Luxury hotel opens in Vancouver amid much fanfare

In the postcard-perfect city of Vancouver, the newly built, luxurious Shangri-La Hotel lords over the heart of downtown like a beacon, its gleaming glass structure welcoming visitors from across North America, the Pacific Rim and the rest of the world. At 61 storeys, it’s the tallest building in the city, but although its exterior frame is imposing, the hotel only has 119 guest rooms and suites (the rest are private residences), making it ideal for fostering an environment that speaks to intimacy, exclusivity and a distinct style of eastern hospitality not seen on Canadian soil.

Founded 37 years ago in Singapore, Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts currently has 57 owned and managed hotels located throughout Asia, Australia and the Middle East. The new $300-million, LEED-certified property, which is owned by Vancouver-based Peterson Investment Group and Westbank Projects Corp., is the first Shangri-La hotel in the western world, and it’s general manager Stephen Darling’s job — and that of his team — to ensure it’s a smashing success as well as the launching point for the brand’s expansion into the western hemisphere.

That’s an objective that comes with tremendous challenges — apart from niggling contractor deficiencies, there’s the logistics of moving into a new space and a scarcity of time to run new staff through the required training. But there’s another factor to consider when opening a luxury hotel: “From the day you open your doors, the public expects you to be perfect,” says Darling, who’s also regional vice-president of Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts.

As any hotelier can tell you, perfection is not easily achieved. More than anything, it comes down to attracting the right employees, training them thoroughly and retaining them once they’re hospitality experts, which can be extremely difficult for a new brand in a new market. “The training component is critical,” agrees Darling, who has a distinguished background in hospitality to draw upon. The 53-year-old, Quebec-born hotelier has more than three decades of experience in the hotel business. He worked for Mandarin Oriental in the 1980s, had a previous stint with Shangri-La until 1999 and was with Starwood until 2004. This hotel is the fourth he’s opened in his career, and he acknowledges the bar is set very high.

“In the case of the Shangri-La Hotel Vancouver, the project is designed, built and is being operated to five-star, five-diamond and Shangri-La standards,” he says. “It’s our express objective to qualify for Mobil’s five-star rating and be the first five-star hotel in Canada. Now, we are under no delusions — it’s not going to be easy. But we’re working towards that goal.”

In fact, just a few short years ago there were no true, full-service, five-star hotels in Canada, an anomaly given Canadian-based companies like Fairmont and Four Seasons helped draft the blueprint for managing luxury hotels and resorts. Now, with the Shangri-La up and running in Vancouver and the Ritz-Carlton, Trump and new Four Seasons under construction in Toronto, the national landscape for luxury hotels is about to get a lot more crowded.

Understanding the scope of the challenge, Darling had the foresight to develop and champion the Shangri-La ‘Tigers’ program back in 2006. A group of young hoteliers trained at Shangri-La properties across Asia for a few years before returning to Vancouver with expertise in Asian-style hospitality, and its inherent philosophy within — of creating a peaceful and tranquil environment for guests through the respect, courtesy, sincerity, helpfulness and humility of staff. For Shangri-La guests, the expectation of service style and standards is based on their Asian experience, says Darling, adding the goal of the Tigers program was to translate that service style to the North American market through employees that understand “the emotional essence of the Shangri-La brand.”

Once staff training was in place, the hotel conducted 100-per-cent online recruitment, received more than 4,700 applications, and of those, close to 700 hundred people were interviewed in person. Darling personally saw nearly 300 candidates, with just over 200 associates hired. “People were very critical of us, on whether we would be able to deliver true Asian-style hospitality in a North American environment,” Darling says. “But based on the guest feedback we have gotten in the first five weeks, we’ve already demonstrated we can do that.”

Another huge challenge Darling and his team face as they guide the hotel through its first year in operation is the current economic downturn. In fact, some might say the timing couldn’t be worse for opening a high-profile luxury hotel, especially with so many projects getting shelved and occupancy rates at existing properties beginning to fall off. Darling, though, doesn’t agree.

“Honestly, there couldn’t have been a better time to open than this January,” he says. “We are [ramping up] to the 2010 Winter Olympics. The momentum among hotels in Vancouver is obvious — people are coming to town; they’re scouting locations and placing their national teams as well as their non-Olympic family members; and they are staying in our hotels and eating in our restaurants.”

In terms of the competitiveness of the market, Darling believes the top end is “somewhat insulated” from the economic downturn that most of the world is feeling. “People accustomed to travelling in luxury are going to continue to do so. [But] they are going to choose the best value for their dollars that they can find. And if you look at the hotels in Canada, and the top hotels in Vancouver particularly, in terms of world pricing we are bargain basement. It is embarrassing how low our rates are.”

Each room at the hotel is the pinnacle of deluxe accommodation. Furnished in B&B Italia furniture, they’re accented by wood panelling and warm tones, and outfitted with the latest in audio-visual gear. The hotel is also home to chic restaurants, high-end boutiques and an upscale spa. Darling is confident his product is so far beyond anything else in the market, rates are priced about $100 to $150 above the competition. In its first month of operation, the property achieved $100 higher rate than the competitive set did in February 2008, he says.  

When asked what sets the Shangri-La apart from the rest of Vancouver’s hotels, other than its elegant, luxurious decor and Asian style of hospitality, Darling replies that his property is truly a “next generation hotel,” with a strategy that limits the size of the hotel and maximizes the size of the guest rooms and bathrooms. “People judge the luxury of a hotel these days based on guest room and bathroom size. It’s about limiting our function facilities to be right for the hotel and right for the market.” Designed for individual travellers, business isn’t oriented toward conventions and big groups. “We’re in the business of building our clientele one guest at a time — the good old fashioned way.”

In its western expansion, Shangri-La has defined criteria for its new, next generation hotels — the number of guest rooms per property at each is limited to less than 250, with Las Vegas being the only exception. Guest rooms are also a minimum of 500 square feet. And the chain only plans to expand through new-build hotels in North America.

“We need to unveil and present the brand properly,” says Darling. “You can’t do that if you’re taking over someone else’s property.”


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