There aren’t many hoteliers who can boast a medical degree on their résumé, but that’s just the case for Stephanie Giannoulis, owner and GM of the Comfort Hotel Bayer’s Lake in Halifax. The native Haligonian studied Biochemistry and Neuroscience at Dalhousie University before moving to Greece where she attended medical school, specializing in psychiatry.
As fate would have it, “upon returning to Canada, there were limited positions for me to practise in Nova Scotia,” recalls Giannoulis. Though the graduate received offers from outside the province, she declined them. “It meant relocating from my hometown and being away from my family,” she explains. Years later, she doesn’t regret the decision. “One door closes, another opens,” she says.
In her case, that open door led to the hotel industry. “My father, who is a successful developer in the area, decided to construct a hotel to be attached to our family owned restaurant, which has been in the area for 18 years. He asked my opinion on its design and if I would manage it.” She agreed and never looked back.
Despite “not knowing the first thing about the hospitality industry,” she learned the tenets of successful hotel-keeping through hands-on experience. “From the inception, blueprints, footings, structure, designing and decorating it personally, I vowed to make it a success.” And, in short order, she has. Earlier this year, Choice Hotels awarded the 73-room Halifax property its prestigious title of Canadian Hotel of the Year at the company’s annual conference in California.
And, although the manager attributes the hotel’s success to its exceptional service, she admits hiring and retaining staff is her biggest challenge. But, by treating her team of 30 as extended family, she’s inculcated a desire in them to exceed expectations. “I like to think I’m democratic. I welcome feedback from my employees, promoting healthy communication between management and staff.”
The staff attends to a varied clientele. “From November to April, the majority are corporate guests — mainly from Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes,” says Giannoulis. “We have a big focus from sports teams.” During the summer and early fall, the hotel attracts more of a leisure crowd. “With direct flights from the U.K., Ireland and Germany, we’ve observed an increase in leisure travel from those countries, and we’ve also seen an increase from China.”
Not content to rest on her laurels, Giannoulis is planning to renovate the hotel’s restaurant. “It’s a landmark in the area. We’re hoping to transform it into a modern, trendy place to dine. And, ultimately, we’d like to expand the hotel,” she says.
Meanwhile, the hotel supports “one of the best children’s hospital in Canada — the IWK,” says the hotelier. “We provide five complimentary nights per month to families that require visits to the IWK, and we contribute financially to the construction of a new mental-health facility. It’s a cause that’s important to me personally,” says Giannoulis, who continues to extend the helping-hand philosophy she gleaned in medical school to the greater community.