After three decades in hotels, Sue Murray achieves success by treating all her guests like VIPs

Serendipity played a hand in leading Sue Murray into the hotel business, but it’s taken more than timing and good luck to propel the savvy hotelier to the pinnacle of success. More than three decades after starting her career in hotel sales, Murray has risen to the top through an ability to understand what guests want and deliver it with style.

As owner of Niagara’s Finest Inns, Murray operates three boutique hotels in Ontario’s bucolic wine country: the Charles Inn, the Harbour House and the Shaw Club Hotel. She also owns the only branded hotel in Niagara-on-the-Lake, a 26-room Best Western on the outskirts of town. Similar to her three children, each of the boutique hotels is a study in contrasts, but she’s made them successful by offering customized service and treating all guests like VIPs.  

Murray’s skills as an astute hotelier were honed working in various inns throughout Ontario, starting at the historic Pillar and Post before stints at Queen’s Landing, the Royal Anchorage and George III. In 1992, she launched a consulting company, developing expertise on the financial viability of small, upscale hotels. Among the properties she helped reposition are the Benmiller Inn in Goderich, the Millcroft Inn in Alton, and the Pinestone Resort and Conference Centre in Haliburton.

During this period, Murray also used her training as a systems consultant to design and implement a comprehensive quality assurance program for Ontario’s Finest Inns, an association of 29 properties, and at Select Registry, an organization of the top 300 properties in the U.S. “I got to see wonderful hotels that were doing great things,” she says. “I picked up so many ideas.” 

In 2001, when the opportunity arose to purchase land in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Murray and her husband Wayne, an architect specializing in heritage architecture, acted quickly. They intended to create the town’s first boutique hotel, recognizing that a new breed of traveller was emerging in wine country. The venture has since become a family affair, with son Ryan continuing the hotelier tradition by serving as manager of the Harbour House.  

“We wanted to [open] a very small, upscale and personalized hotel that was not going to have conference facilities, but instead would focus on the individual,” she says. “I honestly don’t think you can do what we do with more than 50 rooms.”

Murray laughs as she explains how the hotels’ VIP lists highlight all the guests staying at the hotels. “We include all sorts of information on the lists: whether they’re celebrating a birthday, an anniversary, how many times they’ve stayed with us, or if their dog has a special requirement.”

Undoubtedly, the residential feel of her hotels has contributed to their success. Located across from the yacht basin, the Harbour House was designed in an Eastern seaboard style, reflective of the 1880s time period. “My husband wanted the hotel to look as though it had always been there. He loves it when people think it’s an old building.”

From the moment guests walk through the door of the three-storey hotel, they feel at home. “I didn’t want anyone to be intimidated,” she says. To create a warm ambiance in the lobby, Murray used a small table as the front desk and strategically placed it where staff would be able to make eye contact. “We didn’t want any barriers.”

As the heart of the hotel, creating a cosy library lobby was vital. “It had to have a fireplace, bookshelves, a beaten leather couch. As time went on, each little part came together.”             

Each of the hotel’s 31 elegantly appointed rooms features a different theme, but central to the rooms are the luxurious king-size feather beds with down duvets and 300-count linens. Prices range from $355 for the deluxe rooms to $445 for the suites. Murray personally chose furniture to help guests feel at home.

The same philosophy exists at the Charles Inn, a historic 1832 Manor House boasting Georgian architecture and 12 rooms ranging in price from $99 to $370. “We realized there was another niche of travellers looking to immerse themselves in the rich heritage of the town,” says Murray. Guests craving pampering can indulge in spa services, and the Four-Diamond dining room caters to those in search of culinary adventure. 

Interestingly, Murray’s decision to not place a restaurant in each of her hotels was deliberate, and revolutionary. “I wanted to focus on the rooms and the guests,” she says, adding that “[hotel] restaurants tend to take your attention away and don’t make money.”      

Late last year, she unveiled the most recent addition to her portfolio — the Shaw Club Hotel & Spa, formerly the Royal Park Hotel. Designed to feel more like a club than a hotel, each of its 30 guest rooms feature contemporary furnishings and a host of high-tech amenities such as 42-inch plasma TVs, CD and DVD players, bathroom TVs, wireless Internet and iPod stations.     

Murray delights in finding new ways to wow her guests — whether it’s offering free homemade cookies and cappuccino in the lobby or stocking up on board games, DVDs and CDs. A complimentary afternoon wine-and-cheese sampling in the lobby of the Harbour House, an idea she picked up while in Napa, has created a buzz around town, and allows local producers to showcase their wines. The hotels offer several quirky services as well, including a “library” of pillows to choose from, gift bags for dogs staying at the hotels, small TVs embedded in the bathroom mirrors, as well as masseuse on call for dogs.

Guest response has been nothing less than phenomenal. With an ADR of $270 and RevPAR of $169, the Harbour House attracts 92 per cent of its business from the leisure market, and 40 per cent comes from the U.S. Revenues in 2006 increased by 18 per cent and net operating income jumped by 44 per cent. Since rebranding the Charles, its total revenues have increased by 27 per cent while net operating income has surged by 294 per cent.     

And with the digital age fuelling a significant portion of today’s business, Murray is thrilled with its favourable posting on Trip Advisor (the largest consumer-based review site in the world). “It’s helped fuel an amazing amount of business from Canada, the U.S. and Europe,” she says. “We have the top three hotels in Canada listed: Harbour House is number 1, Shaw Club is number 2, and the Charles is number 3 (the Harbour House was also named the “Top Hidden Gem” in Canada in 2006). 

When asked what makes the hotels successful, the affable hotelier cites “attention to detail through the services we provide and the amenities we offer.” The warmth and attentiveness of the staff doesn’t hurt, either. “When you have a successful property and guests are happy, staff enjoys coming to work.”

To keep staff happy, Murray takes the F&B manager and chef to New York each year. “Our chef chooses the restaurants he wants to see and we wine and dine, taking lots of notes. We stay at different boutique hotels to see everything we can.” Two years ago, she took the entire management team to Miami’s South Beach to see the city’s best boutique hotels. “If I can get just one idea to bring home and implement, it’s been a successful trip.”

Additionally, Murray pays for programs for any staff member that wants to quit smoking. And she contributes to half the cost of a gym membership for those interested in getting into shape. 

Being a hotelier has clearly been a labour of love for Murray, and what she relishes most is always learning something new. Last month, to celebrate her 35th wedding anniversary, Murray and her husband visited Vietnam, Cambodia and Singapore. “We chose that trip hoping to see what the fabulous, established hotels are doing and what the new boutiques are bringing to the table. This business becomes a part of your everyday life,” she explains, “and the learning never stops; nor should it.”                   


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