When you’re at the helm of a hotel property that’s been in your family’s control since 1880, it’s a responsibility you don’t take lightly. But for Hugh Sibbald running the Briars Resort & Spa is more than that, it’s a labour of love. As one of three siblings, Sibbald spent his summers working at the resort, set amidst acres of lush gardens and wooded area in Lake Simcoe, Ont.
“The first thing I did was carry luggage and work on the front desk,” recalls the 49-year old affable hotelier. It was during several trips to Quebec with his family in his early teens, to research the hotel business, that Sibbald became inspired to follow his father’s footsteps. After working at the Elgin House in Muskoka, then attending the University of Western Ontario, he returned home intent on making his mark in the family business.
Twenty-five years later, Sibbald leads a team of 140 employees, spearheading the continued evolution of Lake Simcoe’s most famous resort. In addition to the 90 rooms and cottages, the resort also boasts a challenging golf course built in 1922, a popular spa and a renowned dining room, which recently won the Wine Council of Ontario’s VQA Restaurant Award of Excellence, for promoting local wines, tasting menus and VQA wines by the glass.
While the resort caters to diverse interests, “Our most recent success has been with spa groups,” says Sibbald. In the coming year he will add a posh couple’s spa treatment room at the top of the resort’s tower. But Sibbald believes sustained stewardship of the property is its most unique feature. “We’ve always believed the environment and enjoyment go hand in hand. My dad has taken the lead on this. He was on the Canadian Coalition on acid rain and the Ontario Parks Council. He’s worked to protect the beautiful trees as well as saving our heritage buildings.” These days, in addition to the usual eco initiatives, the resort is using low VOC (volatile organic compound) paints to promote a healthy indoor environment. It has also banned disposable cups in the staff room, donating the first-year savings to a local charity, and it introduced a new organic skin-care line in the spa.
Sibbald enjoys coming up with innovations, realizing it keeps the resort fresh for generations of families who return year after year. “We treat the Briars like home with every guest as our personal guest,” he says. It’s a philosophy he learned from his parents John and Barbara, who are still active in the business. They also instilled in him the importance of giving back to the community. Sibbald has served as president of the Board of Resorts Ontario as well as Premier Spas of Ontario. “I’ve been blessed to work with kind, caring, committed mentors,” he says.
Now he’s ready to pay it forward. In addition to his wife Sheila, who is director of Food and Beverage and Fitness, his brother Andrew and his wife also work at the Briars (the former is in charge of IT, the latter is in charge of personnel), as do various young nieces and nephews. As for the future, “I’d like to have a mentoring role for the next generation of family members,” says Sibbald.
When it comes to the Briars, family matters.