In 2008, when Dimitrios Zarikos arrived in Toronto from the south of France to become GM of the Four Seasons Yorkville, the hotel landscape looked vastly different than it does today. At that time, the property was the only luxury game in town. Fast forward five years, and Canada’s iconic brand is the last of four new upscale properties to open in the past two years. And, it’s done so during one of the most challenging economic downturns in recent memory.
Not surprisingly, the opening of the flagship has been the talk of the town. In fact, when the property opened last October in Toronto’s tony Yorkville, the anticipation was palpable. The 259-room hotel stands majestically at 60 Yorkville Ave., sandwiched between Yonge and Bay Streets, a stone’s throw from its former home at Avenue Road. Developed by Toronto’s Menkes, and designed by Canadian designers Yabu Pushelberg, the mixed-use development also houses 210 condo units in two towers, in what is fast becoming the city’s most prestigious address. In fact, last year, the building made headlines when its penthouse sold for $28 million, the highest price ever paid for a condo in Canada. And, with only five or six units left to sell at press time, the residences have become the most successful real-estate development in the country.
While the former Four Seasons had been a fixture in the city since 1978 — and profitable until its closing — as the market evolved the hotel had become dated, not keeping with the company standard. “In the ’90s it became obvious we needed a new product,” says Zarikos. “Being our home city, this is where the hotel brand was born, every developer of a potential new Four Seasons comes through Toronto, staying at the hotel. We needed to have a hotel that set the tone,” explains the effusive and charming Zarikos, who also serves as regional VP.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
Company execs had long searched for the right location. “A lot of sites came and went,” recalls Zarikos. “We really wanted to be in Yorkville, and it eventually happened,” he says, explaining that the transfer of ownership of the old hotel to Prince Alwaleed led to the possibility to make the deal for the new site.
While many of the city’s new luxury properties have opted to open in the financial core of the city, Four Seasons’ execs preferred to remain midtown. “We have the benefit of experience,” boasts Zarikos. “We’ve been in Toronto since 1961, in three different locations, and this is the one that has worked, by far, the best. This is the centre of Toronto, without necessarily being the financial centre. And, we’re close to a residential neighbourhood, which is important for our food and beverage business.”
DESIGN THAT DAZZLES
As the flagship of the luxury hotel chain, no expense was spared. “It was important that we set the tone for the future of the company,” explains Zarikos. “Mr. Sharp [founder] and Katie Taylor [CEO]* were both driven by design, and so especially was our owner. He made it possible,” he says, pointing to the fact the company was willing to invest more than $200 million to make the property a true design showcase.
From an architectural point of view, the hotel is imposing from every angle; soaring 55 stories above the city, it’s visible from various sightlines. The porte cochere features an expansive heated driveway with a three-tiered red fountain in the centre. When the area is completely finished later this spring, it will also feature a rose garden, which promises to add warmth to the space. Guests walking through the door have to walk through several areas of the lobby, before arriving at the front desk, recessed away from the main lobby. According to the affable Zarikos, the move was deliberate.
“We opted to have a more intimate set of spaces where we don’t feel that everyone has to be part of the same space. We wanted expansive spaces yet there’s a certain intimacy in them. There’s a much more residential feel to this hotel, and the design was guided by the need for it to be around for a long time.”
Elegance abounds: from the luxurious walnut panelling to the polished metal floor-to-ceiling gates that separate the spaces, to the more than $1.5-million worth of original Canadian artwork that graces the rooms, the public spaces and the restaurant. “We wanted to have great art in the hotel but also support younger Canadian artists,” points out Zarikos.
Guests checking in will notice an imposing 21-foot long check-in desk made with a rare and precious indigo blue tiger eye, imported from India, situated below four floating sculpted dandelions. They provide whimsy and serve as a motif throughout the hotel, with the implication that by blowing on the dandelions, the hotel can make wishes come true, explains Zarikos.
Each of the 217 rooms and 42 suites are designed with understated elegance, featuring a contemporary muted colour scheme, punctuated with bursts of colour supplied by stunningly artistic floral arrangements from Toronto’s Teatro Verde, conveniently situated in Yorkville. “Part of our mission statement is to remain connected to the community,” explains Zarikos, “But we also believe in this competitive advantage,” he says, pointing to abundant floral designs throughout the hotel. “We spend a few hundred thousand dollars just on our floral arrangements,” says the GM, adding the florists drop by daily to ensure the flowers are vibrant and fresh, and once a week the arrangements are updated. “It becomes an accent point to a very soothing background,” says Zarikos.
Guests have the best of everything at their fingertips. Every room and suite features an iPad, Nespresso coffee maker and Geneva docking stations. Bang & Olufsen stations are featured in the living rooms of the upper suites, with quality sound systems similar to what might be found in a home. And, guests can take refuge in luxurious bathrooms complete with deep soaker tubs, glass-enclosed showers and television screens in the mirrors.
The new hotel is 120 rooms smaller than its previous incarnation, so the smaller footprint means the focus will be on transient business rather than meetings and conventions. “This is not a hotel that will survive on volume,” stresses Zarikos. “It’s going to survive on rate. That was part of our goal. We now have more or less the average size, by Four Seasons’ standards, of a larger hotel, whereas before our hotel was at the top of the charts for size. This helps [us in] our capacity to deliver service of the highest level, maintain product in the best possible way and charge the rates we do.”
And, with more transient business than before, the new hotel requires less meeting space. “We don’t need as much, because smaller hotels require less group business,” explains the Egyptian-born and Greek-raised hotelier. “We do have more social meeting space, meaning we have two gorgeous ballrooms, by far the most beautiful ballrooms in town, with floor-to-ceiling windows and lots of natural light. We continue to remain the social hub for the city, even though there is more competition.”
Whereas the previous hotel featured a kosher kitchen, company execs decided against it this time. “We only hosted about eight to 10 kosher events a year,” explains Zarikos, “so the investment was not worth it. Yorkville is the most expensive part of town and the ROI wasn’t there.” But that doesn’t mean the hotel won’t host kosher events; it just means a third party will be involved.
Despite the myriad new features, Zarikos says the major difference in terms of services is the sparkling 30,000-sq.-ft spa. “We’ve never had a spa in Toronto, and this is the first in Canada,” with 17 treatment rooms, two steam rooms, a salon and mani and pedi stations. Zarikos confidently asserts, “We have one of the best spas in the world in terms of the team, the estheticians, the management, and, of course, the facilities, which are beautiful. It’s the largest urban spa in the company.”
Already, in only a few months of operation, the spa has found favour with hotel guests and the community alike, with 80 to 90 per cent of its business coming from locals. “We could have done the spa in a third of the size, but we built the spa, just like we build the social-meeting spaces, the restaurant and the bar. The intent was to be part of the community, not just cater to hotel guests,” says the GM, adding that half the hotel’s revenues come from the community, which means the hotel isn’t as dependent on occupancy numbers.
Rounding out the amenities is a 3,500-sq.-ft. 24-hour fitness centre, which houses 35 pieces of top-of-the-line equipment, a yoga studio and a pool area with an outdoor terrace overlooking Toronto.
Not surprisingly, with 450 employees, the hotel runs a staff-to-rooms ratio of 1.7, making for highly personalized service. Guests walking through the doors are greeted by casually attired young employees wearing headsets to facilitate constant communication with other departments to ensure a seamless and memorable experience. With the new hotel being 120 rooms smaller than its former location, several positions were made redundant. Still, the hotel was able to successfully retain more than half of its employees, despite the reduction of space, and the addition of the spa, which was new to the property’s business model.
While closing a legendary hotel and moving to a new home created a host of challenges, the biggest, says Zarikos, was managing customer expectations. “Before the opening, I used to half joke that, short of us walking on water, people would be disappointed. And, it actually became true,” he says incredulously. “I remember the first guest coming in October 5, and she was furious she had to wait to check in until we opened at 3 p.m. The expectation was enormous, so living up to that expectation almost became impossible in the early days.” But, as Zarikos points out, “A new hotel is like a baby: when a baby is first born, he doesn’t walk, he crawls, then he stands up and then he walks. And there is nothing you can do to change that. But people expect because you’re Four Seasons Toronto, you have to be perfect from day one.
“The other challenge was what people thought we should have done,” he stresses. “As beautiful as the hotel is, some people are attached to the old.” As a result, there was an immediate chorus of unmet expectations. “‘Where’s the lobby,’ ‘We can’t find the reception,’ ‘too modern,’ ‘too now,’ ‘too dark,’” rhymes off the GM. But Zarikos was patient, telling staff, “Don’t worry, let everyone come in for the first time and say that, and then they’ll recognize we have gorgeous rooms. The second time they come back, they’ll find their bearing, and they’ll put it in perspective.”
NEW DIRECTIONS IN DINING
The great expectations also carried through to the restaurant. “We were reviewed on the basis of what we should have done, as opposed to what we did,” recalls Zarikos. “They said we should have done a bistro, but the most important thing is those people that keep coming back are happy.” Still, as an astute hotelier, Zarikos is interested in feedback. “A lot of it is valid and useful,” he says. “The one thing we noticed is everybody cares; the worst thing that could have happened is if nobody cared. A good comment, a not-so-good comment, they’re taken in the spirit of how they were meant.”
In terms of the foodservice offerings, while the hotel previously operated its own restaurants, including Truffles — once ranked Canada’s best restaurant — this time Four Seasons partnered with celebrity chef Daniel Boulud to run Café Boulud and D Bar, “standing for Daniel not Dimitrios,” quips the hotelier.
“We wanted a restaurant where people could come again and again, not a special occasion restaurant,” says Zarikos. “We thought about whether we would do it on our own or partner with someone who had a great reputation. In the end, we opted to go with Daniel Boulud — a great restaurateur — because it allowed us to express what we wanted to do in a variety of ways,” says Zarikos.
Rooted in French culinary tradition, Boulud says his menu pays homage to his childhood in France. “It celebrates the foods I’ve come to love after spending three decades in America,” he explains. The menu highlights the chef’s four culinary muses: the classics, the seasonal, the vegetable garden and international cuisines; guests are encouraged to mix-and-match as they please.
“It allows us to express ourselves without the boundaries of labels,” says Zarikos. “We wanted to be free to be more comfortable and accommodating.” He admits: “We have some ways to go to bring our ‘A’ game. The good news is the restaurant has been very busy. Having Daniel Boulud man the kitchen means you’ll always have food that will consistently be true to itself.”
As with any new construction, the hotel’s opening was plagued by delays. Instead of opening as planned in July, the hotel didn’t open until October, after September’s Toronto International Film Festival, one of the city’s busiest periods. More importantly, because the Avenue Road property closed its doors in April, for the first time since 1978, Toronto was without a Four Seasons hotel. “We tried to communicate with our guests telling them this was about to happen. For many of them, it didn’t make a difference because the original gap of three months didn’t affect their schedules, but, for others, they asked us for recommendations.”
Certainly, having to send your guests to the competition isn’t what any hotelier wants to do, but that wasn’t a problem for Zarikos. “My concern was the well-being of our guests,” he says. “If they don’t come back, it means we didn’t do a good enough job to bring them back. It’s simple. The most important thing is that these people were taken care of.… We did lose some in the process, but we gained others who wouldn’t have stayed at the old Four Seasons, because it was tired.”
While excitement about the product has been gratifying, the astute hotelier is quick to acknowledge Toronto’s luxury market has shifted. “It’s is not the same market as it was in 2010. It’s going to take a couple of years for it to truly settle,” he says, before alluding to the future. “You’ll have a true luxury segment, whereas before the lines were a little more blurred. That’s good for the city of Toronto. It pushes everybody.”
Is he worried about the increased competition? “I am and I’m not,” he admits. “Competition is competition. It makes you better, but it gives you a heartache at times, especially when you’re Four Seasons and you want to be at the top of the charts.”
Still, despite the crowded luxury segment, Zarikos is confident the iconic property will remain the market leader. “Our rates are 20 per cent higher than our old hotel; we’re pushing mid $500 compared to $430 to $440 on the weekends,” with rates for the presidential suite hitting $12,000 per night and rates for the royal suite hitting $15,000.
Though still early in the game, at the end of 2012, the hotel’s occupancy was around 50 per cent, a respectable mark for a new hotel in its first year. “In terms of RevPAR, we’re looking at the mid $200s, which is also very strong for year one.”
Still, one can’t discount the impact of a lethargic economy. “A lot of corporations have become far more concerned about what they spend [on business travel],” affirms the hotelier. “To them, opening a new hotel means nothing. They would say ‘my budget is my budget.’ So negotiation is challenging. Where the game is going to be won or lost is really in the transient end of the business, from guests paying the rack rate or the leisure guest, not so much on the negotiated rate.”
Ultimately, visitors to Toronto may now have several luxury options to choose from, but Zarikos insists it won’t alter the way Four Seasons does business. “After all, we’re going to provide great service whether we have added competition or not,” he says. “After all, we’re competing against the expectations of the guests with regard to what Four Seasons should be.” Not to mention, of course, the great expectations the company, and its team, have for itself.