Robert Housez believes in the Golden Rule — treat others the way you want to be treated. It was hammered into him by his father, his role model and his mentor, and the guiding principle still remains with him today. Since joining Chelsea Hotel, Toronto in 1999, Housez has seen the property undergo a series of renovations and developments.
Originally opened in 1975 as Canada’s largest hotel, the Chelsea Hotel, Toronto has been a downtown destination for tourists and business players for decades. Under Housez’s careful eye, the hotel is expecting 83 per cent occupancy for 2018 at an Average Daily Rate of $170 and RevPAR of $141 — representing year-over-year growth of 13 per cent from 2017. In 2016, the hotel grew its RevPAR by 22 per cent. With 1,590 guestrooms and suites on 26 floors, managing the enormous property is no easy feat.
For a hotel that’s endured plenty of change over the years, Housez — a more than 30-year veteran of the hotel industry — has remained the one constant, carrying the torch for his guests and employees through the Delta years (1975 to 2013) and now, under an independent-ownership group with Great Eagle Holdings Ltd (1996 to present). In both instances, he’s had to steer the ship, doing what’s best for the hotel to not only survive, but thrive.
“If we think back to 1999, the hotel was doing very well, with very high occupancies,” Housez says. “At that time, we had a thriving theatre business and we were known as Toronto’s downtown theatre hotel through our alliance with Mirvish Theatres and LiveEnt — things looked very rosy when I first stepped in. And then, shortly after that, things changed very abruptly.”
The impact of 9/11 in 2001, a recession and the SARS outbreak in 2003 brought business to a screeching halt and things got difficult very quickly. Guests stopped flying in, business people stopped booking and patrons stopped dining. The once-thriving theatre scene that drew guests from Tennessee to Tokyo evaporated.
“It was a difficult time period, during my first stint here,” he recalls. “Everyone is trying to run a reasonable occupancy and you want to be doing well enough to provide consistent hours for your colleagues. In that sort of environment, things get very competitive because there’s not a lot of demand. So, instead of capitalizing on demand, it becomes more an issue of what share can I steal from my competitors and how can I do it and still remain profitable and show some growth, even if it’s modest growth year over year?”
To combat the challenges, the GM dug deep into his talent pool to field ideas on how to keep the hotel profitable. Unlike a smaller property that focuses on a particular segment, a larger hotel forces you to open up your idea pool, he says.
“You’ve got to spread your focus much wider than if you had the luxury of just being a corporate hotel where that was your bread and butter and the one segment you concentrated on. We found that perhaps the best way to get the competitive edge was to continue to be innovative. We asked ourselves, ‘What can we do given the business climate, which was not the best, to safeguard that?’”
The answer: a 130-ft. corkscrew waterslide on the second floor of the Chelsea Hotel — the first of its kind in downtown Toronto. Built in 2003, just prior to the SARS outbreak, the apparatus gave the Chelsea a much-needed boost, drawing locals to the hotel for a day of leisure.
“We actually did better than most hotels because of that,” Housez says. In recent years, the team also built herb and vegetable gardens and put beehives on the roof — a plan initiated by the hotel’s Green Committee.
Seeking outside input and being innovative helped Housez gain respect among his colleagues and peers. In fact, under his leadership, the Chelsea consistently achieves colleague-engagement scores of 90 per cent. And in an industry with an average staff turnover rate of 25 per cent, Housez’s hotel has only 10.5 per cent turnover.
Ironically, Housez wasn’t even supposed to pursue a career in the hospitality industry. His goal was to be a teacher. A graduate of McGill University in Montreal, he planned on being a high school social-studies teacher. But, when he graduated, there was a surplus of teachers, forcing him to look elsewhere for a career.
However, Housez is no stranger to the hospitality industry. As a youngster, he worked at the Jasper Park Lodge and a small resort on Vancouver Island. Even back then, he had a passion for people.
“I’m someone who thrives on what I call the greatest variable there is, people — be they the guests or colleagues you work with,” he says. “I love the challenges and the chaos that comes with that and the unpredictability from minute to minute to minute. I enjoy working with people, I enjoy delivering memorable experiences and good service. I take pride in that.”
Housez applied to the Fairmont Royal York Hotel and the Four Seasons Hotel because they were “the biggest names” at the time. Four Seasons called first and hired him the next day. He started on the frontlines, working the front desk before having a chance to progress his career through every area of management.
After 10 years with the Four Seasons, he was promoted to general manager before joining what was then the Delta Chelsea Hotel in 1999.
In 2008, Housez left the Delta Chelsea Hotel to manage the Delta Meadowvale Hotel and Conference Centre in Mississauga, Ont., where he headed up the hotel’s food-and-beverage centre and was in charge of bolstering its association business and event bookings.
After a short stint with the Hilton in Mississauga, Ont., an opportunity to work at the Chelsea under new ownership — Great Eagle Holdings Ltd. — came calling. He oversaw a $10-million renovation, which saw 750 guestrooms updated as well as upgrades to the lobby. After a career full of successes, and a few failures, Housez still appreciates the day-to-day grind, sticking to the Golden Rule that got him here. And now, it’s about empowering others — and his community.
“We do a very poor job of marketing ourselves [to candidates] as being a choice opportunity in an industry that’s exciting and you should look at,” he says. “We’ve got to do something about that because there’s a labour shortage. It’s getting increasingly difficult to fill junior and mid-management jobs, which are good jobs — they’re well-paid compared to what they would get in a comparable industry.”
As a member of the downtown Yonge BIA, which he helped form in 2002, Housez has been on the forefront of major decisions that have helped shape the downtown Yonge-Street neighbourhood. In addition to his work with Tourism Toronto and the Greater Toronto Hotel Association, he’s also contributed heavily to the Hospital for Sick Kids (under Housez’ leadership, Chelsea Hotel has committed to raising $100,000/year), the Heart and Stroke Foundation and the Special Olympics.
“Rob is a leader in the hotel industry and has made significant contributions, serving more than 10 years on the GTHA Board of Directors and two years as chairman,” says Sajni Khera, manager of Corporate Communications & Member Services at the Greater Toronto Hotel Association. “He’s an advocate of the GTHA/Humber College Hotel Management Leadership Program, supporting colleagues’ growth into leadership roles in hotels across the Greater Toronto Area.”
According to Johanne Bélanger, president and CEO, Tourism Toronto, “Robert is not just a hotel leader, he’s an industry leader. Throughout the years, he has offered guidance and leadership in marketing Toronto as a global destination, giving his time and energy as a member of our Marketing committee and Board of Directors. Beyond this, he has passionately championed our social-responsibility program, Relax, Recharge, Renew, which offers weekend getaways for parents of children with complex-care needs — and we couldn’t be more grateful for his support.” Last month, Housez became chair of Tourism Toronto.
“It can’t be just about the business,” Housez adds of his off-property pursuits. “You’ve got to make sure you’re participating in community initiatives, that you’re benefiting the whole and that’s a really good way to get involved, to know what’s going on, but also to influence what you think should be happening out there.”