When the Ritz-Carlton opened its doors in Toronto on Feb. 16, it marked a watershed moment for the city’s hotel community. As the first of four new luxury properties to open in Toronto over the next year, the 53-storey, 267-room mixed-use project at Wellington and Simcoe St. is the talk of the town.
Given that the iconic property was built during what many consider to be one of the most economically challenged times made its debut more auspicious. In fact, the anticipation was almost palpable. If anyone was both excited and relieved about the debut, it was none other than Michael Beckley, the charming and debonair senior vice president of Marriott Hotels of Canada, and the man most responsible for the arrival of the Ritz brand in Toronto.
“This project took seven years of my life,” quipped Beckley, speaking to Hotelier while en route to the airport recently. One could say it also took on a life of its own. Initially Beckley had negotiated the Bay St. site where the Trump Hotel now sits. But when it was discovered that the project’s developer had committed fraud, the deal was quickly shelved, forcing Beckley to find new partners and secure a new site adjacent to the Royal Bank Tower at Wellington and Simcoe.
By the time the project finally broke ground in 2006 none of the partners (Cadillac Fairview, Graywood Developments and Ritz-Carlton) could have predicted either the growth of the neighbourhood or the ensuing recession, which has commanded global attention for the past three years.
If location is endemic to success, this property is bound to top the charts. “Obviously from a hotel point of view, it’s great because it’s connected to the financial district,” says Beckley. “From a business travel perspective and, of course, the other stuff around it — whether it’s the stadium, the theatre district, the symphony or the Opera House — it’s great for leisure travel. Being opposite the convention centre does no harm either,” he adds. “It is ground zero from a hotel perspective given the broadness of the market it’s able to attract. The same applies from a residential component,” says Beckley, pointing to the 159 condos that are part of the mix. “Now with the new film festival centre, it’s the icing on the cake.”
Manlio Marescotti, vice-president, Lodging, Marriott Hotels of Canada, says the opening of the Ritz is a significant milestone for the city. “This represents the first luxury branded hotel to open in Toronto and strengthens the city’s position as a world-class destination,” he boasts, opening the doors for future development in Vancouver and possibly Calgary.
Despite opening in a soft market, the hotel has fared well in its first four months. “Our hotel occupancy has been typical of a normal ramp up,” explains general manager Tim Terceira, pointing to a 40-per-cent occupancy. “We’ve had low occupancy in the beginning, but now we’re getting into real business, projecting a stronger end of the year,” says the Cornell University graduate. “We’re aiming to be around 60-per-cent occupancy for the second half of the year,” adds Terceira, noting July and August are a bit weaker.
Terceira’s love of operations fuelled his decision to step down as his vice-president of Market Operations to take the reins of the hotel. The Bermuda native has spent an illustrious 40-year career in hospitality, including a stint at Four Seasons, the company most often compared to the Ritz, and its closest competitor. Though still early in the game, the 54-year-old hotel veteran is happy with the progress to date. “We’re getting a tremendous amount of international business from key feeder markets such as Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles,” he says. Certainly, the buzz surrounding the hotel’s arrival has generated a great deal of marketing interest. “We’ve had tremendous PR exposure and multiple articles, including social media,” says Terceira. “But, you can never do enough, and not everyone looks at everything, so every guest in the hotel is a new, potential customer,” he explains.
He’s encouraged by the amount of business generated in the catering department. “We’ve exceeded the catering budget, and we’re satisfied with the number of local social events we’ve held here — from galas to group events. The good news is everyone who comes to the galas has been to the hotel, so each of those 400 to 450 people is a new potential customer.” He’s quick to explain that the catering business is instrumental in launching the hotel locally. “It becomes the centre of the business in the city,” he says.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that “there’s so much terrific interest in our brand,” says Terceira. “Everyone wants to have a gala wedding at the Ritz,” he laughs. To date, 20 weddings, and counting, have been booked for 2011, with many more booked next year.
In addition to the cachet the Ritz brand brings to the city, the hotel also appeals to guests looking for sophisticated architecture, design and amenities. “What makes our hotel so different is the way our venue is laid out,” says Terceira. “We bring the outdoors in,” he notes, adding, “Canadians love that.”
While the design of the hotel is patently Ritz-Carlton — oozing an air of understated elegance, punctuated by crystal chandeliers and high-end fixtures, it also plays on its Canadian roots. “We have distinct Canadian scenes and elements. It’s very local,” says Terceira, pointing to the bronze maple leaves embedded in the floor and the 450 pieces of Canadian art adorning the public spaces, the guestrooms and the 57 suites.
“The hotel translates well into the Canadian landscape,” agrees Beckley. The signature restaurant, Toca (an acronym for Toronto, Canada) is unabashedly Canadian. Instead of importing an American chef to man the stoves, a trend highlighted at both the Thompson and yet to be opened Shangri La, the Ritz hired local chef Tom Brodi, formerly of Canoe. Along with his staff of 93, the 35-year old toque helms the 130-seat restaurant and oversees the foodservice offerings of the entire hotel, including the 120-seat Deq lounge and the 40-seat Toca bar, both situated on the main floor.
Set on the second floor, a sweeping staircase leads guests to Toca. A fan of all things local, Brodi sources ingredients from across Canada — from the salmon ($23) from Jail Island, N.B., to the Miso-glazed cod ($36) made by using three distinctly Canadian ingredients (screech, sablefish, and maple syrup) to the crispy fish and chips ($20) made with lobster. The restaurant’s pièce de résistance, however, is a glass-enclosed cheese cave, adroitly positioned near the entrance of the restaurant. The first of its kind in Canada, it showcases a selection of fine cheeses from Toronto’s popular Cheese Boutique. For those who prefer to get up close and personal, a 10-person chef’s table is positioned smack in the middle of the action in the kitchen.
Guests who prefer more casual surroundings can opt either for Toca’s sophisticated lobby bar where they can indulge in after-work drinks or alternatively choose Deq, an urban oasis set off to the side of the front desk, featuring a casual menu, a wood-burning oven and prosciutto bar and an expansive outdoor patio opening out to Simcoe Park.
And, for consumers who prefer to be spoiled, the hotel’s entire fifth floor, referred to as “the Urban Sanctuary,” is devoted to refined pampering. Boasting a 13,000- square-foot spa that includes 16 treatment rooms, 10 salon stations for manicures, pedicures, hair and makeup, the area also houses a fitness centre and pool.
Still, despite the package of amenities, Terceira is quick to emphasize the hallmark of what makes this hotel unique is its service. “Ritz-Carlton’s service is legendary, and I don’t use that word lightly,” emphasizes Terceira. “We’ve won the Malcolm Baldridge National Quality Award two times, which recognizes outstanding customer service. That’s rare for any company; no other hotel company has won it. We have a strong culture, and we’re process-driven to engage with our guests. The competition can’t claim the same,” he adds. “I know the strengths of what we do; I’m confident we can differentiate ourselves from the competition. We’re leading the way to a new level of luxury.”
At the core of this new level is the selection of “ladies and gentlemen,” says Terceira. “You have to have the right Ritz-Carlton DNA to take care of our guests.” For Terceira, it’s all about the details. “We’re engaged in the relentless pursuit of exceptional experiences. It’s all about the guest experience.”
The company’s credo focuses on providing genuine care and comfort — whether to celebrities, sports personalities or business travellers. “The brand is trusted as is the security of our guest.” A complement of 360 staff, who Terceira repeatedly refers to as “ladies and gentlemen,” many of who transferred to Toronto from other Ritz-Carlton properties around the world, have been schooled in the tenets of customer service.
Beckley is quick to add the average age of the staff is between late 20s and early 30s. “Ritz hires as much on attitude, which they believe becomes behavioural, as anything else,” he explains. “There’s a certain enthusiasm you don’t see elsewhere,” boasts Beckley. “The place is lively, and alive.”
On the amenity front, the hotel features unique technology offerings such as TVs embedded into the mirrored vanity of the bathrooms. “It’s got great picture quality and sound,” says Terceira, “yet you would never know it’s there, until it’s turned on.” Deep soaker tubs and heated bathroom floors also make the bathrooms luxuriously comfortable. And guests staying in the deluxe suites can access newspapers from around the world on iPads.
In terms of energy savings, “We have our cold-water cooling system,” points out Terceira, explaining that the hotel uses water from the depths of Lake Ontario for its air conditioning system and, because it requires no chilling, saves on energy costs. Plus, all guestrooms have radiant heat from the floors, which reduces heating costs during winter months.
While important, Terceira believes “Technology has to be clever. We never want a situation where we have guests feel strange because they don’t know how to use it, so we control it. If it’s too complicated and you can’t figure out how to turn off the lights then we don’t want to do that. We provide all the technology our guests need to be successful.”
So, with the flotilla of luxury brands such as Four Seasons, Shangri La, and the Trump set to arrive on the Toronto landscape within the next year, is the executive team at the Ritz-Carlton worried about the competition? Not at all, says Terceira. “We think the more luxury properties there are, the better it is for the city.”
Beckley echoes the sentiment. “As much as we’re the first, we’re also the only five-star in Toronto. When the others come on board it will help all of us. In some ways being the first, at this end of the market, is a little bit lonely.”
But if any of the brands are to do well, Beckley says rates will have to be maintained. At $485 per night for standard rooms, (the top suite sells for $6,500), this isn’t your typical hotel. “Toronto hasn’t seen hotels charge $500 a night; it’s used to having a $200 average rate. But as luxury properties, we’ll never get a return on investment if rates aren’t maintained.” So far, says Beckley, the hotel hasn’t had any negative feedback on rate. “We intend to hold the rate otherwise we’d have to compromise our value equation because we have two staff for every guestroom. It’s a very high ratio, but to deliver that level of service, you’ve got to get the rate where you need it to be.” Of course, adds Marescotti, “Ritz-Carlton’s target market is certainly accustomed to paying higher room rates when travelling abroad, so why would they not pay those rates in Toronto.”
As for the naysayers who question whether Toronto can sustain four new luxury properties in the span of a year, Marescotti and Beckley are nonplussed. “Toronto has been under-supplied in terms of luxury product,” says Marescotti. “At the end of the day we’re talking about 1,000 extra rooms in a 35,000-room GTA market,” explains Beckley. “It’s not a lot.” And, stresses the man responsible for bringing Ritz to Toronto, “We have 105 years of history in delivering a five-star product — that’s a lot of history ingrained in luxury. It makes us a pretty recognizable brand.”