Rosanna Caira: Can you walk us through what the renovation process has been like and what you wanted to accomplish with the renovation of this iconic property?

Bonnie Strome: The renovation couldn’t have been better timed, but the planning dated back far before the pandemic started as we looked to re-position this hotel to be a competitor in the luxury market.

The Park Hyatt brand has always been synonymous with luxury and taking a product to that level was not a small undertaking, with the magnitude of the construction that has been completed at the site, to ensure we understood what the guest experience needed to be — from the restaurants through the bar experience to the guestrooms. [We actually created] a model room so we could experience it and see what works and what doesn’t and what needs modifications before we rolled it out on scale. It’s been a transition over the period of time that it was renovated — obviously not anticipated to be that long — but in hindsight, all the stars lined up so as we came into 2021, we were able to strategically decide when it was the right time to open versus just the completion of the construction being the biggest factor for that decision. So, we feel very good about the time we were able to come in the market that things were growing brighter, and we could actually launch a luxury property.

RC: What precipitated the need to undertake this large-scale renovation?

BS: The luxury landscape in Toronto changed back in 2012/2013, with the introduction of newly built luxury-branded properties. That said, obviously, it wasn’t instantaneous. So, we decided to complete a renovation in combination with the sale of the hotel in 2014 to Oxford Properties Group, who are obviously very savvy in the world of development, and had all of the tools in their kit to be able to really evaluate this site to see what the next iteration of this hotel could be and then to put together a plan to make it happen. It’s no small feat, what’s been accomplished at this property, and it took a group such as Oxford Properties to be able to do that. The goal was to keep the brand but build the product to suit and match the brand expectations from a luxury perspective. And knowing that we are at the best address in the city, [it was about bringing] this piece of real estate to a different level that made it sustainable going forward as well — the evaluation of the uses on sites between the hotel and the residential rental residences is a balance, along with future retail space. Bringing this corner to life for Yorkville was the goal and making sure that it’s a super activated piece of the community.

RC: How many rooms in the new property, and how different is that from the number of rooms that were there previously?

BS: We originally had 346 guestrooms and the new hotel has 219 guestrooms, which is the right size for a luxury hotel. The other big change is the appointment of suites. We have 40 new suites that are beautifully appointed and specifically built to be well-functioning suite space. Also, we had 15,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, but the new hotel has just a little bit under that — but again completely re-designed and very well appointed. Part of the new build of the hotel houses our new ballroom — an entire floor dedicated to the ballroom with pre-function space and dedicated kitchens to those spaces as well. The location in Yorkville is very supported by social, business, weddings, bar mitzvahs (we have a kosher kitchen as well) so the re-introduction of a really well-built living space that functions very well for the needs of both social and corporate clients has been built into the new design and a new restaurant with 130 seats and a new bar. In a lot of ways, the trickiest part of the building was to make sure we got the bar right. It’s an iconic bar and so many people really call that home in a lot of ways. We’ve seen regulars flip back to try the new bar and so far it’s been a thumbs up from everybody in regard to the new iteration.

RC: In 2020, COVID-19 changed the dynamic of every hotel operation — not just in Canada, but around the world. Looking back at how the hotel was designed in 2017, in a different period, will you be doing anything differently?

BS: I wouldn’t say that anything significant stands out in regard to what we would maybe have done differently with the design. The needs of the guest in the local community are different and we take our cues from them in regard to the safety measures we put in place. But if additional safety measures need to be in place, we take our cues from those guests that maybe need something greater. I don’t know that we were able to identify anything specific to say we would have designed it differently.

A couple of things that have really been a success include the design of Joni Restaurant, which is about well-spaced tables. In this capacity game, being able to hear the guest feedback that the safety measures of vaccine passports to come into the space are great, it’s a bit of an open air, it’s not a closed-in space so it makes people more comfortable. With the spacing of the tables, they can enjoy themselves in a vibrant environment, but not have to be next door to someone so closely.

RC: How have you changed the check-in process to make it contactless?

BS: We have all the contactless technologies available for the guests through our World of Hyatt program. So, if they have the loyalty program, they can use mobile check-in and have their key on the phone. What we’re finding though, is the high touchpoints of a luxury experience are still expected. So again, we take our cues from our guests as we communicate with them pre-arrival what their needs are going to be and sharing that these technologies are available. But I would have to say in almost all cases, our guests have been comfortable to check in with the sanitization, masking and all of those pieces, and to be escorted to their guestrooms, if they would like to take us up on that request. There’s been a comfort level around that, that goes with the higher brand, making sure they take safety very seriously as well. The luxury high touchpoints I find are something we need to be hitting the mark on every time because they are starting to return to travel. And they have big expectations. And they’re celebrating things that they’ve put on hold for a year and a half. They leave the safety pieces to us, but they want to make sure that they get a full luxury experience.

RC: From the housekeeping perspective, have you had to adjust your housekeeping department protocols to take into consideration the times we’re living in?

BS: The safety and cleaning protocols are all followed for the sanitization of all the common spaces and our employees don’t access a guestroom if a guest is there. We also give [guests] the option to choose not to have [housekeeping] service. A lot of that training went into that as we launched the hotel but we’ve continued to offer twice-daily service and again, most guests are accepting of it and would like it — I don’t think we’ve had anybody that’s declined, or very few. We take our cues from our guests. We have all the options available to them, but we want to make sure that we’re not underestimating a luxury experience.

RC: Moving forward, will the luxury experience change dramatically because of everything that’s gone on in the last two years?

BS: No, my sense is that [guests will] continue to have high expectations of what that those service touchpoints are. And making sure that full-service is not just a part of their experience, but an expectation of us as an operator.

RC: With people travelling less, primarily from a business perspective, are you concerned about what that means for hotels like yours that offer luxury premium product?

BS: It is going to be a long road to recovery for sure, for the whole industry. What we’re seeing right now we can’t call a trend because people have just been allowed to start to travel again. So, people’s travel patterns may fall back into what they used to be. I give the team here an example of let’s not assume a person from Europe that would come spend 10 nights at our hotel to visit family in the summer isn’t going to do so in January instead, because they’re just not going to wait anymore, it’s been two years, they’re just going to do it. But in the future, they would probably roll back to their preferred times once they get this first visit out of the way. It’s hard to tell what the trends look like right now, although corporate is a big gap and definitely a needed piece of the business for guestrooms as well as small meetings. And what we’re seeing is those senior leadership teams are starting to meet and do things and we’re benefiting from those groups that are deciding to have small meetings and travel again. But it definitely needs to be on a bigger volume for the whole city to sustain growth to what we used to have. The other segments that will be a little slow coming back are going to be the individual business traveller. So those two [segments] combined with groups not being held in the same scale are going to need to come back before the hotel is going to see strong recovery.

RC: Do you see the hyper-local trend that we saw through the last year and a half as we all started relying more on domestic tourism, because international tourism had dried up, continuing?

BS: It will phase away a little bit because again, people were able to get a trip in when it’s a nice time to travel hyperlocal. And no matter how much people want to travel, they’re probably going to do it on a smaller scale or a night away and in their city of choice or close by.

RC: Will the consumer of tomorrow, who has been impacted by COVID-19, change dramatically from the consumer of pre-pandemic times?

BS: In the short term, and that could be another year or two, we’re still going to see caution out of a lot of travellers. And I hear from our guests that although they’ve made the choice to travel, they’re hyper aware of what they choose to do. So, the positive is that they’ve chosen to travel but there will still be a lot of caution. But I do think people want to get back to some sense of normalcy.

RC: What will be the greatest change that you anticipate for your business moving forward?

BS: Launching a hotel during a pandemic was easier than having operated one through one, but it hasn’t been without its challenges from a staffing perspective and the workforce, which we all know has taken a large hit in hospitality sector. And unfortunately, it also has a long road to recovery. It’s not a quick fix of a matter of months — there’s going to have to be some strong thoughts to how, as an industry, we start to re-build that workforce. We were very fortunate to be hiring during a time where we were able to put a great team in place. That said, we’re not done yet. We have just over 200 employees and we need to keep growing as we continue to see our business hit those levels that we anticipate in the future. Understanding this new workforce is going to be a learning curve for many, myself included. Work-life balance is going to be such a big factor for people so in an industry that operates 24/7, it’s not easy to find that that balance.

RC: Everybody’s complaining about the labour shortages in the hotel industry. What does the industry need to do to solve this riddle?

BS: There’s always a couple of things that drive people to want to work for an employer and what I find is that number-1 is not necessarily wages and compensation, but the workplace, the culture, what it offers someone as far as a sense of purpose. The quick reaction is we pay more, we’ll get more and I don’t think that’s been the case in a lot of situations. I don’t know that’s necessarily the formula that’s going to bring in the volume of employees that every operator is going to need. I do think there’s room to evaluate it for sure and understanding what’s important. Again, I find it’s not necessarily the compensation, it might be time away, healthcare, flex time. The other challenge to finding labour is that we obviously have a gap with the school and the graduations that didn’t happen and the student during COVD.

A lot more mentoring is going to need to happen in our industry and we really need to get back to basics as to how do we realize that team members are coming from a different place than maybe they were before. There’s so much more mentoring needed to help them understand the industry; to get them to fall in love with the industry. Maybe we need to start younger — at the high school period where you try to attract their attention [and offer]co-op placements —that’s worked very well for some hotels.

RC: As a leader, and leading through these turbulent times, do you feel like your leadership style has had to change?

BS: There are some days right now when I question that. It’s a big shift and my leadership role in the last four years has been on a very diminished scale. So now getting back up into a full, ramped-up hotel, I feel like everything I used to know about leadership, I have to take a step back and go home at night to re-evaluate what I think I know — because I don’t think I know it anymore.

A lot of it has to do with, again, a very different mindset in the workplace. Bringing on a whole lot of new mindset at the same time. And it’s not small introductions of new, it’s all new. What I’ve learned about leadership over the years, though, is if you can’t stop and evaluate your own strengths and weaknesses, you can’t expect others to be doing the same for the teams they’re leading. So, I’ve had a few of those moments already where I need to stop, take a breath, re-group and strategize a little bit because it’s going to be just a different path forward,

RC: The industry has gone through so much turbulence change in the last 19 months. How optimistic are you about the hotel industry moving forward out of this period?

BS: I love this industry and I do feel like I’m a probably a little bit on a cloud still, because I just got to launch this great hotel. The future is very positive, just not in the short term — it’s going to be a slow, uphill climb for the industry. I encourage everyone to make sure that we’re moving forward — the days of being reactionary, out of necessity, need to get behind us — and we need to be strategic as an industry versus again, just quick stops to make sure we can get that next revenue dollar in. And yet, I feel very fortunate to be launching a new hotel. I love being able to sit and have a glass of wine or lunch in a space and hear people and be around people again. So, you get excited about the socialization that’s ahead of us. And I think people are ready for it.

RC: What have been some of the biggest lessons that you’ve learned in the past 18 months?

BS: At the peak times of COVID, I was working out of my home office like everybody else was, with a small team of five or six people. At that time, I felt relief that I didn’t have the weight of an operating hotel on my shoulders. And as we got closer and closer, what I learned was you have to make decisions and stick with them — you can always adjust later. But make decisions that benefit the team; make decisions that benefit the business. And then if there’s after-effects, we’ll look at them and evaluate versus not make that decision at all.


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