Not many places rival Monte Carlo, the fabled Mediterranean port along the French Riviera where the world’s rich and famous gambol (and gamble) under bright skies and sandy beaches — it’s hard to compete with multi-million dollar yachts, a casino culture and the glamour of the Grand Prix.
But that didn’t stop Robert Mercure from leaving it behind. Eight years ago, the 55-year-old was the hotel manager of the Fairmont Monte Carlo in Monaco when he received a call that would change his life: an offer to be GM at the 611-room Fairmont Château Frontenac in Quebec City.
Leaving Europe was a no-brainer, says the peripatetic, fourth-generation hotelier, who was raised in Quebec, and who has held hospitality positions in Boston, Savannah, Washington, D.C., Montreal and Toronto. “It was a dream come true to be a Quebecer who toured the world in the hotel business and to get the chance to head up, arguably, the flagship of Quebec,” Mercure says. “I often say, it’s managing more than a hotel, it’s managing an icon — it’s like the Statue of Liberty of Canada.”
The comparison is apt. Rich in history, the Château Frontenac dates back to the late 19th century when William Van Horne, the tycoon of the Canadian Pacific Railway, decided to build the luxury lodging as a stopover for train travellers. He enlisted New York architect Bruce Price (who had also designed Montreal’s Windsor Station) for the job.
Since opening in 1893, the hotel, which is a UNESCO-recognized heritage site, has garnered praise for its inimitable elegance and world-class hospitality, attracting countless luminaries — including King George VI, Queen Elizabeth, former president of France Charles de Gaulle, Steven Spielberg and Leonardo DiCaprio.
Today the hotel is owned by Ivanhoé Cambridge, a subsidiary of the Quebec Pension Fund and one of the 10 biggest real-estate owners in the world. Mercure describes them as “wonderful owners who sold off a number of their hotel holdings, but retained the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal, as well as the Château Frontenac as a symbol of Quebec.”
But sometimes, even the grandest of dames needs a tweak. And not just a simple nip and tuck, but a $75-million facelift — the largest Canadian heritage-hotel renovation project in the history of Fairmont to date. (The monumental endeavour was captured on a CBC/Radio Canada documentary that aired this fall.)
Fastidious, passionate and with a proven track record, Mercure was the perfect man to oversee the enterprise. He had previously helped other Fairmont properties get their groove back, including a $47-million renovation to the Queen Elizabeth Hotel, which followed a $60-million revamp of the Monte Carlo.
With the Château’s reno, which lasted from 2012 to 2014, “the idea was to protect its heritage but also bring it up-to-date, whether in the areas of food-and-beverage or room design,” Mercure says. One particular focus was to expand the meeting space from 23,000 sq. ft. to 40,000 sq. ft. “We were refusing groups constantly. Not because the hotel was full, but because we couldn’t accommodate them,” says the hotelier, whose ultimate goal was to draw awareness to the area’s history. “People often think of the Château as a leisure resort, but it’s a wonderful place to conduct business when you’re in this beautiful, historic town.”
To this end, Mercure collaborated with Parks Canada to promote Quebec and Canadian culture by creating a mini-museum at the hotel. Its contents are made up of more than 10,000 artifacts that were unearthed under the site’s boardwalk by Parks Canada associates for Quebec’s 400th anniversary. Another unique offering allows people to book receptions in the original Fort Saint-Louis, occupied by Champlain.
“The market response to the changes has been stellar. This year we’ve had a record group year — it’s very encouraging,” he says. Incredibly, group room nights have grown by close to 25 per cent over previous years, while average rates have jumped 18 per cent. Occupancy has increased by several points, resulting in a RevPAR spike of 20 per cent — an unprecedented level for the property. Compared to the other Fairmont hotels around the world, the Château has enjoyed the largest customer-satisfaction increase year-over-year since renovating. Nonetheless, in the hospitality world, aesthetics only go so far. “To have a good finger on the pulse of what’s going on in your operations, you have to take care of the day-to-day,” says Mercure, who strongly eschews an ivory-tower approach to management. “The culture of Fairmont follows the new school of management, where we focus on teamwork, communication and empathy — it fits with my style.”
Given Mercure’s proclivity to being everywhere for everyone, his involvement in the greater community comes as no surprise. He’s a founding board member of the non-profit Augustine Sisters Monastery Hotel, whose roots go back 400 years, and opened this past summer as a therapeutic sanctuary. Together with the David Suzuki Foundation, he’s also staged the Quebec Winter Summit, an environmental event. As a board member with Destination Canada, he helped land a $30-million investment from former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, which will go towards a U.S. marketing campaign.
He receives countless moving letters about his staff’s engagement. “They are the soul of the Château,” Mercure says of his brigade of 650. “My team has a great sense of humour. They genuinely enjoy interacting with clients … clients will say, ‘The Frontenac is a beautiful, amazing building but it’s the team that makes the difference.’”
The respect is mutual. Francine Gauthier, regional director of Human Resources at Fairmont Hotels and Resorts, has worked with Mercure for eight years. “He’s not only great on the professional side, but he looks at each colleague not just as an employee but someone who has a life [outside of the hotel].” Work-wise, she is amazed by his vitality. “We see him everywhere — at the pre-shift in the housekeeping department, to the pre-shift in the kitchen to the maintenance department. I often joke, ‘Do you have a cloning machine in your office?’”
During the 15 years Christopher Spear has worked for Mercure in various hotels, the director of Sales and Marketing at the Château has been consistently impressed: “He’s the best boss I’ve ever had — he’s a fantastic leader,” Spear says firmly. “He’s very humble. He’s not your typical general manager with a big ego who needs to be the centre of attention to get his point across. The guests love him. If we’re doing a site inspection of the hotel with a prospective client, he makes a point of coming and welcoming them.”
The renovation was a particularly chaotic time at the hotel, Spear adds. “We had no lobby, no restaurant and annual galas, but the crème de la crème of Quebec still said it was the best experience.” Spear credits Mercure for smoothly leading the team through the mania, “for keeping us motivated and pumped. He is creative, inspiring and has a certain rigour about him but it’s always done in a very coaching and collaborative way.” Then Spear says without missing a beat: “I’m very loyal to Robert. I would follow him anywhere.”
Story By: Iris Benaroia
Volume 27, Number 8