Joseph Ebner had a busy year in 2013. The regional VP and managing director of Toronto’s newly rebranded Eaton Chelsea — previously the iconic Delta Chelsea — told his staff back in December 2012 that the Delta Chelsea would become an Eaton property. By July 1, 2013, the deed was done. “We had about six months to get ready,” says the affable hotelier. “It’s been a lot of work.”
From extensive renovations, to staff training for new systems, right down to changing every sign and decal throughout the building from the Delta to the Eaton logo — Ebner says a hotel rebranding can be more work than opening a new hotel, simply because you’re still trying
to successfully operate your property amidst the behind-the-scenes work. But, in the case of the Eaton Chelsea, the hard work has been well worth it, as the transformation has produced extremely positive results. “I’m getting great feedback from our regular customers,” says Ebner, who has been with the Chelsea for more than 20 years. Partic-ularly, it’s the eye-catching renovations made to the 38-year-old hotel building that are grabbing the regular clientele’s attention.
The hotel’s Market Garden Restaurant, for instance, was renovated. The space was “opened up,” and it now features a sleek Eaton brand signature coffee bar called “Express O” Coffee Kiosk. The old Elm Street Lounge in the lobby was refurbished and renamed the T Bar, another Eaton brand signature (the “T” represents the letter T in Eaton). And, since the Eaton brand is all about sustaina-ble living through eco-friendly hospitality solutions, the reflagged hotel has a “Vertical Garden” or “green wall” in the newly designed lobby to create a soothing atmosphere for busy travellers. “So, we did all that in May and June; that was the first phase,” says Ebner. “And, then in July and August, we worked on the second and third floor, which features our meeting space, and we finished that in September.” The hotel also moved its exclusive loyalty members’ E-Club lounge to the 27th floor, and last fall the hotel underwent huge renovations in its North tower, which included redoing the balconies: cutting back balcony floor slabs by several inches and adding attractive new railings to all 920 rooms that feature balconies in that tower. “That’s going to give a totally different look to the outside of the hotel as well,” says Ebner.
Throughout the myriad changes, Ebner is proud he was able to keep the average occupancy for the year hovering around 70 per cent, especially in light of the fact that the hotel was undergoing major renovations throughout a big chunk of the year. “That’s better than we budgeted for when planning the renovations,” he explains, noting that the hotel’s typical average occupancy percentage in recent years has been in the mid-70s.
The hotel owners spent between $13 and $14 million on renovations during 2013, and the reno-vating will continue this year with a focus on refurbishing the guestrooms. “The owners have spent a lot of money since they bought the hotel; they have been very, very good to us,” says Ebner, referring to Hong Kong-based Great Eagle Holdings, which purchased the property from its original owners in 1996. Great Eagle was initially a hotel ownership company, not an operator; it had various other companies operating its properties, including, of course, Delta. But starting 10 years ago, as management contracts expired, Great Eagle began rebranding its properties under its own brands: the Langham, which is a traditional five-star brand based on the grand old Langham hotel in London, built in 1865; and the Eaton, which is more of a four-star brand with a philosophy based on modern buzzwords such as “fun,” “comfort,” “trendy,” “connectivity” and “sustainability.” Operated by the Langham Hospitality Group — Great Eagle’s hotel management company — now almost all 20 of the hotel company’s properties fall under either the Langham or Eaton brands (the majority are Langhams, with only five branded as Eaton — two in Shanghai, one in Hong Kong, one in New Delhi and now one in Toronto). As Ebner points out, when the Chelsea joined the Eaton brand, “It more than doubled the number of rooms in the brand. Because, with nearly 1,600 rooms, it just drove up that room count, which is great for them, because now there’s more exposure for the brand in North America.” As the first North American Eaton-brand hotel, a great deal of resources have been put into marketing the name here, including radio ads, commercials on Air Canada TV, and a general public-relations blitz to let everyone know about the Chelsea’s change and what it all means. From a day-to-day standpoint, however, not a lot will change in terms of service levels, because, as Ebner says, “We were always very strong on quality since day one … we’ve got that instilled in everybody. Our owners were always happy with the way we ran things, so there wasn’t a lot to change there.”
In fact, Ebner says his employees are what he’s most proud of when it comes to the Chelsea. “My gosh, we’ve always had great staff,” he exclaims. So, it was important for him that when the rebranding announcement was made, it assured staff that changes wouldn’t be overwhelming and that nobody would be laid off as a result. “Not only did nobody lose their job, but we added new staff,” explains Tracy Ford, director of Public Relations for the property. “We added a quality manager to human resources, and we added an e-business director to our marketing department.” Additionally, the company added national sales and reservations staff to make up for what they lost after cutting ties with Delta.
Still, employees had their hands full, with the countless hours of overtime needed to prepare for the rebranding. There were new systems to learn, renovations to work around and the hustle and bustle necessary to get all 850 staff members on the same page in terms of the Eaton brand es-sence. In an effort to make the transition and all its accompanying hard work a little more palatable, Ford and a colleague in the human-resources department formed a “fun team.” They put on events such as a “Taste of Langham” night, highlighting foods from every country where Langham Hospitality Group has properties, and they held a Langham Fun Fair — a replica of a traditional fun fair, but with all the activities and games focused on facts about the Langham and Eaton brands. “Everybody was really engaged, and it was so much fun,” says Ford.
When it comes to clientele, Ebner doesn’t expect any major changes in the target market. “Most of our business is from within Canada, and most of that comes from Southern Ontario,” he says, noting there are a lot of regular corporate and government clients, many of whom stay an average of several nights a week throughout the year. Since the hotel doesn’t have enough meeting facilities to be a “convention hotel,” these returning business guests are a primary focus for the property. “We have some guests that stay 150 to 200 nights a year. They’ve always kept us on our toes in terms of service,” says Ebner, noting these regulars will be the first to tell him of a maintenance or service issue that needs attention. He credits them with helping keep the quality of the hotel so high.
There is a large base of leisure guests as well — many of whom are attracted by the family friendly quality of the hotel, with its waterslide and children’s activities — and they come from all over the world. Ebner thinks the connection with the Langham and Eaton brands may help boost international leisure traffic as well. With room rates averaging approximately $130 per night, the Eaton Chelsea holds the same “good-value-for-your-money” philosophy that the Delta Chelsea espoused.
As for Ebner, despite the myriad changes, his job remains essentially the same, except now he reports directly to management at Great Eagle instead of going through Delta. “Big companies always have lots of reporting anyway, so it’s not much different,” he says with a smile.
Still, he has nothing but extremely positive things to say about the big bosses at Great Eagle/Langham Hospitality Group. “I’ve always been well-treated by ownership,” says Ebner. “That’s probably why I’m still here.”