“Famous designer Adam Tihany once said something that really stuck with me,” recalls Richard Cooke, the newly installed GM of the Shangri-La Toronto. “He said, ‘I can build you anything, and I can get your guests to come once; can you get them to come back?’”
Prophetic words indeed. Whether you’re a hotelier operating in the luxury, five-star segment or one who only has stars in his eyes, Tihany — who designed The Beverly Hills Hotel in L.A., The King David Hotel in Jerusalem and the Westin Chosun in Seoul, Korea — makes a valid point about the importance of differentiating your product in the competitive hotel marketplace. Any hotelier can put heads in expensive beds, but will they return?
As one of four new prestige hotels to open in Toronto over the past two years, the 873,000-sq.-ft. Shangri-La Toronto attracts guests with the lure of lavish surroundings, impeccable guestrooms and a definitive style of refined hospitality.
Cooke is tasked with managing Shangri-La’s 202 rooms, 15,000 sq. ft. of event space and its staff of 210 — all of whom must possess the “passion to delight,” Shangri-La’s benchmark of Asian-inspired hospitality. It’s all about being “natural hosts”— presenting a genuine feeling of care and respect for others, offering selfless service to make guests feel valued.
Founded in Singapore in 1971, the Shangri-La Group is widely regarded as the leading luxury hotel group in the Asia-Pacific region and the “pre-eminent luxury brand in Asia.” With a portfolio of 78 properties, and 32,000 rooms around the world, the Toronto mixed-use condo-hotel development is one of two properties in Canada. “With the changing landscape of Toronto’s luxury hotel portfolio, the timing was just right,” says Alex Filiatrault, director of Marketing, Shangri-La Toronto.
As the company, which also comprises the Kerry and Trader hotel brands, settles into Canada’s largest metropolis, Cooke believes there’s a place in the city’s increasingly crowded luxury segment for his property. “I hope we’ll be embraced as part of the city, which is very important for us, to be seen as part of the local community,” he says.
While many of the new luxury builds feature commonalities, Cooke says his product “is different from the Ritz-Carlton or the Four Seasons. For instance, the function space doesn’t feel like a corporate training facility, although it works well in that market. The space undulates and has a flow rarely seen in a hotel.” He’s also quick to point out the hotel’s other distinctive traits. “The corridors all contain art as a feature, with each floor being different. The paintings in the lobby, which, to the western eye look as if they’re Chinese paintings of people, to the Asian eye, a word or name appears in calligraphy. It’s not just a hotel; it’s a composition of pieces that have been put together for people to appreciate.”
He’s also quick to add that the hotel’s service and culture will separate the mediocre from the magnificent. “Shangri-La’s service standards — and I’ve worked for a couple of the other companies — are different: our decor, our service, the feel, the smell, the first impression are different. Hopefully, my service will be accepted as good if not better than theirs. So there’s a place for all of us.”
Developed by Vancouver-based Westbank Projects Corp., hotel guestrooms at the half-a-billion-dollar, 64-floor Shangri-La Toronto development are richly designed and pricey. Tastefully decorated with warm tones, the walls are covered with sapele veneer (a cousin of mahogany). Plush carpets and beautiful furnishings provide a rich feel throughout. The hotel provides an iPad in every room, loaded with the day’s newspapers. The overall feel is that of a warmly furnished upscale condo — with heated floors, satellite TV, floor-to-ceiling windows that open, motorized window coverings, broadband Internet and a sleek Nespresso coffee machine in every room. And, while some hotels are doing away with bathtubs in favour of “wet-rooms,” Shangri-La Toronto provides a deep-soaking tub in its bathrooms. In terms of rates, the hotel offers a deluxe room (their standard offering) for $460 a night while a premier room sells for $510, with suites starting at $560.
Asian influences are essential keystones of Shangri-La Toronto’s positioning. For example, an enormous $5-million stainless steel sculpture called “Rising,” by artist Zhang Huan, draws the eye to the property from across University Avenue. Once inside, Phalaenopsis orchids accent the crisp design, while smooth textures and traditional red accents instil a warm, elegant Asian vibe in the spacious lobby lounge. “Peace pigeons,” an extension of Huan’s art installation, hang from the lobby ceiling, evoking the artist’s wish for a “beautiful city with life being shared by mankind and nature.”
The hotel lobby is a showcase for entertainment. Shangri-La’s lobby lounge, featuring a rare Fazioli piano — there are only 100 made yearly — is unique to Toronto. High ceilings, cool modern leather sofas, stone-topped tables and a double-sided fireplace create a beautiful, open space. Cocktails, business drinks and live music beckon in the space that has quickly become a destination for Torontonians. And, during the day, lobby guests can enjoy Chinese afternoon tea from the hotel’s copious tea selection — what it calls its “tea library” — consisting of 68 loose-leaf teas from around the world. It’s the largest selection of teas in the city.
Not surprisingly, the Toronto hotel officially opened its doors moments before the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in September. “Our strategy for TIFF [was] fairly straightforward. We offer an environment that catered to the entertainment market by offering an array of event spaces, guestrooms and suites with five-star services,” says Filiatrault, who came to Shangri-La Toronto from The Four Seasons Yorkville, where he was well connected to TIFF. “Shangri-La’s proximity to the TIFF Bell Lightbox and the festival village did help us build solid festival [business].”
Top-notch service is another way to generate business. As a member of Les Clefs d’Or, the internationally renowned gold-key concierge service, Shangri-La Toronto is staffed with a professional concierge team. “What distinguishes the Shangri-La Hotel Toronto is that we have five members of Les Clefs d’Or, the second most of any hotel in Canada — after Château Frontenac in Quebec,” says Robin Elliott, chef concierge, Shangri-La Toronto. “We’ve created an in-house boutique, available on an iPad, so guests can browse the products in the comfort of their room,” Elliott explains. “One of our most common requests is to secure hard-to-find bookings in restaurants — we also do private shopping for guests, offering them the finest luxury accessories. And, we work with brokers to secure, for instance, hockey tickets.” Other perks include helicopter and private yacht bookings and after-hours entry to exclusive jewellery shops.
Today, travellers want quality leisure activities when they travel, and Shangri-La Toronto works hard to deliver on those expectations. An impressive 20-metre pool, infrared sauna, whirlpool and private cabanas are just the beginning. A 9,000-sq.-ft. gym contains the latest cardio and resistance-training gear, free weights, a private studio for yoga and Pilates, plus, guests can enjoy personal classes, too. For those looking to be entertained, the property offers a multimedia theatre with a 42-seat screening room, leather chairs and sofas, great acoustics and a 17-by-13 ft. viewing screen.
Shangri-La’s food program operates under the motto: ‘international culinary riches with an Asian influence,’ and is helmed by chef Damon Campbell, who transferred from the Shangri-La Manila, to replace Jean Paul Lourdes, who abruptly left his position after only a short time on the job. Already, Campbell’s re-jigged the menu at the hotel’s signature restaurant, Bosk to positive reviews. “Customers are happy to see more local products being used,” he says of his modern contemporary cuisine that’s based on European cooking infused with international flavours.
Dinner selections, complemented by one of Toronto’s widest wine lists, include Quebec foie gras with banana purée and brioche French toast with hazelnut crumble and maple cubeb-pepper gastrique ($27) as well as roasted duck breast with savoury apple clafoutis, vanilla yam, brussel leaves and spiced duck jus ($38). “I want guests to know they’ve experienced something different,” he says. “I’m determined to put a Canadian stamp on the cuisine, inspired by a combination of classic and modern techniques as well as seasonal and regionally inspired ingredients.” Campbell has his work cut out for him, especially given that New York celebrity chef David Chang has opened the popular Momofuku next door.
Ironically, despite the commitment to excellence, modesty still abounds. You only have to ask Cooke about his competitors to witness it. “Four Seasons is the most established North American five-star brand — it comes from Toronto — and I’m thrilled they have a new building, absolutely thrilled, because they should be the player in town,” Cooke says. “Trump is superb, it’s very different than mine — the service and staff are absolutely charming, so I think we all offer something different.”
A core value at Shangri-La is humility — “we’re the new player in town, we respect everyone else who’s here,” says Cooke — and it factors into the property’s day-to-day business. “You always want to improve…even if I was running 100 per cent, with the best rate in town, there’d still be room for improvement.” It’s a humble tack Cooke hopes will win the property regular guests and rave reviews alike.
As for the future, Cooke has set aggressive targets. “By hook or by crook we’re going to give it 110 per cent to hit those goals,” he stresses. But, as any hotelier knows, the hospitality business is fickle, and attracting guests is only one part of the equation for success; keeping them is quite another.