Rosanna Caira, editor and publisher of Hotelier magazine interviews Christiane Germain, co-founder of the Quebec-based Hotel Le Germain and Alt Hotels
Rosanna Caira: Tell me about your past. I understand your father had a restaurant and you and your siblings got involved. How did that get started?
Christiane Germain: The first business my father and mother started was a small — in French we call it a tabagie — corner store, and this is where we learned how to get into business ourselves. On Sundays, for example, my brother and I would sit at the counter while everyone, after mass, would come to the store and my parents were either at the cash register or the counter, and we’d have to stay there and wait until the rush was over, just watching. Then my father got into a larger restaurant business. When I started, in the mid-’70s, it was in the restaurant business. When I came here to Toronto to study, I was not planning on being in the hotel business but to continue in the restaurant business.
RC: What happened?
CG: My brother, Jean-Yves, and I were running restaurants. At one point, we had four restaurants in Quebec City — two of them were very successful — and the restaurant business is demanding [with] lots of long hours. The ones we were running were a combination of restaurant, bar and disco, so after a while I was getting [bored and wanted to try something] else. On a trip to New York, I saw this great hotel and, I said to myself, ‘why not the hotel business?’ And, that’s how it started.
RC: What was your biggest lesson learned from your early days in the industry?
CG: Hard work has always been key. We talk a lot about innovation today, but, even in those days, innovation, at least in my family, was part of running a business. If you always do the same thing, what’s the point? You’re going to go back[ward] — you’re not going to move forward. This is something that was important in our family. And, when you talk about innovation, it’s not always huge things — it can be small things. But having something new all the time is very important.
RC: What made the Le Germain brand different than the hotels already in the marketplace?
CG: The design was different; it was smaller, it didn’t have too many large meeting spaces. It gave it a lot of intimacy. When your hotel is smaller, it’s much easier to personalize. This is one thing that was very important — to keep that small, intimate atmosphere. The lobbies are not too big, they’re kind of small. It’s easier to recognize your guest when you’re in a small environment. The service has always been key, but the hotel business is not rocket science; it’s about good people, good service, good design — just making these things work well together, you should get a good result.
RC: How many hotels do you have in your portfolio?
CG: We have eight. We’ll have nine by June 1st, when we open in Halifax.
RC: A couple of years ago you launched Alt Hotels. How did that evolve?
CG: If we wanted to be everywhere across the country, we needed another brand to penetrate markets like Winnipeg, Regina, Saskatoon, St. John’s, N.L. — smaller markets. So, we started working on Alt and, at the same time, we thought there was an opportunity in the three-star segment to create a concept that was more design-focused, more like what we like today, and you don’t have to pay $220, $250 — you can have a $150 budget and be interested in having good design and very comfortable rooms. We came up with this concept, Alt, for alternative. We opened our first one in 2007 in Brossard, on the south shore of Montreal, and we converted the first hotel in Quebec City to Alt, because we thought it was similar to what we were doing. We opened Pearson [in Toronto] last June, and we’re opening Halifax. We have three more under construction: Winnipeg, downtown Montreal — in a new area called Griffin Town — and Ottawa, which should start construction soon.
RC: In what ways is Alt alternative?
CG: Even if Alt is not the same price, we focus on comfort; the mattress is the same one we use in the Germain brand. The design is intelligent in that the rooms are smaller, but you don’t feel it, because the ceilings are higher — there’s lots of light in the room and the lobby since the rooms are smaller and not too many people can be in the room. We made sure the lobbies were very social — it’s like a large living room. We came up with a new grab-and-go concept, so we don’t have a restaurant, but we have a nice food offering.
RC: So, the look is more casual and hip?
CG: Absolutely. Our employees wear jeans. It gives a
RC: It’s very unusual how you’ve modelled the pricing structure. Can you explain?
CG: It is, but I’ll be very open and honest — it needs a little bit of tweaking. We’re keeping the concept of having one price per hotel, meaning the price in Toronto and Halifax are not the same, but we have a unique price. For example, in Halifax we’ll have an opening price that won’t last for too long, and then we’ll have one price, which, if I remember correctly, will be $139, and that’s the only price we’re going to have…. It’s the same if you go to Montreal during the Grand Prix, all of the hotel prices are really elevated, but we’re keeping our price at $139.
RC: If the pricing changes depending on the city, how does the Toronto rate compare to the other cities where Alt is now?
CG: Our price in Toronto is going to be $129, while, [at] Halifax [airport], it’s going to be $139. It’s always a matter of the offer that’s on the market.
RC: How many do you think you’ll have in the entire chain?
CG: By 2017, we plan to have 17 hotels. We hope to build the Germain Vancouver — that would be nice, too.
RC: When you opened Hotel Dominion in Quebec City in 1996 there was a recession, and, in 2003, there was SARS in Toronto. More recently, when you opened in Calgary a couple years back, it was another difficult economic time. How did you effectively open those properties in some of the worst times?
CG: You just go for it and get it done. One of the things that saved us was that, when we first opened Toronto, our brand was pretty well known in Quebec, and the few people that were coming to Toronto were from Quebec. So, we let them know we were opening a hotel, and our first clientele was from Quebec. We were just keeping our fingers crossed that SARS would be over and eventually it was.
RC: What have been some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced being part of a family business?
CG: It doesn’t work every day. But overall it works, and it works well. As far as business is concerned, that level of trust is there. Could I get the same level of trust with other people? To be honest, I don’t know. We complement each other, we have so much respect for one another, and we know each other so well.
RC: How do you divide the roles since you and your brother, Jean-Yves, are co-presidents?
CG: He’s more involved with finance and development; I’m more involved with operations, marketing. When it comes to major decisions, we usually talk.
RC: What about your other brother, Richard?
CG: He was in the company, and he left a couple of years ago. He’s still in the hotel business with other people; he wanted to do his own thing. That’s something interesting, because he left the company, and it was his decision, but it worked well.
RC: And, your daughter and your nephew are also in the business now?
CG: Yes, my daughter works with me in Montreal, and my nephew, Hugo, also works in the business in Quebec City. He works closely with his father — he’s more into development.
RC: If you had to pinpoint one reason you’ve succeeded in a tough, 24-7, male-dominated industry, what would it be?
CG: When I am challenged, I usually go for it. I work all the time, and I’m not complaining. My work is a lifestyle. I’m very close to my business, and I got the chance to do other things in life, so I was very involved, and am still very involved in other businesses and in my community, and it’s normal for me.
RC: What’s your biggest obstacle?
CG: When you’re in the business and you want to expand and grow, the obstacle is finding the money to expand. We’ve had to spend a lot of energy on finding the money and the right people with the right money.
RC: How have you financed some of those hotels? I know you have partnerships in some of those properties.
CG: We have partnerships everywhere. We have partners in Calgary, Montreal, Quebec City … it requires a lot of money. Our project in Calgary was a major project for us — we have the condo component, we have the office component, so financially we needed partners there. When you have partners and investors, they want good returns. So, this is the biggest challenge on a regular basis.
RC: Is there any financial advice you’ve received that would be valuable to anyone thinking of opening a hotel?
CG: Make sure you always put money aside, because you never know when you’re going to need it. And, reinvest in your business. [That’s] something my father told me from the start.
RC: What do you think makes a great leader, and has the concept of leadership changed in recent years as the market has evolved?
CG: Leading by example is important. I’m always very surprised when I hear people who are running businesses tell me they think that the HR side of things is terrible — like when people say things like ‘well if I didn’t have employees, it would be great.’ The human side of the business is very important when you’re a leader, and a good leader has to have a good relationship with his colleagues, his people.
RC: Can you offer advice to women in the industry or entering the industry?
CG: You can’t really look at this 24 hours at a time. I remember, there were years where it was, personally, very challenging — when you’re starting a business and you have a young family. Though men do participate more in family tasks these days, one thing remains: a mother is a mother…. Part of your salary goes toward paying people to help you, but that’s the way it is. It’s a choice you make, and you have to live with it, and if you want to have a career, you have to make choices. There are days when it’s very difficult, but after a while you get over it, and it’s very rewarding. It’s not easy, it really isn’t, and you have to know that going in.
RC: How do you define and deliver great service?
CG: Good service has to be authentic, discreet, personalized. I like when service is really personalized for the guest, but also for the person giving the service. If you want service to be authentic, you have to respect the personality of the person giving the service. I don’t like service that is scripted. All of this, how to deliver good service, is done when you hire the right person. It’s not necessarily the person with the most experience but the person with the best attitude to give service.
RC: What do you look for in service staff besides attitude and personality?
CG: Attitude, personality and willingness to learn, especially when we’re hiring people who don’t have much experience; they have to be willing to learn.
RC: Switching gears, what’s different about the Le Germain in Toronto’s Maple Leaf Square and the Germain that opened in Toronto 10 years ago, or the one in Montreal or Quebec City? Has innovation been consistent with each new hotel?
CG: Yes, one example that I would give you from Maple Leaf Square would be that when we decided on the artwork in the rooms, our partners in that property are involved in sports so they wanted something that would reflect basketball and hockey, et cetera. I didn’t necessarily want to have pictures of men in jerseys, so we started brainstorming. And, we came up with the idea of having beautiful pictures of those athletes doing another sport, doing something else. So we had hockey players or basketball players exercis[ing] in a gym and we have photos of those beautiful bodies. It takes a lot of space in the room; they’re big pictures, and they look great, so we tie the sports and the art together in an innovative way.
RC: How do you create culture in a company?
CG: We don’t have to implement a culture; this is our business. When we did the first hotel … it felt like having friends over. And, that’s still part of the culture. It’s easy for me. What will be difficult in the years to come, if we have 17 hotels, will be to make sure the culture is implemented everywhere.
RC: How do you inculcate that culture into the people you hire?
CG: It’s hiring the right people. Some of the people we hire come with a very good background, some of them don’t have experience, but some of them have great experience and what’s important is to get the two together. Greet our guests as if they were your friends and combine that with the experiences you’ve had from other places and other lives. Keep in mind that before I got into the hotel business, I had never worked in a hotel, and I still had a lot to learn. I have great people with me to teach me those things, and I’m still learning from them.
RC: Last year, you were awarded an honourary doctorate from Ryerson University. What advice would you give to those considering a career in this industry?
CG: Sometimes, I find the younger generation wants things to happen too fast … but things don’t happen overnight. You have to take the time, you have to invest in your career; it’s not always a matter of money, but time.
RC: Do you think schools are doing as good a job training students for tomorrow’s reality?
CG: One thing that I find, and I won’t identify any specific program, is that people tend to forget about the hospitality side of this business. There’s a lot of financial stuff to worry about, but this is a people business, and you have to know the hospitality side of the business before going any further. If you don’t know that, it’s a bit of a problem. Sometimes, you’ll talk to young students, and they’re very interested in strategy, but I’m doing the strategy, and, though it’d be great to talk to you about what you think, you can’t expect that you get out of school and go straight into the strategy. That’s too quick. I don’t know what is being said at school, but you really have to spend time on the floor, learning the business and the basics…. One thing that’s important if you want to be successful is to give the people what they want — but much more than that, is to give them what they don’t know they want. To do that, you have to know these people and talk to them. You have to be close to your people, close to your guests and close to your employees. That’s very important in this business.