JJ Hilsinger admits he was flying by the seat of his pants when he first embarked on opening a hotel in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., in 1974. At the time, he was the owner of several popular Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises in the Northern Ontario town, and he had acquired a plot of land behind one of his stores — with no real plan for what to do with it. “The most significant thing I could think of to do with that land, other than put in storage lockers, was to put in a hotel. The town really needed a hotel back then,” says Hilsinger, owner of Algoma’s Water Tower Inn & Suites. But aside from spending a great deal of time at hotels in a previous job as a travelling salesman, he had no experience in the hotel business. “I had to learn very quickly,” he says, noting that his first few years in operation were, frankly, “brutal.”

“I struggled at the beginning … and I hired a novice kid out of Sault College to be the manager, and he struggled like hell, too, because he didn’t have any experience,” says Hilsinger, laughing heartily as he recalls those early days. “It was a few years before we finally got our pace.” But Hilsinger found his pace indeed, learning as he went, and by the late 1970s business was good for the 105-room, four-storey hotel. “We just started to deliver better, more reliable quality and services, and built a very loyal clientele that believed that the Water Tower Inn was their place in Sault Ste. Marie,” says Hilsinger. “There were a lot of people travelling on the road back then for different companies, and we came to be considered a ‘home away from home’ for many of them.”

Today, 40 years after opening, Algoma’s Water Tower Inn & Suites continues to thrive (although Hilsinger won’t divulge numbers) and is still a “home away from home” for many. “The first couple who got married here back in 1974 come back every year to celebrate their anniversary; there’s that kind of loyalty,” says Hilsinger. The property now has 176 rooms, with 12 different suite types. In 1989, the family added on the Pavilion Conference and Event Centre as part of a $7.2-million expansion (which also included construction of a new dining facility and other renovations). “Like the rest of the hotel, [the conference centre] incorporates accents from the Northern outdoors in the decor, but it’s still a modern look and very beautiful,” explains Jamie Hilsinger, marketing manager for the hotel (and JJ’s daughter). “We’ve also got the Club Cabana Aqua Spa, which our guests tell us is one of the best spa and pool areas in the North. It’s got a heated pool, indoor whirlpool, wading pool, an always-hot sauna, and we’ve got the Sault’s only outdoor whirlpool, which is quite nice in winter.” The hotel’s slogan is “a resort for the price of a room,” and, as Jamie notes, “We embrace that.” (Rates start at $129 per night for Run of the Inn rooms, while Signature Suites start at $249.)

The hotel has two dining facilities — a Casey’s Grill Bar and the Water Tower Pub — and, interestingly, the property also houses an on-site art gallery called the McGuffin Gallery; it features photo art by a local couple named Gary and Joanie McGuffin. “[Gary and Joanie] are internationally acclaimed for their expeditions, presentations, conservation endeavours and brilliant depiction of the places they’ve explored,” boasts the hotel’s website. Jamie stands behind that claim. “Their work is quite beautiful,” she says, adding its presence on the property reflects the overall aim to have the hotel’s “look” evoke its natural northern environment. There are a number of outdoor courtyards for guests to enjoy, and, as JJ Hilsinger explains, every addition and renovation that the hotel has undergone over the years has included an “emphasis on flair and integration with the outdoor environment.”

When asked how his hotel has survived and thrived as a family run independent amid competition from big brands, the owner doesn’t hesitate to answer: “We march to a different drummer; we really push the standards. Our advantage is we’ve never been encumbered by cookie-cutter design. In serving the people’s needs, we’re free to apply our own kind of brand. Over the years, we’ve been free to express our style of genuine culture and hospitality.” JJ’s daughter Donna Hilsinger, who has been GM of the hotel for more than a decade and has received many awards for her leadership (including an Influential Women of Northern Ontario Award in 2008 and a Leading Women Building Communities Award from the Province of Ontario in 2013), adds her take on what sets the property apart: “There’s a special feeling from the moment you walk in the door. The lobby is warm and inviting and the beautiful decor continues throughout the McGuffin Gallery into the Pavilion. It’s not uncommon to see our guests lounging around the fireplace, reading or connecting with their friends and family,” enthuses Donna. “Our guests know that with every visit they will be surrounded by sincere and genuine hospitality. We have many long-time employees who make them feel at home.”

Indeed, the employees work extremely hard to make every guest feel at home. For instance, because Sault Ste. Marie winters often involve heavy snowfalls, a staff member typically clears snow off guests’ cars in the wee hours of the morning. “We also have many guests who come in very early in the morning and plan to sleep during the day, so we make sure to put out ‘Shhh, guest sleeping’ signs in front of their rooms to remind other guests to be quiet when they pass by, so they can have a peaceful sleep,” adds Jamie. “So, it’s in those little ways that we really pay attention, so we can offer the best guest experience at all times.”

Vic Casaletto can attest to that level of attention. As a VP at Toronto-based Toromont Industries Ltd. who works out of Sault Ste. Marie, Casaletto has been a regular client of the hotel for more than 30 years. When he first moved to the Sault in the early ’80s, he lived at the hotel while searching for a house in town; and these days he holds management meetings twice a year at the property, hosting meeting attendees from as far away as Toronto and Thunder Bay, Ont. “I always allow the management team the option of moving the meeting to another site, but every year they vote to come back,” says Casaletto, noting that the meeting facilities offered by the inn are ideal for their needs. The C~nergy room in particular, he says, offers state-of-the-art technology in a circular room — two factors that combine to provide an ideal atmosphere for intense planning meetings. “It’s set up perfectly for brainstorming sessions,” he says. In addition to the meeting facilities, Casaletto also praises the guestrooms, the food quality and the overall service levels. “Everything’s there, they do a very good job. Donna has great staff, too; it all adds to the experience and makes it hassle-free for us,” he says. “There are a lot of good places to stay in the Sault, but [the Water Tower Inn] has the best ambiance by far.”

As GM, Donna Hilsinger also places an extremely high priority on being connected with and giving back to the community. “We calculate that we give back in cash and in kind — including services and time — somewhere in the neighbourhood of about $50,000 a year,” she says, noting that key targets of their time and financial donations include the Rotary Club, the local hospital, education initiatives, the arts and the local soup kitchen, where hotel staff have volunteered. Donna also heads up the Algoma Fall Festival, an annual local arts festival that attracts tourists to the area. Giving back to the community, she explains, “is an important part of what we do. It’s what makes the world go around.”

To commemorate the hotel’s 40th anniversary, the staff held a Facebook contest encouraging guests and local residents to share their stories and memories of the inn. The charming memories that were shared paint a picture of a hotel that clearly holds a special place in the hearts of many. As one respondent, Rochelle Bhatia, wrote, “We travel out west from Toronto to Calgary just about every summer, and we always make the Water Tower Inn our first stop heading west and our last stop heading east. When my daughters were little, the pool was the most exciting part of our first night on the road and a final thrill before getting home on the return journey. Sitting under the waterfall was always a thrill and, funnily enough, even though they are all grown up now, a swim under the falls is still a must and [so is] a sit in the outside hot tub…. We do indeed love the Water Tower Inn.” 


  1. Jim
    Just touching base..congratulations on the anniversary of the hotel. Thanks Jim for the opportunities that you gave me and my family. The expierance was the best ever. I missed it the day I left and continue to feel to feel the same. You were a great teacher. THANKS Jim
    Burlington On


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