At Groupe Germain, when it comes to building a successful boutique brand, it’s all about the details
Home is in the details; or so the saying goes. It’s in the homemade apple bread pudding, just like mom used to make, served in the hotel’s breakfast space. It’s in the crisp and juicy green apples strategically placed beside each elevator door. It’s in the warm voice of the concierge asking a guest “you’re leaving already?,” knowing she actually means it. Walking through Toronto’s Hôtel Le Germain in Maple Leaf Square — the newest of the Groupe Germain’s hotels — it’s the details you immediately notice. And maybe that’s why the conversation often seems to turn to home. “Even the lobby should feel as though it’s part of your home,” explains Paul de La Durantaye, GM of the 167-room hotel.
For almost two decades, the Quebec-based boutique hotel company has proven you don’t have to be big to make a splash, successfully competing against much larger chains. Along with her brother Jean-Yves, Christiane Germain has managed to carve a niche in the marketplace by focusing on details, providing top-notch service and growing the brand strategically. The two siblings share the presidency of the company; Christiane focuses on the details of the operation, Jean-Yves tends to money matters. Today, with five luxury Le Germain hotels under its umbrella, and two (and counting) new hotels operating under the Alt brand, the company is poised to enter a new phase of development.
It’s been a busy year for the company. Construction is already underway or about to start on three new Alt hotels in Toronto, Winnipeg and Montreal, part of aggressive expansion plans announced last year. When all is said and done, there will be 10 new Alt hotels as part of a $240- million investment. But, that’s not all. Last year, the company launched its newest Le Germain property at Maple Leaf Square in Toronto, adjacent to the Air Canada Centre. And, at a time when most hotel companies have curtailed expansion plans, Group Germain made headlines when it also launched the highly anticipated Le Germain Calgary, bringing the brand to the West in a mixed-use project that marries office space with condos. It was the first property in the portfolio to mix a 143-room signature boutique hotel experience with private residences and corporate office space all under one roof.
“If you want to develop a large-scale five-star property on its own, without any mixed-use elements the numbers don’t work”
According to Jean-Yves, “The trend of building multi-use projects like our Calgary and Toronto hotels is a result of the new economic climate, and how expensive it is to build. If you want to develop a large-scale five-star property on its own, without any mixed-use elements the numbers don’t work.”
While it may look like David competing against Goliath-sized chains, Groupe Germain is holding its own. With 2010 sales of $39.6 million, the company grew by 21 per cent from the previous year’s $32.7 million. And, earlier this year, Condé Nast Traveler ranked Quebec City’s Hôtel-Germain Dominion 1912 on its 2011 Gold List, giving it a perfect score in design.
There’s no question the company is making waves, yet its secret weapon is something not so secret at all — a philosophy that focuses on treating guests as though they’re inviting them into their home. The company promotes a signature program called “Gtails,” which encourages staff to notice and act on details that make each guest feel special. It’s about providing service with a capital ‘S’. “I think people want real service — they want authenticity,” says Christiane. “People are a bit blasé with service. A lot of people talk about it, but I don’t think a lot of people give good service, unless you pay $500 or $600 a night.” At Groupe Germain, you can get it for less than that. Room rates start in the $200 range while a standard room at both Alt locations is priced at $129 a night, year-round.
After working for her dad, who later got into the real estate business, Christiane and Jean-Yves opened their first hotel in a former office tower that belonged to their father. Hôtel Le Germain-des-Prés Quebec City was the company‘s first hotel venture. But it was with their second hotel, the Hôtel Le Germain Dominion, which opened in 1996, that the company really gained traction. It had a larger vision of what it wanted to achieve and what would differentiate its brand in the marketplace.
“We’ve developed a way of working together and creating spaces that are not the same everywhere, but they have the same kind of spirit in each one of them”
Whereas Germain-des-Prés is now part of the company’s Alt line (its location, guestroom size and price point were more in keeping with that brand), Christiane calls Hôtel Dominion the “ancestor to the Germain brand.” And it’s no coincidence it’s also the first hotel the Germains partnered on with architecture and interior design firm Lemay Michaud. Their relationship has since carried them through the subsequent Le Germain and Alt hotels. “We’ve developed a way of working together and creating spaces that are not the same everywhere, but they have the same kind of spirit in each one of them,” says Christiane.
Both Le Germain and the Alt brands are design-driven boutique brands, with room counts capping off around 150. At 167 rooms and suites, the Maple Leaf Square location is the largest so far. But the difference between the two brands is a defining factor in the company’s vision. Le Germain boasts the best locations and features, unique designs focused on sophistication and style, while Alt is the “no-frills chic” brand boasting a uniform style that can be replicated at a lower price point.
“We think Alt has great potential,” says Jean-Yves, explaining that the company is looking at another 22 markets across Canada. “It’s a smaller-scale project requiring a smaller budget, usually in the mid $20-million range, therefore maybe four or five different lenders could have an interest in a project that size,” he says.
“a $129-room, is $129 every night of the year”
But, while Alt provides Groupe Germain with more expansion opportunities, it still holds up to the siblings’ discerning ideals on what makes a hotel experience special. You won’t see the hotel playing around with the rate structure at the Alt hotels; “a $129-room, is $129 every night of the year,” says Christiane, “and in our business, that’s a bit unusual.” You certainly won’t find a self check-in kiosk either. “You have to have people around to take care of you, to talk to you,” she says. “This is a people business.”
They may sound like old-school ideas, so it’s perhaps not surprising that Christiane isn’t one to follow trends. But de La Durantaye does point out a couple of exceptions. For one, the company is clearly focused on greening. Instead of having plastic water bottles in guestrooms, there are water coolers in the Le Germain hallways and carafes in the rooms, which guests refill. Guests at Le Germain can also choose to have newspapers delivered to their suites. There’s nothing green about giving a guest who doesn’t need a paper the day’s Gazette. The company has also embraced the social media trend. “The whole brand has been built on word of mouth, from the beginning,” explains Jean-Yves, “and social media is just word of mouth amplified,” says de La Durantaye.
“We met and all of us hit it off right at the beginning”
Whatever it is they’re doing, it seems to be working. The Maple Leaf Square location is proof of that. When Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Company (MLSE) went looking for a hotel partner for the new development, it was originally interested in a bigger-name boutique brand such as W. But those in charge of the endeavour soon found themselves wowed by Groupe Germain. “We met and all of us hit it off right at the beginning,” says Dan Arts, director of Project Development and Building Operations for MLSE. “Groupe Germain’s vision and values were similar to Maple Leaf’s — customer-service oriented, attention to detail — and it was just a really nice fit.”
At first, Arts admits, the company was worried that a Le Germain hotel wouldn’t drive the same reservations as a bigger brand. But the more the two sides talked, the more they realized “they know the boutique market really, really well. They know their client,” he says. And, more importantly, the clients were loyal.
After staying at Groupe Germain’s hotels while researching the brand, Arts got to experience the differences first-hand. “[Staying there] is kind of like staying at home; you feel very comfortable as soon as you come in,” he says. “The attention to detail is absolutely amazing.”
Attention to detail, and the feeling of being at home, it’s a recurring theme borne out of an old-school vision to put the guest first and create memorable design while focusing on small luxuries that make a guest’s stay comfortable.
It’s integral to Germain hotels. And, as the company grows, Christiane says, those values will remain constant. “We’re building a company but we’re also building a brand — so it’s very important, to establish ourselves well and to ensure each entity we have is respectful to the values of the brand and who we are.”
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