More than a decade ago, Christiane Germain and her brother, Jean-Yves, had four successful boutique hotels under their belts. They were looking to expand Group Germain Hotels across the country, but they knew that upscale hotels are, well, hard to scale. “We were quite aware it would not have been possible to build many Le Germain hotels in all the cities,” says Christiane, who serves as co-president of Group Germain. “A city like Vancouver can take a Le Germain, but for a city like Saskatoon, the financials wouldn’t work.”
So, they came up with a new concept they could take coast to coast — Alt Hotels, a modern, European-style, mid-market hotel brand. Created on the premise of “no-frills chic,” Alt Hotels would have a contemporary design and the warm approach to hospitality that Group Germain Hotels was known for, but without the bells and whistles of a luxury property. “People recognized that our attention to details and service was our strength, but we felt there was an opportunity to simplify the product,” says Hugo Germain, Jean-Yves Germain’s son, who started at the family company in 2006 as project manager and has been director of Development since 2008. “It was going to be the same attention to details, the same caring staff, the same technology. It was just going to be simplified.”
That meant no room service, valet parking or amenities such as bathrobes in the guestrooms. The guestrooms themselves would also be smaller — around 225 sq. ft. compared to 375-to-400 sq. ft. at Le Germain. But, there would be a big emphasis on ambiance, design and comfort — from natural light to spa-inspired bathrooms and ergonomic workspaces — at an affordable price. “Our message was, ‘this is going to be an alternative to everything you can find in the [mid-range] segment, says Hugo.
In September 2007, the first Alt Hotel opened its doors at Quartier Dix30, a commercial lifestyle centre in Brossard, Que., with shopping, restaurants and office space. In 2008, Alt Hotels opened its second location: a conversion of Hôtel Germain Des Prés in Quebec City. That year, Alt Hotels was awarded “Best Innovative Concept in Mid-scale Brands at the ninth-annual Worldwide Hospitality Awards in Paris. And, Group Germain Hotels hasn’t looked back since.
Alt Hotels, which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary, now has eight properties, stretching from Calgary to St. John’s, with two more slated to open in 2018. “It’s exciting and it makes me very proud,” says Christiane, reflecting on the brand’s decade of success and future possibilities. “The people [on our team] are quite excited about the growth and they’re having fun doing this. It’s a great source of motivation and inspiration for our entire team.”
The plan for expanding Alt Hotels nationally was laid out in the early days. While Hugo worked on the development side, his father spearheaded the search for equity. “We wanted to establish a growth strategy across the country and get sufficient equity, so every time we had an opportunity to put in an Alt, we didn’t have to start from scratch to find a partner and the necessary money to do the project,” says Hugo.
In 2010, the company raised $35 million for its investment fund to get the ball rolling on expansion in key urban locations and near airports. The following year, Alt Hotels announced an additional $45-million investment from private and institutional investors. At the time, four other Alt Hotels were under development — at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport (opened in 2012), Stanfield International Airport in Halifax (opened in 2013), in Montreal’s Griffintown (opened in 2014) and in downtown Winnipeg (opened in 2015).
An additional $80-million investment was announced in 2014. Two years later, Alt Hotels opened a 148-room hotel in Ottawa’s business district. In October 2017, the brand’s newest location opened in St. John’s.
“Most of the time, we locate Alt Hotels in areas where it’s slightly more difficult and more expensive to build since we like to be in key urban locations,” says Hugo. “Sometimes, in an airport context, it makes it a little bit easier. But, when you come into a downtown [location] — like we did in Ottawa, Winnipeg or Montreal — site conditions are tougher.” In those markets, the hotel is part of a mixed-use development. “We sit on top of an office building or we’re in the same building as a condo project, and that’s a way for us to make things work.”
Being green is another important consideration for Alt Hotels. The properties have a number of environmental measures in place, including heating and cooling with geothermal systems, heat recovery, large-scale thermal low-emissivity windows and energy-efficient lighting. “It’s good to be eco-friendly and our guests expect it, but there is an economic benefit to doing initiatives like this,” says Hugo. “So, in projects we did after [Quartier Dix30], we always tried to incorporate the same type of building technology.” Alt Hotels’ novel pricing strategy also sets it apart. At each Alt property, guests are charged a flat-rate fee all year long (prices vary by city, from $149 to $179). “The key aspect of that strategy was to remove customer pain,” says Hugo. “There’s no worse feeling than realizing that when you’re checking in to a hotel, the guy next to you is paying $30 less than you. We felt this was unfair and that having a stable pricing strategy removes the customer pain.”
While Hugo says the strategy has worked well, Alt Hotels is now moving towards a maximum guaranteed price. “There are some markets in the country, for example, Toronto Pearson, where the inventory is massive and there is intense competition for price in off-peak periods,” says Hugo. “The key with our approach is to be predictable for our guests — no surprises.”
Julie Brisebois, general manager of the 154-room Alt Hotel Montreal Griffintown, says there haven’t been any big changes to the Alt Hotels brand over the years — just small improvements. “The essence of who we are and what we wanted Alt to be is still the same,” says Brisebois, who has been with the Alt brand from the beginning, starting off as Guest-Service manager at the first Alt property. “But, we listened to our guests and modified little things over time.”
For example, guests at the hotel in Griffintown said they would appreciate a small fridge in the room, so last year, the property put them in 30 of its rooms. Guestrooms across the chain now have Keurig machines, whereas there was no coffee in the rooms when Alt first debuted.
While listening to guests is important for the brand, Brisebois believes the secret to the Alt brand’s success is having great staff. “You can have a beautiful hotel…but the people who work in it really give it the personality and life, and that’s why [guests] come back,” says Brisebois, who describes Alt Hotels’ approach to hospitality as laidback, caring and professional.
Christiane says whether guests are staying at a Germain property or an Alt, design and well-thought-out environments are important to them — as is great location. “We’re very lucky because, in some of the places we’re located, we’re very close to where the locals live,” she says. “And, more and more, people are looking for that environment. They’re much more interested in living like a local.”
In terms of new developments, Group Germain Hotels is opening a second property at Quartier Dix30, under its new Alt+ banner, in March 2018. The 168-room, $35-million hotel will occupy the top nine floors of a 15-storey mixed-use building currently under construction. “We call it Alt+ because it’s a kind of hybrid between Le Germain and Alt,” says Hugo. “The room is bigger — about 320 sq. ft. — and there are more services, so it’s more of a four-star property.”
Alt+ caters to guests who are likely going to stay more than one night. “We’re putting in some additional amenities for somebody who is spending two or three nights,” says Hugo. “We’re putting in a fridge and a microwave, and we’ve created a bit more space where guests can store more things. There is also more of a lounge area in the room where guests can relax.”
In addition to the first Alt+, two Alt Hotels are slated to open in Western Canada in 2018 — one at a new development at River Landing in Saskatoon, and one in Calgary’s East Village. In the long term, Hugo says he’d like to expand further into Western Canada — including Edmonton and Vancouver — as well as expand Alt Hotels’ footprint in Toronto. Looking back on Alt Hotels’ decade of success, Hugo says he’s proud of how Alt Hotels created a Canadian brand and built a Canadian presence from scratch. “We’re unique and we were able to convince people to invest with us, to stay with us and to trust us,” he says. “That’s what makes me the most proud…and the best is yet to come.”
Written by Rebecca Harris