Gil Blutrich of Skyline Development talks independence and the art of hospitality
Walk into the lobby of Toronto’s Cosmopolitan Hotel and one can’t help but feel transported out of Canada’s busiest city and into something more relaxed. While the entrance is chic, modern and inviting (there’s even a sexy-looking wine bar) the atmosphere is quite different from the city’s other upscale business-travel properties, or even that of its sister property, Toronto’s Pantages Hotel. Of course, this is intentional, according to the hotel group’s passionate leader, Gil Blutrich.
President of Skyline International Development Inc. — which is a multi-faceted investment company with a focus on residential, corporate and hospitality real estate — Blutrich is a veteran of the Toronto scene, arriving in the city in the late 1990s as a budding real estate maven looking to make his mark. “It was always my dream to be in this business, which is why I completed my hospitality degree in Israel,” says Blutrich.
Sitting in the Cosmo’s stately penthouse suite, which is yours for $4,000 per night, the dream definitely takes on a certain element of grand success. However, the highly driven mogul soon found his ultimate goals were higher up the hospitality food chain. So, after founding a real estate firm in his native Israel, Blutrich looked across the Atlantic to a country he says holds vast potential.
“I came to Canada because, from a view of 30,000 feet, it truly is a land of opportunity when it comes to real estate and hospitality development,” he says. “I immigrated in 1998 and immediately got my company into the executive- stay business. We merged with Minto [an integrated real estate development, construction and management company with operations in Ottawa, Toronto and Florida] and together we now have one of the largest extendedstay portfolios in Eastern Canada.”
In terms of its business holdings, Blutrich wasn’t satisfied with only being a player in the extended-stay hotel business. After a few trips to New York, he found his inspiration. “In early 2000, I was impressed with the trend of offering the boutique hotel experience to travellers. After the success of our properties, we decided to get into the boutique hotel business.”
Armed with a vision and hospitality know-how, the company dove into the deep-end of the Toronto pool, and made an instant splash. “We opened the 110-room Pantages in 2004, and at the time it was one of the first true boutique hotels in downtown Toronto,” says Blutrich. Not only did the property impress out of the gate, it continues to do so, boasting an average occupancy rate of 74 per cent, ADR of $205 and RevPAR of $150, according to David Zaltman, CEO of Skyline Boutique Hotels and Resorts. In terms of theme, the Pantages, which cost $50 million to build, is an undeniably social, hip, “see-and-beseen” kind of place.With a central martini bar as its focus, the hotel caters to the kind of traveller for whom nightlife is a necessity. However, despite its warm reception in the city (and its continued popularity), Blutrich says his company had some different tricks and ideas up its sleeve for its next project.
“We followed the Pantages with the opening of the 97-suite Cosmopolitan hotel in 2006,” says Blutrich of the $40-million downtown project. “While the focus and the centre of the Pantages is the martini bar, the Cosmo is deliberately tucked away on a sidestreet. It’s kind of an oasis in the middle of the city. So the focus is the spa.”
Not just the spa it seems. Purposebuilt as a place to stay-a-while, the Cosmo offers a new take on a health and wellness retreat, given its downtown address. With a selection of calming incense and various crystals for turn-down pillow placement, a Zen atmosphere is fostered at every turn, which is something Blutrich believes is unique to business travel, and is appreciated by the hotel’s regulars. “I know what business travel is like,” he says. “Here, every room is like an apartment, complete with kitchens, laundry and all the comforts of home. Our roots are in the extended-stay business, so we’ve taken that expertise and put it into this property.”
Regardless of focus, the success found at the Pantages has carried over into the new property, and Zaltman reports that the current occupancy rate, ADR and RevPAR are almost exactly the same as those achieved at the Pantages.
The Cosmopolitan has an undeniable sense of independent flair, even in the immaculate, trendy penthouse. A painting hangs on the wall with Blutrich’s signature marking its bottom right-hand corner. Upon inquiry, the developer-cum-artist chuckles and recounts the painting’s history. “I did that in here early one morning, looking out at the sunrise. I actually told a friend I bought it for $20,000 at auction,” he says, laughing. While the friend in question was decidedly unimpressed with the “purchase” and was reportedly not too complimentary about the artist, the mere fact it hangs in the property’s most prestigious room, demands at least a tip of the hat. In the age of the big chain, Blutrich defiantly paints his own corporate picture.
Steering the conversation back to business, he says that while operating independent hotels can be a struggle, the demands of modern travellers are swaying in his favour. Aided by the Internet revolution, and the access it grants his guests, Blutrich notes that hotels do not have to have convenient, central reservation systems to be highly successful. “The era of bigbox hotels relying on a central reservation system to give them an advantage is changing,” he says. Skyline’s hotels are affiliated through Luxe Worldwide Hotels, a collection of premier luxury properties from around the globe, and the company has also spent a great deal of time and money on new websites for its hotels to help drive reservations.
“Today, consumers have direct access to the reservation systems of independent hotels and are not hesitant about using them,” says Blutrich. “That’s resulted in a change in market taste. We’re seeing more sophisticated travellers looking for an experience.”
When it comes to providing that experience, Blutrich believes larger chain hotels just aren’t set-up to offer what his staff can, simply by virtue of their size. “We’re small, but it’s an advantage. We don’t have a dedicated concierge. Every staff member is a lifestyle manager, and they’re motivated to help guests.”
By way of example, Blutrich points to a white piano that’s tucked against a wall in the well-appointed suite, explaining it was requested by Sir Elton John, who stayed in the room and insisted he have the instrument at hand. While celebrities inevitably expect and get the VIP treatment, Blutrich says due to their small size, his hotels treat everyone with the same attitude. “We don’t have VIP or club floors,” he says, “because we treat everyone like a VIP.”
One anecdote Blutrich shares is a recent story at the Pantages hotel, which he says is often used by convalescing patients from the nearby St. Michael’s Hospital. “One of our staff knew the guest was using our rooms to recover, and she made the point of bringing in her own homemade chicken soup, even on her day-off.”
Despite the positives that come from owning independent hotels (and Blutrich has found many), he does acknowledge the segment faces serious challenges. The success of his hotels lies in his staff and their ability to be effective “lifestyle managers.” This, of course, demands extensive training. “When it comes to competing with the large chains, staff education is the biggest challenge,” he says. “Chains have central programs and people to coordinate them. As an independent, you have to engage external teams, and that’smore expensive.”
While there are necessary evils in the independent hotel sector — such as training, buying power and the hiring issue — which pose problems for small operators, Blutrich is resolute about the segment’s future. “It can definitely be tougher to be smaller, but there’s good news in Canada,” he says. “More and more people are spending their vacation time and dollars at home. The costs and security issues with leaving the country are going to result in more Canadians travelling in Canada.”
To that end, the company is looking to make serious headway into Ontario’s ski business by developing a newly acquired parcel of land at Horseshoe Valley. But regardless of the shape or direction of the independent hotel segment, you can bet that Blutrich will remain at its centre for quite some time. With the combination of real estate acumen and a never-say-no approach to guest services, his properties are fast becoming go-to spots for a new generation of sophisticated travellers.