At Alt Hotels, success isn’t defined by high-end interior design; it’s characterized by affordable style. Typically, three-star properties, which appeal to value-conscious guests, are basic in decor. But Alt is a different animal — an alternative choice.
A three-property brand and growing, Alt’s latest gambit was the opening of Toronto’s Pearson Airport location in June. The 13-storey, 153-room hotel is adjacent to Terminal One and Three, situated at the end of Pearson’s internal Link train system.
But Alt is designed to be more than just a spot for disgruntled airline passengers to rest their weary heads, explains Nicolas Lazarou, site GM and Christiane Germain, co-founder and co-president of parent company, Groupe Germain. The hotel’s fashionable front lobby is furnished with an intriguing mix of stylish elements. The space looks more like a trendy Canadian cottage than a hotel; it’s decked out with vast walnut tables augmented by hurricane lamps and mismatched chairs, massive wicker pendant lights, oversized rockers with leather seat cushions, a three-tiered gas fireplace centrepiece, an L-shaped couch and a unique hanging seat that looks like the best spot in the room to watch a revolving cast of characters.
The lobby features surprises, too, such as a pool table in the far corner beyond the bar and Altcetera, a 24-hour grab-and-go counter featuring everything from roast-beef panini to vitamin water and curry-and-coconut-milk chicken. Inside the front door, digital arrival and departure boards — originating from the airport — operate on a five-second delay.
Pearson’s Alt is the latest of three new properties by the Groupe Germain. The first opened in Brossard, on the south shore of Montreal in a development called Quartier Dix30. It opened in 2007. A second Alt was built in Quebec City, as a refurbishment of Germain’s inaugural hotel, which opened in 1988 as Hôtel Germain Des Prés and reopened as a transformed Alt in 2008. “After 20 years, a hotel needs to be renovated,” says Germain. “Given the size of the rooms and the type of building, it made more sense to convert it to an Alt.”
The Pearson property was several years in the making — with original plans dating back to before the opening of the first property in the chain. Built on land owned by the Greater Toronto Airport Authority, the company’s newest player rises like a phoenix out of the flat, dull airport landscape.
The original concept defining the Alt brand was a modest motel serving the suburbs and smaller cities. It was designed to provide travellers with a solid, affordable accommodation alternative. Sounds simple, Germain concedes, but the task required considerable effort. “We had to come up with a way of building it that would be cost-effective,” she says, explaining why, after researching prefabricated options, a hybrid between new-build and prefab properties became the company benchmark.
The idea was to create a basic concept guests want, without the frills that cost more. It was a return, says Lazarou, to the essentials of a hotel stay: a good night’s sleep, a quality bed and welcoming staff. “That’s what excites me about this brand,” he enthuses. “Having worked in full-service hotels for years, it’s refreshing to be able to focus on the customers and not get lost in a bucket of 50 rate codes that confuse our receptionists [and] that they don’t know how to explain to the guests.”
Different Nights, Same Rate
Another defining differentiator is a flat-rate fee that never fluctuates, no matter the time of year or the number of conventions in town. Guests stay at the Alt for $149 a night. Always.
“We’re just trying to take care of our guests and be respectful of them,” says Germain of Alt’s pricing. “We think by changing our pricing depending on how busy the hotel is,” is disrespectful. The decision is a gamble, which “might leave money on the table,” but it’s a long-term strategy the team fiercely believes in. The response management has received thus far has been encouraging — despite the skeptics.
It’ll take some time, admits Lazarou, before people really understand and believe in the concept. “Over the years, we’ve conditioned guests to adapt to the model of fluctuating prices. So introducing something like this is almost a shock to consumers’ systems. It takes a bit of an explanation.” The company will eventually reaffirm its position through an advertising campaign in each of Alt’s host cities to educate potential guests about the brand and its unusual pricing proposition.
“It’s a very unique and refreshing product,” raves Lazarou, who’s worked in the industry for 20 years. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in a hotel lobby when guests ask, ‘Why am I paying one price this week and another next week?’ In the mid-1990s when the industry woke up to the model of revenue management, it adopted a new strategy for selling rooms. We lost some of our essentials in doing that.”
Alt is designed to be a fundamentals-focused hotel with a back-to-basics approach that doesn’t divert attention from the pleasures of excellent design.
Design Above All
“In this market segment,” says Germain, “I don’t think there was a hotel that had design in its concept as much as this one.” That distinction is meaningful, she points out, especially if our current fascination with smartly designed technology is any indication. “Look at your computer; look at your iPhone,” she urges. “How these things look is almost as important as how they work. People are much more into design than ever. That’s one of the reasons our timing is so good.”
A touch of style is evident in the staffers’ uniforms, too. Rather than another hotel with employees clad in standard-issue black-and-whites, Alt brand ambassadors wear custom-made dark denim jeans set off by a pink Alt logo embroidered on the left thigh. Over top, women wear a black tunic, and men sport brightly coloured shirts in eye-popping colours.
Alt’s bedrooms are minimalistic; every nook of each discreet and smartly equipped space is designed efficiency. The hotel’s second and third floors — their combined real estate is almost 6,000 sq. ft. — are devoted to meeting space. In each case, a common area provides the backdrop for coffee service and unexpected mingling opportunities with other hotel guests. The meeting rooms are clean and sleek, each named after a colour, lit up with sunlight and in the same palette that characterizes the rest of the property (imagine a rainbow-coloured lineup of orange and lime-green ballpoint pens and water pitchers).
Two of the 11 meeting rooms are more creative than the others — a tribute, says Lazarou, to the hotel’s commitment to “always think a bit ahead of what the guest wants.” In one meeting room, banquettes hug two walls in lieu of a standard boardroom table, and a 50-inch flat screen connects to a guest’s laptop or tablet. “Everyone’s into being innovative. Wi-Fi is available everywhere, because that’s what today’s guests expect,” says Lazarou.
But, Alt also gives guests what they don’t expect. There’s the high-end mattresses in every room — the same ones you’ll find at Germain’s four-star properties. Comfort is critical, says Germain. And a good mattress is essential to ensuring that. “Since we’ve opened, I’ve not had a single guest complain about [missing] a good night’s sleep,” raves Lazarou.
The environment is also an important consideration that factors into the hotel’s construction and ongoing operation. Every room features huge thermal windows, whose low emission rate maximizes natural light; there’s also an automatic regulation system for ventilation and geothermal heating and cooling. Local sourcing is top of mind, too. “Using Canadian products was very important to us,” says the hotelier.
In terms of future development, Alt has three hotels under construction: one near the Halifax airport, which is scheduled to open in April 2013; another in downtown Winnipeg, in the Sports Hospitality Entertainment District (SHED), set to open in early 2014; and another in Montreal, in a new area called Griffin Town, set to open next fall. There are also others in the pipeline, with locations still under negotiation. Germain plans to have 10 Alt hotels in the next five years.
The inevitable construction quirks, notwithstanding, the Alt brand’s proprietors are confident they have a winning strategy with an emphasis on design and innovation. “The hotel business, in general, has been infiltrated by the real estate and financial people of this world, and we tend to forget about hospitality, which is what we’re all about. Our goal is to remember that and to stay focused on our guests.”