Toronto’s Paul Verciglio has made a career out of cultivating excellence

As any hotelier knows, it takes business acumen to rule the competitive luxury hotel segment. You need to toe the fine line between meticulous managing and genuine mentoring. It’s a delicate skill that cultivates loyalty among discriminating guests, while inspiring staff to work at an anticipatory level to exceed expectations. Such is the subtle skill — indeed, exemplary style — of Paul Verciglio, GM of Toronto’s Park Hyatt hotel.

Lest anyone think it came easy — seeing his elegant countenance, silver-tipped hair, film-star looks, tailored pin-striped suit and spit-polished shoes — Verciglio, 64, quickly quips that his hotel smarts came from a menial start as a bus boy in his hometown of Niagara Falls, N.Y. At the time, he earned 62 cents an hour on a split shift, working his way up the ladder to bellman, room-service attendant and banquet server before ultimately earning a Bachelor of Science Degree in Hotel & Restaurant Management at the University of Denver in 1969. Back then, times were precarious. With the Vietnam War raging, he gravitated to Missouri as a combat engineer in the Reserves. Fortunately, the Reservists were sent home; he married his childhood sweetheart, packed everything they owned into a car and settled into the hotel business in Seattle.

Being in the right place at the right time to start a career as resident manager for the Grand Hyatt in New York City was instrumental in his success, says Verciglio, his eyes twinkling. This was followed by further appointments, first as GM at the Hyatt Regency Buffalo, then at the historic Hyatt Regency St. Louis.

In February 1999, he landed in Toronto as GM of the venerable 336-room Park Hyatt and oversaw the completion of the hotel’s $80-million renovation. Verciglio considered it his mandate to turn the historic hotel into a leading luxury property. With state-of-the-art functionality and amenities to execute the renovation, he made two decisions that have been brilliant commercial successes.

I couldn’t mess with that old-fashioned bar. Even today, I wouldn’t make the simplest change without asking Joe, the bartender who’s been there 52 years”

Contrary to the thinking behind ultra chic modern bars, Verciglio opted to keep the traditional, wood-panelled, clubby ambiance of the legendary Roof Lounge, known for decades as the stylish hub for Toronto’s literary and political cognoscenti. “I couldn’t mess with that old-fashioned bar. Even today, I wouldn’t make the simplest change without asking Joe, the bartender who’s been there 52 years,” he says. “In fact, adding more staff and enhancing the patio has allowed business to grow exponentially.”

Next, in a spark of inspiration that Verciglio considers a hallmark of his career, he decided to convert the original hotel’s underground garage into a 12,000-square-foot spa, at a time when almost no city hotels had a spa. He determined that, as an urban spa, “it must be drop-dead gorgeous.” Now, after 10 years, Stillwater Spa, which has won awards for architectural design, is the Hyatt Hotel’s busiest spa worldwide and likely the busiest spa in all of Canada. It has become a stand-alone, neighbourhood-driven spa with a return rate of 93 per cent. Incidentally, with 126 employees, the spa boasts the largest staff group in the hotel.

Interestingly, in light of intense new competition in Toronto’s luxury hotel scene, including the Hazelton, Ritz-Carlton and others, the Park Hyatt “is performing exceptionally well,” says Verciglio. “Our hotel has been able to keep its market share in rooms. In fact, our sales are up three per cent, with RevPAR currently at 100 per cent,” he says. “We’ve also added $1 million in food and beverage sales this year by introducing off-premise kosher catering to our clientele.”

Considering the Park Hyatt Toronto was only the second Hyatt hotel in Canada, Verciglio says its success has “shown owners and investors in our country the power of our brand, which has resulted in new Hyatts opening in Montreal, Calgary and on King Street in Toronto.”

“Walking the building, starting at 6 a.m. in the fitness centre, I hear things before senior managers do

While building a hotel is one thing, nurturing it to gain a reputation of luxury service that exceeds expectations is quite another. To that end, Verciglio exercises an inimitable style he describes as “managing by walking around” to inspect every area of the hotel, from VIP rooms to the restaurant and spa. Living in the hotel, “I embrace it like it’s my home,” he explains. “Walking the building, starting at 6 a.m. in the fitness centre, I hear things before senior managers do. In the hallways, I experience what the customer-experiences,” he says. “I go to the lobby because that’s where my customers are. You can have every customer- service profile, but if you want to know what your customers feel about the hotel, go to the lobby and talk to them, or seat them in the dining room.”

Verciglio takes pride in his hands-on rule: “Inspect what you expect.” For example, he says: “If you ask people to do certain things and don’t check [whether] they’ve been done, then the staff won’t function because there’s no accountability. The accountability must be for the staff to improve, do what needs to be done and anticipate what should be done. Our business is about anticipating, not being reactive.” Noting that expectations are high in a luxury hotel, Verciglio admits “There’s not a lot of room for error in our business. The littlest thing requires addressing. Our business is the business of minutiae, and people have no patience.”

“I’ve always put people in a position that makes them as good as they can be

Hence, his passion for mentoring employees ups the ante on Park Hyatt Toronto service while also inspiring the 450 employees to give their best. Recalling his own humble beginnings, Verciglio says, “I’ve always put people in a position that makes them as good as they can be. Hotel workers are typically transient in nature, as they want to rise to a higher rank of employee. So I tell the staff: ‘If you run your own business, whether restaurant manager, front-desk clerk or spa, I’ll do what I can to help you get the best position, with or without Hyatt.’ Imagine telling someone at 22 that by 39 they can be a GM if they follow the pyramid of work. I tell them: ‘It’s a narrow pyramid to success; you must look the part and act the part.’”

But he’s not afraid to be firm when reprimands are warranted. “I may say ‘this conversation may hurt, but it’s not meant to hurt you, it’s meant to help you.’” Verciglio’s imprint is felt throughout the hotel. He’s smack in the centre of the action every morning, patrolling the hallways; greeting guests in the lobby (from meeting planners and celebrities to the New York Yankees baseball team); and checking for valets in the driveway. In casual chats with staff — from room attendants to restaurant staff — you’re apt to hear comments like “Mr. Verciglio has taught me so much.”

“Paul is one of the deans of the GTA tourism industry

Meanwhile, aside from glowing praise from appreciative staff, Verciglio has garnered a certain reverence among competing hoteliers in Toronto and throughout Ontario. As a transplanted Torontonian, Verciglio describes the city as “a secret to the rest of the world. It’s a much more sophisticated city than people realize, with a substantial amount of professionalism and staff with good attitude and skills.” He set out to market the sophistication of Toronto as well as the GTA internationally, while in essence elevating the attraction for the city’s luxury hotels.  He was instrumental in creating and chairing the Luxury Hotel Group in Toronto, linking his hotel with the Four Seasons, Hazelton Hotel, Windsor Arms, Inter-Continental Hotel on Bloor, the Thompson, the Ritz-Carlton, Trump Tower, Soho Metropolitan and Le Germain in a personal approach to market Toronto as a luxury destination by associating the luxe hotel brands.

As a Board member of the Greater Toronto Hotel Association (GTHA) and a member of the marketing committee for Tourism Toronto, he’s active in leadership initiatives to drive tourism to the city. Indeed, according to Terry Mundell, president and CEO of the GTHA, “Paul is one of the deans of the GTA tourism industry, particularly when GTA hoteliers bid against international sites for large-scale meetings and conventions. He helps us understand what we need to do to create a viable bid. He’s a hands-on guy who I trust and respect.”

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