Whether deep within a bustling city or up on a quiet mountainside, Coast Hotels — Hotelier’s Regional Company of the year — prides itself on creating unique experiences that reflect the destinations in which they’re located.
The west coast-based brand started humbly — and hyperlocal — with one rustic hotel that rose out of a work camp. JJ “Jack” O’Neill had travelled to B.C. from Winnipeg in the 1950s with little education and even less money to work in railroad hotels and industrial camp catering. As the province burgeoned with resource projects in timber, mining and oil, workers in remote areas needed meals to eat and places to sleep.
So, in 1960, O’Neill started his own business, National Caterers, in the small Vancouver Island town of Gold River, to feed the labourers. He then built a lodge, and soon after, he was awarded a project to house construction workers from the new Tahsis Co. pulp mill being built just north of town. Meanwhile, Delta Hotels was building a 50-room hotel nearby called the Gold River Chalet. As soon as it opened, however, it closed due to a dispute between the hotel and the Tahsis mill. O’Neill swooped in and acquired the hotel and moved in the workers. And so, in 1972, the first Coast Hotel was born. O’Neill had turned a modest workers’ camp into the foundation of what was to become a renowned hotel chain.
“From that start in a small town it grew in the big city,” says Mark Hope, senior vice-president, Development. “We’ve continued that today. We’re in towns with 3,500 people all the way up to million-person cities. We’re proud of where we started and we’re proud to receive this award. And coming on the heels of us celebrating our 50th year ties a bow on it.”
Jin Sasaki, Coast Hotels president, adds, “Our unique, authentic and localized approach that preserves the character of every community that we are situated in, and our operators’ commitment to delivering outstanding guest experiences, form the basis of our ongoing success. We recognize that today’s travellers gravitate toward unique lodging accommodations and local experiences. We turn the standard hotel concept on its head by elevating unique hotels with local influence while ensuring we deliver commonalities like exceptional value and an unmatched dedication to our guests.”
Both Sasaki and Hope, of course, recognize the last few years have created many challenges, and that the Pinnacle Award is particularly welcome after all that the brand — and the industry — has struggled through during the pandemic.
“We’ve had to make some difficult decisions about how to operate in times of uncertainty and, at the end of the day, we’ve emerged stronger,” says Sasaki. “We’ve united as a team to support everyone — hotel operators, owners, guests, and most importantly our Ambassadors [staff]. We also decided to not close our owned hotels throughout the pandemic, as we believe we have a social responsibility to the communities in which we operate.”
Sasaki says despite how tough it got, the pandemic taught many lessons. “The most significant is the importance of human connection. Right now, people yearn to be together again and travel. And as hotel owners and operators, we are even more committed to providing an inclusive, warm, and genuine place that makes everyone feel welcome.”
Hope predicts it will take another year — assuming there is no drastic resurgence of the pandemic or any other unforeseen disaster that affects the industry — before there’s a return to some semblance of normalcy. “You can take 9/11, SARS, the recession and they weren’t as bad as COVID. But all the things we learned from those previous episodes allowed us to overcome COVID and put protocols and systems in place to help us through.”
He says that, while the industry is making slow strides in its recovery, there’s renewed focus on the widespread labour shortage. “So many people that were an integral part of our industry have left. But we’ve learned to be more resourceful, to do more with less. I think it will be another year or two before we get our labour base back to where it was.”
Having worked for Coast for nearly 29 years, Hope says much has changed, but much has stayed the same. “We’re still in the hospitality and service business; we still put the guest first, and finding staff who have hospitality in their DNA [is key]. A hotel is a hotel; a bed is a bed. The difference is the people who work in it.”
Sasaki echoes the sentiment. “There is no question that, in today’s knowledge-based economy, employees are the most important and greatest asset of an organization. At Coast Hotels, the hospitality we provide is essential and we simply cannot succeed unless we take care of our Ambassadors first. And it’s thanks to their hard work and commitment to delivering an outstanding guest experience every single day that we have gotten to where we are today.”
Coast also believes in supporting the communities in which it operates, offering programs that support its Ambassadors volunteering for charities and events on a local, regional and national level. It has a robust corporate social responsibility program, which includes an annual charity golf tournament and event, raising funds for two primary beneficiaries.
“This year, it was our 20th-annual event and we raised funds for the ALS Society of BC, presenting a check for $60,000 and the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, presenting a check for $20,000,” says Hope. “Since its inception 20 years ago, we raised over $1 million for different charities.”
At Coast’s annual brand conference, the company also supports one charity each year. This year it supported Covenant House, asking all attendees to bring gently used T-Shirts. Throughout the year, Coast supports local community charities with more than $40,000 annually in donations.
Going forward, Sasaki says the company’s strategic goal is to drive further expansion and to grow the network of hotels from 4,400 rooms to 10,000 across North America within the next five years. “And, of course, to win the Pinnacle Award for National Hotel Company of the Year.”
If the steady, consistent rise continues from those simple beginnings, the future looks bright. “These are very exciting times for Coast Hotels, and we are honoured that our achievements and contributions to the industry are being recognized with the Regional Hotel Company of the Year award,” says Sasaki.
Hope is equally delighted. “We’re thrilled that this [recognition] is in conjunction with our 50th year. It’s not about me or the name Coast. It’s about everybody who works there — the owners, our employees, our supplier partners. There are many people who go into making this hotel company work and they’re all part and parcel of the award.”
BY ROBIN ROBERTS | PHOTOGRAPHY BY PETER HOLST