When The Algonquin Resort opened its doors in 1889, it welcomed nearly 1,400 guests, “representing the best class of Americans and Canadians,” as described in David Sullivan’s The Algonquin. Most of those visitors proclaimed St. Andrews, N.B. “unsurpassed” as a location for the “ideal summer hotel.”
When the property was razed by fire a quarter of a century later — almost inevitably so, it seems, as more than a few St. Andrews hotels fell to conflagrations at the turn of the 20th century — the damage was extensive. The loss, however, was borne more by the town than by Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), which owned the hotel.
And yet, despite the handicap of a wartime economy, the CPR and St. Andrews rebuilt The Algonquin in eight months. It was, by all accounts, an astonishing achievement. In April 1915, the Montreal Herald called the reconstructed Algonquin “one of the most attractive hotels in Canada,” and its modern amenities and recreational facilities were “unrivalled in North America.” The hotel reopened that year with 200 rooms and an American Plan rate of $5 a day, without bath ($6 with bath).
The burden of this history, for good or ill, now weighs on St. Andrews as The Algonquin hits the reset button a century later. The fortunes of few towns in Canada, if any, are so intertwined with the well-being of a single property.
If current Algonquin steward New Castle Hotels & Resorts feels any pressure related to the ownership of a beloved heritage property, the company’s Canadian VP is not about to acknowlege it. Guido Kerpel is acutely aware of New Castle’s responsibility to The Algonquin and St. Andrews and expresses excitement about what lies ahead.
“The most interesting part of The Algonquin is the resort’s significance to St. Andrews. Whatever is good for the town is good for The Algonquin and vice versa. The well-being of the town is paramount. The hotel will not do well if it’s not embraced by locals. We’ve done our utmost to be sensitive to their needs.”
These needs include respect for the property’s architectural heritage and the involvement of small area business owners in the resort’s supply chain.
Artist Jantje Blokhuis-Mulder, for one, has repurposed The Algonquin’s old flatware for the tables in Braxton’s Bar. Elaine Bruff and daughter Catrina Haun, local proprietors of the town’s Garden by the Sea shop, have created an exclusive tea that will be part of the hotel’s welcome gift to VIP guests. Pewter cufflinks and ladies’ accessories from Serendipin’ Art will be incorporated into staff uniforms, and the kilt makers at Kilt and Kaboodle have been commissioned to fashion the bellmen’s kilts and other uniform pieces from the official tartan of Canada.
This commitment to the community was part of New Castle’s immediate plan when it purchased The Algonquin with Southwest Properties from the province in 2012. In fact, it was implicitly mandated. In a statement at the time, then Culture, Tourism and Healthy Living Minister Trevor Holder affirmed that the resort “continues to have enormous tourism appeal and potential. However, it is in need of refurbishment and a new marketing approach.”
The Crown asset had been bleeding cash to the tune of $2 million annually for at least a decade when it finally dawned on Fredericton that the old girl lacked amenities that present-day visitors took for granted. More alarmingly, key elements of the hotel had fallen into a state of disrepair and were draining provincial coffers. Under the terms of the sale, New Brunswick stands to collect 20 per cent of any profits the hotel generates during the next 30 years. In turn, the province has loaned New Castle and Southwest the $21 million it estimates is needed for repairs and upgrades — a loan it expects to be repaid over the same time frame.
Throughout the early stages of the property’s extensive refurbishment the company held open houses and stakeholder sessions every two months to address concerns. Questions about construction traffic and the preservation of architectural patrimony were two examples cited by Kerpel.
“Some traffic was eventually diverted to minimize the impact to the community. Concerns about the new windows were valid — obviously they were not the same as the originals. As a compromise, we met with a local supplier who made windows that honoured the history of the property but were also in step with modern conveniences. Our renos have been very significant. The property is basically brand new.”
Kerpel isn’t kidding. With plans to operate as a full-service luxury hotel year-round, The Algonquin’s main building has been winterized from floor to roof, windows to doors. The measure is expected to extend the property’s season significantly; only 53 rooms were open through the winter in the past.
With four seasons in mind, an indoor pool and three-storey waterslide have been added, along with a new fitness centre and revamped spa. Rooms on the second floor along the front of the property’s main building have been outfitted with patios measuring 12 x 12 and 12 x 18. A remodelled outdoor pool features hot tubs, a service kitchen and tented pavilions. Bathrooms now have radiant in-floor heating, and the property now has air conditioning, property-control systems and Wi-Fi throughout.
Tim Ostrem, a recent Toronto and Cambridge Suites Hotels transplant, is effusive in his enthusiasm for St. Andrews and his relatively new role as GM of The Algonquin. In spite of construction delays and other challenges, the gregarious face of the property has been tireless in his efforts to gin up buzz as the resort turns the page.
“There’s been a great deal of excitement since New Castle took over. We’re changing the business model and building a brand new season. This $40-million renovation is as much an investment in The Algonquin as it is in the community. We’re embedding the community in the experience. From the art on the walls to the uniforms to the coffee we brew, we’re partnering with local shops and artisans and supporting the arts community of St. Andrews and Charlotte County.”
Ostrem has also been building up his team in anticipation of the resort’s relaunch. “Our largest hire for spring and summer will see us ramp up from a staff of 60 to about 120 by summer. When we shut down in 2012 we identified those who would stay on through our final season. A majority are coming back, and we’ll ramp up as spring approaches.”
Ostrem is anxious to showcase the new Algonquin to actual guests. That will happen soon enough. The overall mien of the resort’s new customer base is expected to change, too, as it looks to cast a wider net to target more families and affluent young professionals as part of its rebranding.
“We’ve allocated a significant amount of money for marketing,” says Ostrem. “We’re partnering with Tourism New Brunswick and the Charlotte Coastal Region, bringing in travel writers and key influencers and deploying social media, and online and billboard campaigns. Face-to-face engagement is important, too. I’m in New York City on Monday for a Tourism New Brunswick and Atlantic Canada hospitality event where we’ll be in front of travel writers from the New York market. We’re trying to create organic buzz.”
These attempts to help the new Algonquin go “viral” have included branded vintage toy Viewmasters with historic and up-to-date images of the resort and a YouTube video of the hotel’s staff surprising a local couple with a free wedding reception.
“We showed up at the wedding rehearsal and surprised them by giving the wedding to them as a random act of kindness. The goal was to make them cry. And, that’s exactly what happened. We got 17,000 hits on YouTube, and it was seen on Canada AM, CTV National online and in a lot of Atlantic Canada newspapers.”
Ostrem thinks the publicity has paid off. “The upcoming season looks stellar. June is shaping up to be one of the best Junes ever and will set the pace for a strong July and August. We’re very confident that once we tell our story we’ll fill any vacancy holes.”
Part of the new Algonquin’s story is the hotel’s partnership with Marriott. The property is the first in Canada to be a member of Marriott’s Autograph Collection, now in its fifth year of existence. The offshoot brand, which, at present, counts 60 franchised hotels worldwide, exists, ostensibly, to offer what the company says is “the ideal combination of freedom and function, providing all the tangible benefits that a partnership with Marriott can deliver while giving hotels unrivalled flexibility and the ability to preserve the distinctive personalities that make them unique.”
As compiled by independent research firm Smith Travel, Autograph Collection hotels stand at 73.1-per-cent occupancy, an ADR of US$175.18 and a RevPAR of US$128.12 as of Dec. 31, 2012.
Scott Allison, VP of Canadian Operations for Marriott Hotels of Canada, says “What distinguishes the Autograph Collection is that we look at iconic hotels that have established great reputations but where owners feel like a partnership with Marriott raises the property to another level. The most engagement, as far as Marriott’s involvement, is at the sales, marketing and channel- management levels. There’s a lot of rigour around guest satisfaction.”
New Castle’s Kerpel echoes Allison’s assessment and appreciates that the partnership with Marriott allows The Algonquin to leverage scale without forfeiting cachet. “This new affiliation with Autograph Collection means we can have our own identity. We needed a marketing vertical. Chances are we wouldn’t have been as successful alone, without Marriott’s reach.”
All of this — the purchase of the historic property, the partnership with Marriott and the $40-million renovation — has been complicated not just by delays but by the decision by several sub-contractors in late January to file liens against New Castle and Southwest Properties. The claims on unpaid bills add up to just more than $880,000. The owners of The Algonquin say they plan to pay the vendors shortly. Allison did not downplay the liens but was frank: “It’s not atypical in big construction projects for some contractors to use liens. It’s not uncommon at all.” (Indeed, the original Algonquin was plagued with similar problems from the outset.)
Ostrem is contrite, despite being on the operational side: “We care about those that are owed money. We made some large payments in December and January. It’s unfortunate. It’s slowed progress and caused delays, but it shouldn’t affect our target of May.”
Any negative publicity from media coverage of The Algonquin’s liens’ trouble has not made a dent in community confidence. For business owners like Matthew Honey, of Honeybeans Coffee Tea and Treats on St. Andrews’ Water Street, the mood is sunny: “We need the hotel. We need the numbers they bring in. The overall vibe in town is one of optimism. I know they just put in a big order for coffee. And they also put in a big order for scallops; they’re good signs.”
For Robert Charlton, president of the St. Andrews Chamber of Commerce and an elder statesman for the community, this is a blip on the radar: “From our point of view, we don’t consider [the liens] an impediment. The business community has been very patient. The Algonquin’s delay has been a strain on all of St. Andrews and Charlotte County, but we share Tim Ostrem’s optimism. The improvements to the property are extensive — I just took a tour. This was not a paint-and-paper job. The change is dramatic.”
The mayor of St. Andrews, Stan Choptiany, agrees. “There’s no question the hotel will be a significant economic engine for the town, but is already much more than that. The management has developed a collaborative approach, which enables the town to be supportive and interactive. This is much more than a renovation. The refurbishment of the hotel re-establishes St. Andrews as a premier Maritime destination.”
After considerable talks with all the stakeholders implicit in The Algonquin’s re-development, from New Castle, Southwest and Marriott to the business community, it looks as if, come summer 2014, this passage from the St. Andrews Beacon from 125 years ago may yet resonate once more: “The visitors were charmed with the appearance of the hotel and its surroundings, while those who stopped to feast their eyes on the scenery in the neighbourhood of the hotel admitted they had never dreamt that St. Andrews was half so beautiful.”
“When people ask where I live,” declares Charlton, with a hint of emotion in his voice, “I tell them I live in St. Andrews — by the gates of heaven.”