The best hotels have stories upon which a legacy was built — colourful accounts of guests and events that have made their mark and helped define landmarks. In the most interesting cases, the properties themselves become repositories of homegrown lore. The Rosewood Hotel Georgia is one such place. And, when the 86-year-old Vancouver mainstay recently reopened, it delivered delighted locals back to the era in which the grand lady welcomed the likes of Elvis Presley, Errol Flynn and Nat King Cole.
Inside the grace of the Rosewood brand, the Georgia emerged from a massive restoration exercise in 2011 that’s garnered accolades for its preservation of heritage in a city where new almost always trumps old.
Founded in May of 1927, the Georgia was the picture of modern convenience. With gas ovens, central heating, an all-electric kitchen, private in-room bathrooms and extra-long beds to accommodate longer-limbed visitors, it was at this elegant hotel that guests were treated like gold. Back in the day, the Georgia was the go-to retreat for visiting royalty of both the bona fide and Tinseltown variety. Marlene Dietrich stayed here, with 40 suitcases in tow. So did HRH Edward, the Prince of Wales. And, when Katharine Hepburn visited in 1950, she ushered in the era of late-night room service, thanks to a personal preference that the hotel, characteristically, accommodated.
Today, the reputation for luxury, convenience and cachet endures at the Georgia, where standard amenities include access to the “hotel car,” which happens to be a Bentley (chauffeured by a retired Royal Vancouver Yacht Club manager), and the services of a “fragrance concierge,” who relieves guests of the burden of travelling with perfume via a selection of scents delivered to the room.
And, if the best hotels are also social hubs, this one scores on that front, too. “We’re very fortunate with a central location,” says Steve Halliday, the former GM (who left his post at the end of May, after three years on the job; a new GM had not been named a press time). “If you’re going to drop a pin in the centre of Vancouver, it’s here.” Jazz musicians used to hang at the Georgia, attracted to its proximity to the local dance club, the Cave Supper Club (with a stage entrance that famously opened across from the back door of the hotel), and to the jazz-spinning radio station that broadcast from its penthouse.
The oldest hotel in Vancouver, the Hotel Georgia was a Westin property (the first in Canada) in its early incarnation. It grew up with the city and was long considered the preeminent spot to stay. When it closed for renovations in 2006, it was a Crowne Plaza whose owners knew the place needed work. “They loved what it stood for and thought it was a beautiful building,” says Peter Bruyere, director of Sales and Marketing. “But it had fallen on hard times.” So, they shut it down and took it back to its studs.
About a year-and-a-half before it reopened, Dallas-based luxury hotel and resort firm Rosewood Hotels & Resorts assumed its management. As it did with the Crescent Hotel in Dallas and the Carlyle in New York, Rosewood often backs iconic properties that are part of a city’s urban fabric. The hotel — the first and only Rosewood property in Canada — was renamed the Rosewood Hotel Georgia.
The new superintendents — Hong Kong-based Rosewood owner New World Hospitality and Vancouver-based Delta Land Developments Ltd., who owns the asset itself — were on board with the previous owners’ plans to restore the property to its original glory. It was a perfect marriage: Rosewood’s infrastructure, training and staffers combined with the legacy of the building itself, which was redesigned by Toronto interior design firm, Munge Leung. “[The Rosewood team] was very clear in what they wanted to do: make a hotel that was the business and social headquarters of the city,” explains Halliday. Delta invested $120 million in the purchase and renovation of the property.
During its five-year restoration, an army of architects and designers worked from old images of the property. Artisans set up shop in the lobby to painstakingly hand carve the moulding and restore the original wood panelling. The ballroom was transformed into a space in which one could imagine John and Ethel Barrymore dancing the Lindy Hop. The original marble floors and staircase, every piece of which was lovingly transported from its native Italy in the 1920s, were restored and cleaned, but the chips they’d developed over the years remain. “That’s part of the charm of the hotel,” says Bruyere. “It’s not pristine.” Along the way, they merged guestrooms (315 rooms became 156) and performed a seismic upgrade ($20 million was spent on earthquake-proofing).
In the meantime, “Vancouver held its breath,” says Bruyere. And, management launched a “memory campaign” prior to the grand reopening. Vancouverites were invited to “tell their Hotel Georgia story,” and nearly 100 people submitted entries. Many were handwritten — loving recollections of widows recalling Hotel Georgia honeymoons.
So, when the Georgia reopened at 11:07 a.m., July 10, 2011 (precisely one minute and five years after it was closed, as marked by the original heritage clock in the lobby), it was clear that the “loving attention to detail” that was applied to every effort paid off. “When you walk into the Georgia now, you can feel its time and place,” says Bruyere.
“We’re now into our second full year and have done extremely well,” says Halliday. The hotel hosted 54 weddings last year, with the newly joined couples attracted to the elegant, art deco-inspired ballroom. The property also has a strong following with the corporate community, a group with whom, says Bruyere, “business has been good.”
But, it’s not all about the old at the reinvented Georgia. The latest incarnation features lots of novelty, including a fourth-floor outdoor lounge and restaurant on what was once the pebble-covered rooftop of the ballroom. Between May and September, the South Beach-styled Reflections Restaurant and Outdoor Lounge is packed with folks who can enjoy the infinity water pools, fire pits and VIP island cabanas. There’s also a new spa called Sense, where guests clamour for the signature sea-salt exfoliation treatment and enjoy a 52-foot indoor saltwater lap pool.
And, of course, there is Hawksworth Restaurant, the hotel’s on-site tribute to seasonal-regional fine dining. According to enRoute’s dining guide, it’s the number-1 restaurant in the country and has been for two years. More than that, executive chef David Hawksworth is Vancouver’s top chef, according to the Vancouver Restaurant Awards in 2012 and 2013.
Still, competition is fierce in these parts, and even legacy hotels can’t rest on their laurels when they’re up against successful Canadian brands such as the Fairmont and Four Seasons. “There’s lots of great brands in this town,” Halliday admits, “but I wake up every morning thinking how I can steal customers from them, and it’s working.” This year, the Rosewood will boast close to a 66-per-cent occupancy rate (“not bad for a second year”) and an average room rate that’s close to $270. “It’s all about customer service,” says Halliday. “I tell our team that our goal is to bring people into the hotel as guests, but for them to leave as friends. And, when they return, they return as family members.”
Halliday ensured this by “hiring for attitude and training for skills.” For example, it’s key that every employee has passion. “Talk is cheap, but if you don’t have a committed team, it doesn’t work,” he says. “It’s about hiring the right people, putting them in the right positions and letting them do their jobs.” One guest, who’s stayed with the Georgia 73 times since it reopened, saw Rosewood customer service at work first-hand. One time he was tardy for an appointment, because he was ironing his pants, so the hotel purchased a pants press. “He’s thrilled,” Halliday enthuses. “Those are the kinds of things people remember.”
Another is the “Secret Cigar Club,” membership which is exclusive to 30 Vancouverites. You’ve got to know someone to get into the twice-per-month late-afternoon meetings on the 12th-floor deck of one of the hotel’s two presidential suites, and it’s by invitation only.
And, although the new amenities and services are alive and well, that doesn’t mean the hotel remains stagnant. In fact, its basement is in line for a refresh. The 5,000-sq.-ft. site of the popular Chameleon Lounge of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s is being reborn under the name Prohibition in early 2014. Reminiscent of Rick’s Café from Casablanca, the “jazz speakeasy upper-luxury-level music lounge and bar,” with a 150-guest capacity, will feature live music, bottle service and an abundance of alcoves for private meetings. “It’s going to be the bar of Western Canada,” Halliday gushes.
The Georgia management shares the news about such initiatives largely through social media. Keeper of the number-1 Twitter account in the Rosewood brand, company reps tweet regularly about such news as the launch of the spa’s oxygen-rejuvenation program and the new cocktails resident mixologists have concocted. The hotel management steers clear of opaque Internet selling sites. “We just don’t want to play in that game,” says Halliday. “We want to provide great service, and you can’t do that by discounting the hell out of your product.”
“I keep saying it’s one guest at a time,” says Halliday, of the Rosewood Hotel Georgia’s ascent into public consciousness. “This is not a marathon. It’s a journey that’s going to take time.”