When hotels do well, everyone benefits,” says Steve Giblin, president and CEO of SilverBirch Hotels & Resorts. At least that’s the case with the busy Vancouver-based firm, which has enough irons in the Canadian hotel-development fire to spark a conflagration.
SilverBirch’s roots can be traced back to the Canadian Hotel Income Properties REIT (CHIP REIT), which launched in 1997 as the country’s first hotel REIT. By 2007, the British Columbia Investment Management Corporation (BCIMC) privatized the TSX-listed CHIP REIT and converted it to SilverBirch Hotels & Resorts. Since then, it has emerged as one of Canada’s top-performing hotel-management companies, outpacing the industry in RevPAR growth, cultivating strong regional infrastructure and hotel-management expertise, posting significant and incrementally escalating sales figures, overseeing successful marketing and franchise support programs and demonstrating a refined understanding of branding.
SilverBirch’s team of 3,000-plus associates oversees a stable of 20 hotels that includes indepen-dents and such major franchise brands as Marriott, Radisson, Hilton, Quality, Best Western and Ramada. This year, the company will invest more than $200 million into the Canadian economy by way of hotel renovations. Additionally, it has $300 million in committed capital and another $300 million in projects under consideration. The construction of 17 new hotels is on the books for the next three to five years.
Such frenzied activity vaults SilverBirch above much of its competition. “There’s not a lot of people pulling off the magnitude of projects these guys are,” says Tom Lorenzo, VP and managing director of Development for Hilton Worldwide’s Canada and Northeast U.S. operations, while speaking of his company’s hotel partner. “Having 10 to 14 projects on the go at any given time makes you a big developer.”
“We’re doing a lot of creative things in Canada and are probably the only ones aggressively selling hotels, potentially buying hotels, building hotels and renovating hotels, and we’re doing it all at the same time,” adds Giblin. “It’s a substantial investment in Canadian hotel real estate, and we’re creating a lot of jobs.” He adds: “If we want to be successful in Canada, and we’re positioning ourselves to be forever players, we need great talent to run our hotels. So, we want to actively work with the industry and hospitality and business schools to produce people that are going to work in Canada and continue to build our business.”
Those jobs — some 850 countrywide — will be created due to a number of SilverBirch projects. To wit, the company has plans to open five hotels in Canada in the next few months, including reopening the former Regina Inn Hotel and Conference Centre as the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel and Conference Centre Regina, the DoubleTree by Hilton West Edmonton and two hotels in a mixed-use project in downtown Halifax that will occupy the former Citadel Hotel site: Homewood Suites by Hilton and the Hampton Inn by Hilton. Finally, SilverBirch is renovating the Mayfield Inn & Suites in Edmonton to become a Home2 Suites by Hilton West Edmonton, the first of its brand in Canada.
“Canada needs to reinvent itself as a destination for worldwide travellers,” says Giblin. “The reason we’re slipping in international tourism is attributable to two things: one, we’ve got a stronger dollar than we have in the past but also because other destinations are outcompeting us for international travel dollars. Some of it’s our pricing on our airlines and some of it’s our lack of marketing for our tourism. [Destinations such as] Banff, [Alta.], some places in Ontario, Whistler, [B.C.], and the Maritimes, aren’t enjoying the business they have in the past. I hear people saying they’re going into the States to buy discounted tickets to Hawaii. I’m like: ‘Why aren’t you going to the Maritimes?’”
In 2009, SilverBirch execs enacted a strategic plan to examine hotel business in each major Ca-nadian city based on the travelling customer’s needs. It concluded that Canadian hotels are often “underdemolished,” languishing past their prime and negatively affecting the consumer’s perception. “These are the places that, if you stayed there, you’d never return, but you’re still paying $120 a night,” Giblin says. And, so the company execs took advantage of this customer desire for a quality hotel with consistent product and services at a fair price by opening established brands, such as Hilton and Marriott. To date, SilverBirch has opened three Marriotts, and its next five hotels in development are Hilton-branded.
“They’re as good as it gets,” says Craig A. Mance, SVP of North American Development for Hilton Worldwide, on his company’s choice to partner with SilverBirch. “Steve Giblin put together a remarkable group; their due diligence is exceptional, they have a terrific backer, and they’ve proven themselves excellent hotel operators. They walk the walk.”
More than that, says Mance, he’s impressed with the franchisee’s “extraordinary volume” of activity, huge even by American standards. “It’s been really rapid growth and credibility, with the two premier hotel companies in the world, in a short period of time.”
Partnerships aside, the SilverBirch team also focuses on innovation. This past May, the Radisson Edmonton South introduced LobbyFriend, a temporary social network hotel platform that enables guests to connect with each other and staff, while also accessing information on special deals as well as local events and restaurants.
The SilverBirch Conference Centre concept is another unique program, which provides a solution for meeting planners’ woes. It features a comprehensive pricing scheme, which includes all the de-tails — from built-in white boards and Wi-Fi, to a centralized coffee break that runs throughout the day and a health-oriented luncheon buffet — for a $99-a-head fee. This way, says Giblin, clients will not receive a $1,200 bill for what looked like a $400 meeting room.
There’s also been innovation in the designing and building of hotels. Two-dimensional drawings are being replaced with 3-D models. And, the projects integrate the ideas of all players, including architects, designers and general contractors. “I’ve been very impressed with their commitment to develop quality hotels,” says Manlio P. Marescotti, Marriott’s VP of Lodging Development, one of the beneficiaries of Giblin’s commitment. At the Residence Inn by Marriott Vancouver, execs were so chuffed with SilverBirch’s reinvention of a dilapidated apartment building that it held a global brand press trip to the hotel to show it off.
The company’s efforts are paying off in more accountable terms, too. In 2012, SilverBirch posted a RevPAR increase of more than six per cent. Through the end of August 2013, all three Marriott-SilverBirch properties were operating well above the brand average in overall customer satisfaction and ranking in the top 20 per cent for their respective brands (out of 708 Fairfield Inn & Suites, 637 Residence Inns and 219 TownePlace Suites).
But, beyond the company’s purely business pursuits, SilverBirch has a long-standing commitment to the environment. In 2002, it became Canada’s first hotel-management company to have all its properties certified under the Green Leaf Eco-rating program. New builds use less heat, light and power, and all materials are earmarked for re-use.
More than that, the company has developed relationships with the communities in which it lives. Its Friends-in-Need program has raised $1.15 million for worthy causes across Canada since 2000, including The Upper Room Food Bank in Charlottetown and the Make-a-Wish Foundation in Edmonton.
“They’re very conscientious guys,” says Hilton’s Lorenzo. In fact, Hilton’s select-service hotels typically offer guests a complimentary breakfast at which only plastic and throwaway utensils are used. But SilverBirch is pressing to allow the use of glass since it’s a better ecological choice. “They get involved, and they don’t necessarily take the easy route,” says Lorenzo, pointing out that the glass could potentially increase labour costs.
Asked to sum up the rationale for his company’s success, and Giblin downplays his achievement. “An [urban hotel] can’t support the demand for summer tourism unless there are many quality hotels available,” he says, citing Sil-verBirch’s 200-room Vancouver Marriott, which ran at more than 97-per-cent occupancy in August. “But we can’t handle it all. We need several thousand rooms to attract top conventions. We want to be part of that hotel community that’s going
to bring more travellers to Canada and improve the country’s overall [reputation] as a desirable tourism destination.”
photo by Roberta Karpa