in Canada. We’ve looked at Ottawa, we’ve looked on the East Coast and we’ve looked to the West.” But, in line with the brand’s DNA, “it has to be a community where there is a high level of community engagement,” says Simpson.

Wherever that may be, it’s clear that if Drake Hotel Properties builds it, people will come.

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