When faced with a self-absorbed dandy with a handlebar mustache who ignores you from behind the front desk of a hipster hotel, there’s not much you can do. Except feel rebuffed and disappointed, which essentially describes Mandy Farmer’s experience. The president and CEO of B.C.’s Accent Inns, whose properties include the two fabulous, fun, retro-themed Hotel Zeds, encountered the clerk a few years ago in Portland, Ore. She had gone to visit a hotel brand popular for its cool quotient. “I was super excited to stay there,” says Farmer, 43. “The guy at the front had this cute, curled mustache and he was so absorbed [with it] that he had no time of day for this middle-aged woman in front of him,” she says. “I have never felt more dowdy and unwelcome.”
The deflated reception sparked something in Farmer. She promised her guests would never feel jilted by staff: “I vowed we would have authentic individuals at all of our properties.” That’s exactly who travellers meet at Farmer’s B.C.-centric hotels in Burnaby, Kelowna, Kamloops, Richmond and Victoria where she is based. “[Our employees] are not cool kids, they are just awesome, beautiful people. Their behaviour has nothing to do with trends or fashion,” she says. “We look for quirky or open-hearted people for our team,” adds Farmer, who oversees 200 employees in a hotel chain boasting 755 rooms. While the majority of company heads cleave to 25-cent words, Farmer isn’t fussed about appearances. She uses the word “awesome” liberally and signs-off work emails as “chief rebel” and “bike lover” — Farmer meets her cycling club at the crack of dawn for an adrenalin-pumped 45-km ride and is home for 7 a.m. to get her two kids ready for school before heading to the office.
Maybe it’s the exercise, the upbringing, or both — her dad Terry started Accent Inns in the 1980s, so hospitality is in her genes — that explains Farmer’s likeability and work ethic. She is earthy and energetic and genuinely wants to create a lively, laidback vibe across the hotel brand. “One of the biggest things I try to do is make this a fun workplace,” she says. And she’s humble, to boot. “I am nothing without the people here. I have a director of Ops who is my right-hand man and he oversees all of the properties, so the general managers report to him,” she says. “The GMs are the leaders of the property and I trust them to do an amazing job. My job is to be the cheerleader and the crazy visionary who comes up with the weird, kooky ideas.”
As the sentiment goes, happy employees thrive in a happy place. According to Shawn Achor, the author of The Happiness Advantage, that’s not just lip service — motivated people translate to a better bottom line, so less stress should be the incentive for organizations. “Happiness leads to greater levels of profits” for companies that take the right steps, he said recently in Fast Company, a magazine that specializes in progressive business leaders.
This is clear with Accent Inns, where revenues have increased 25 per cent since 2014. Accent Inns also garnered recognition at the Victoria Real Estate Board Commercial Building Awards in the hotel category for the rebranding of Hotel Zed. In turn, Destination British Columbia highlighted the hotel when it unveiled its new $2.6-million marketing strategy late last year. On a personal note, a cool coup happened earlier this year when Farmer was appointed Honorary Captain of the Navy for CFB Esquimalt, the largest naval base in Canada.
But back to everyone’s favourite topic — fun — which Farmer notes doesn’t have to be over-the-top. “In Victoria, we have a ritual every Friday afternoon where we drop everything at 3 p.m. and we eat treats,” she says. “We try to outdo each other to see who has the best treats.” Other feel-good events for employees include laser tag, bowling and river rafting.
Mirth is a motif in the hotel designs, too. At Accent Inns, a “super-clean and moderately-priced down-to-earth, friendly hotel chain,” as Farmer describes it, lighthearted touches in the signage make for a relaxing stay. In a digital-deluged age where everyone is too cool for school, you might expect a jaded reception from guests — but not so. On a TripAdvisor post, one traveller praises the lack of pretention: “Instead of the typical no smoking, do-not-disturb signs … this hotel [has one that says] ‘Where there’s smoke…there’s a surcharge.’” Another guest lauds the rubber duckies wearing hair curlers as “the best idea” and the pencils instructing guests not to forget to steal them as “very funny.”
But the best example of Farmer’s humour is manifested in Hotel Zed; the concept that saw dumpy, dated motels transformed into “boutique motels,” as Farmer calls them. The first one opened in Victoria in 2014, the second in Kelowna this past summer. In tribute to the 1960s and ’70s, the hotels offer interactive social spaces for guests to let loose. At the Kelowna motel, they can play in Ping-Pong lounges or channel their best Saturday-Night-Fever moves at the mini disco, adorned with a fog machine and disco balls. Or they can borrow roller-skates to ride on the nearby boardwalk or hop on a Volkswagen shuttle bus for a tour of the sights.
Farmer devised the idea for Hotel Zed about a decade ago. “But it was a 10-year battle for me trying to convince [my two business partners] that I had a good idea.” They eventually acquiesced after seeing the popularity of Accent Inns. “The first Hotel Zed was a huge success,” she says proudly, “but yet again, when another property came along [that I wanted to transform] it was a struggle.”
One person who immediately embraced the idiosyncratic idea was her dad. He’s retired but still comes into the office when he’s not travelling the world, says Farmer. They talk shop over coffee (Farmer calls him “her business partner, mentor and best friend”) and his presence is always welcome. “He’s a fun-loving, charismatic man. He says hello to the housekeepers and finds out how they’re doing,” she says. “That’s a huge job and it’s an important one.”
She should know. At 15, one of her first gigs at a bed-and-breakfast in Victoria was in housekeeping, then waitressing. At 17, she took a job behind the front desk at Accent Inns, leaving it for stints at The Empress and The Delta Ocean Pointe. At 27, after completing an undergraduate degree in business from McGill University in Montreal and an MBA from Royal Roads University in Victoria, she returned to Accent Inns to assume a sales and manager position, where she, of course, remains today.
There are more exciting endeavours planned for the future (of course there is, this is Mandy Farmer, who is never content with hanging in the sidelines). “We’ve got something interesting coming down the pipeline that might take us in different directions. I’m looking at a few revolutionary angles,” she says, deliberately coy about what exactly that will entail, though she hints at expanding Accent Inn and Hotel Zed. “I’ve still got to flesh it out and get the business approvals on that one,” she says. Farmer is fine to passionately plug away. And why not? “I’m doing what I love,” she says, “scheming for my next big thing.”
Volume 28, Number 8
Written By Iris Benaroia