The province of Quebec has a rich and illustrious history that is distinct from any other province in the country. Needless to say, its hotel history is as distinctive as its politics and culture.
Countless visitors flock to Quebec City to immerse themselves in a deeply ingrained French culture that dates back centuries, where uniquely designed hotel properties cherish the past, while offering a touch of contemporary bonhomie. Montreal paints yet another picture of Quebec hospitality — one that is fast-paced, urban, cosmopolitan and multi-cultural. New builds abound and old neighbourhoods are being resurrected at a rapid pace.
Xavier Gret, director general of Association Hôtellerie Québec (AHQ), notes that Quebec has one other distinction of note. “Up to 75-per-cent of hoteliers in the province are independents. That is truly unique in North America. Normally that number is 25 per cent.” Gret attributes this phenomenon to the culture. “We seem to have a lot of creativity and a closeness to the French people. France has a lot of independent hotels too.” That creativity shines in the hotel architecture, service, artistry and cuisine — from palatial historical hotels to small boutique properties that thrive within a stone’s throw from their more grandiose counterparts.
WHERE OLD MEETS NEW
It goes without saying that the grand centrepiece of the province’s hotel history is Quebec City’s Fairmont Château Frontenac — considered to be one of the most iconic hotel properties in the world. Poised to celebrate its 125th anniversary in 2018, the hotel has reached legendary status in the hearts and minds of Canadians.
The sprawling property holds many distinctions, not the least of which is its status as the most photographed hotel site in the world, according to Robert Mercure, general manager. It has attracted a raft of celebrities and politicos. Alfred Hitchcock immortalized it in his classic I Confess — an event that was revisited in the French-Canadian film Le Confessional; Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Mackenzie King convened there to discuss post-war Europe; and a collection of royalty, from Queen Elizabeth to Princess Grace, to Prince William have graced the property’s halls and guestrooms.
Its roots are tied to an all-too-familiar name, which shaped the entire Canadian hotel landscape — William Van Horne. He was the driving force behind the original Canadian Pacific (CP) Hotel properties that dotted the landscape at key points along CP’s expansive railway system. “One thing that’s important to realize is that the CP hotels were built by Van Horne as part of a vision to bring European-style castles, inspired by Loire Valley of France, with modern amenities [to Canada],” Mercure says. Château Frontenac was, in fact, the second CP hotel to be built, he adds. “Banff was the first. But, Frontenac was literally built on the birthplace of Canada. Champlain survived his first winter in Quebec City and the site was the seat of power before the British moved it.”
Barry Lane, author of Canadian Pacific: The Golden Age of Travel, says the Frontenac is the ultimate symbol of French Canada in a French city. “The idea behind it was to create an aristocratic place that would be an attraction within itself. People from all over the world come to stay because of its iconic place in history.”
Lane likes to offer this anecdote, although he admits it’s likely not true. “When Bruce Price, one of the greatest architects of the gilded age, came to the site, he said ‘The spirit of the past was so strong it guided my hand. I had no choice but to construct it in the style of the chateaux in Loire.’”
The spirit of the past is indeed strong. Quebec City’s history dates back four centuries — 100 years earlier than Saint Petersburg in Russia, Lane says. It goes back to a time when it served as a major strategic military stockade, where cannons could shoot across the river to repel invaders coming up the St. Lawrence.
Château Frontenac itself was originally built in 1893 in a horseshoe design. Over time, the hotel has changed, with various wings and towers added in the 1920s and the Pratt Wing added in 1993.
But history is not simply about grand edifices and fortress-like structures. While Frontenac may have its place of honour at the epicentre of the city, other hoteliers have carved their own niches within the city walls. The Château Fleur de Lys, for example, is situated just one block from the Frontenac and is one of several refurbished historical properties that populate the old city. Built as a private house in 1876, it was owned by a daughter of one of the richest men in the world, Sir Hugh Allan — a Scottish-Canadian shipping and transportation magnate.
The property has had its ups and downs since then, says Olivier Donzelot, who purchased the property with his partner in 2012. “In the 1920s, it was a rooming house for long-stay guests and then became a hotel around 1950. When we purchased the hotel it was in very poor shape.”
The restoration preserved the Victorian edifice in deference to its history. Donzelot, who hails from France, says he and his partner had planned to own a hotel in Europe. “But we realized when we visited Quebec City that it was unique. It was a piece of France.” The Hôtel Le Clos Saint-Louis is another historical gem set in an enclave that housed the British colonial elite. The Victorian-style property once consisted of two residences constructed in the mid-1800s, but converted to rooming houses in the 1940s before becoming a hotel in the 1960s. Now completely renovated, the cozy hideaway has been touted as “the most romantic Victorian hotel in Old Quebec.”
A few hours west you will find the other face of Quebec. A long-standing centre for transportation, commerce and innovation, Montreal’s history boasts more of a cosmopolitan spin. “In the 1890s Montreal was the premier city and one of the richest enclaves of the British Empire,” Lane says. “In fact, it was physically bigger than Toronto until 1976. Today, Montreal is an international city and the only one in the world with large numbers of Anglophones and Francophones living together.”
He notes that the Windsor Hotel, which is now an office building, was once the destination of choice for the rich and famous. “During its heyday in the 1920s, you would have seen six transcontinental trains a week leaving and arriving at Windsor station.”
Whereas Quebec City has settled comfortably into its French roots, Montreal represents constant change, with a multi-cultural, European flair. Eve Paré, CEO of the Greater Montreal Hotel Association, says hospitality has gone through a significant transition. “It used to be large properties with very big ballrooms. The first ‘real’ hotel was the Ritz-Carlton, which opened in 1912. [In] the last few years, some of those larger properties have closed or changed locations. What we see now are quite a number of smaller properties being built from scratch, each with its own distinctive personality that is very targeted to certain kinds of clients.”
In terms of major differences between the cities, Montreal is comprised of small suburbs representing many nationalities, says David Connor, GM of Fairmont The Queen Elizabeth and regional VP for Eastern Canada at Fairmont Hotels & Resorts. “There is so much cultural activity happening all the time. Montreal has always been a city of destination for Canadian and U.S. travellers. Now we’re seeing a resurgence of construction and hotels growing, with more coming — from boutiques to larger living spaces.”
The Queen Elizabeth has undergone its own transformation and reopened this month. The property opened in 1958, and has since welcomed royalty, heads of state, international business leaders and celebrities. Its impressive guest list includes the likes of Queen Elizabeth, General Charles de Gaulle, Indira Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama. Despite its size, Connor says the renovations are in keeping with Montreal’s trademark hospitality scene. “We are a boutique-hotel city. Even major brands like ours focus on delivering a boutique experience. So, we like to think of ourselves as a 1,000-room boutique hotel.”
NEW KIDS ON THE OLD BLOCKS
The sprucing up of the hotel scene in Montreal is widespread these days, including the Old Montreal district. Le Groupe Antonopoulos has become a driving force in the neighbourhood under the leadership of brothers Tony and Costa Antonopoulos. “Le Groupe Antonopoulos is playing a key role in lighting up Old Montreal,” Paré says. “Clients love it. They have had a really successful story.”
According to Maria Antonopoulos, director of Marketing and Communications, “They believed in the area and saw the potential.”
Since 1996, the company has been refurbishing historical commercial buildings in an effort to revitalize the community, including five boutique-style hotels, as well as restaurants and working spaces. The most recent addition is the Hotel William Gray, which opened in 2016.
One of modern-day Quebec’s biggest hospitality success stories is Groupe Germain Hôtels, a family-run business founded by the brother-and-sister team of Jean-Yves and Christiane Germain. Now boasting a nationwide presence, the company opened for business in Quebec City in 1988 and currently has six properties in the province. “[The founders] fell in love with the boutique-hotel concept when they saw it in New York and brought the concept back to Quebec. They were one of the first to start the boutique movement [in Canada],” claims Monique Strouvens, vice-president of Sales and Marketing at Groupe Germain Hôtels.
One of the earliest Germain properties, Hôtel Dominion, was built in two adjacent historic buildings in the old part of Quebec City in 1997. Not all properties are heritage, however. Le Germain Charlevoix, for example, was built on the site of one of Canada’s largest wooden farm buildings. “While the building is now new, it was built based on the style of the original,” she explains.
Although Groupe Germain has expanded nationwide, the heart of its operations remain in Quebec, where industry demand remains strong. “Quebec City is one of the best known tourist areas in Quebec. Both are strong destinations for business and leisure travel.” Strouvens adds.
Volume 29, Number 5
Written by Denise Deveau