A sequel that’s even better than the original

When a hotel guest who visits a property with her husband every spring arrives one year without him, and then does it again the next, Anne Larcade believes an intuitive hotelier will mark the change and quietly make adjustments that acknowledge it. Instead of two bathrobes waiting in the room, for instance, the guest will now be greeted by one.


“I call it ‘intuitive service,’” says Larcade, who, as president and CEO of Sequel Lifestyle Hotels and Resorts, regularly applies this approach to her inspired management efforts. “People are paying for a room, but what wows them is service. And if you train staff on how to be intuitive, you’ll have a long-term customer for many years.”


Sequel Hotels and Resorts launched in September 2005 with three small-town Ontario properties (Elora Mill Inn, Benmiller Inn & Spa, and HV Hidden Valley Resort), but it has since intuited its way into the books as a creative and unorthodox hotel management firm whose list of unique features draws a steady stream of admiration. Sequel currently manages five properties: the original three plus Touchstone on Lake Muskoka in Ontario’s cottage country, and Château Beauvallon in Mont Tremblant, Que., with the latter recently voted the number 1 hotel in the world by Expedia travellers. But the flights of a property management firm are forever in flux, and the Sequel portfolio is poised to tuck more names into its quiver. “I can tell you what we look for in picking [properties],” Larcade says, “but what the client looks for is more interesting.


“With its various brands, Sequel has identified under-developed niches in the market, which work on the premise that clients are looking for an experience, and not just a typical product,” Larcade says. “We create an overall experience that’s absorbed by all the human senses.”


Consider, for one, the senses that will fire with Soapstones, a small artesian toiletries producer with whom Sequel is preparing to launch its own line of handmade soaps and lotions for use in its properties and to sell online. “I’ve personally been involved in picking out the scents,” Larcade gushes. “I like the combination of fig and lemon.”


As with everything under the Sequel umbrella, the production will take place in accordance with the company’s core values — in an environmentally friendly fashion. A portion of the proceeds is earmarked for pet corporate charities, including Special Needs Dreamworks, which funds group-homes for severely challenged children.


Larcade, who labels herself gleefully as being “guest-centric,” doesn’t shy away from an admission that she’s obsessed with customer service. She maintains a constant dialogue with guests, touching base with them often during their stay and occasionally even picking up the phone to ask how their experience was once they’ve returned home. “I want to know what we’re doing well and what we can improve,” she says. “They’re always delighted when the president of the company calls.”


Guests also fill out comment cards and respond to the e-postcards Larcade sends in pursuit of their thoughts. As a result, the company has access to all its guests’ data in real time. And when a visitor makes a specific request, Larcade prides herself on being responsive. Like the time a client told her that the new flight regulations make it difficult to travel with lotions and creams, so she ordered the production of a shea-butter
roll-on stick.


“They’re big enough to know, but small enough to care,” says Luc Courtois, president of 180 Marketing, a St. Catharines, Ont.-based marketing and advertising firm that is Sequel’s agency of record. “It sounds cliché, but they really do listen to their clients. They’re always making subtle adjustments to [their properties] so they can call them their own. That’s what creates that little niche, that little differentiation. There are other properties and hotels that fall in a similar pattern, but at Sequel they do it naturally.”


Through her exchanges with guests, Larcade learns of their increasing interest in staying close to the land. She understands their desire to eat from the local butcher, to eat organic greens, to embrace the slow food movement, to wear jewelry that’s been handcrafted. “That’s the trend today,” she says. “People want to reconnect because of the recession.” In turn, Sequel seeks to identify those experiential concepts of a hotel property that engage them fully.


“Guests aren’t coming back because they get an extra Air Mile or a value-add,” Larcade says. “They’re going to go somewhere where they feel they’ve had a unique experience.” It’s something that’s in abundant supply at Sequel, starting with the most basic foundation of the hotelier enterprise: beds. Guests frequently tell Larcade that the rest they had at one of her properties was “truly the best night of sleep I’ve ever had.” Sequel’s wine lists are chosen with similar care, populated with award-winning labels and private, custom imports. Sequel menus spill over with local fare, the products of chefs whose interest in sourcing foods from within a close geographic radius was a corporate standard at Sequel from the beginning. Often, its hotel restaurant menus will include the names of the farmers from whom the produce or meat was sourced. “People want to know where it’s from and they might go visit that farmer,” says Larcade.


Guests find connection, too, in the artwork lining the walls of the public spaces in Sequel hotels. Larcade picks the works of artists who are native to the region, to promote their work and stimulate sales.


Larcade considers her employees the cornerstone to Sequel’s success. It’s a philosophy she’s learned in her more than 20 years in the hotel business, in companies such as CHIP Hospitality and New Castle Hotels. She believes precious few hotel management companies have recognized the simple truth: if you treat your staff well, they’ll treat your guests well. And watching that culture, pride and enthusiasm play out for guests “is like watching a ballet,” she says, adding, “The front of the house at a hotel is a symphony, and, behind it, are many different instruments, directions and notes to make it play or dance beautifully.”


Sequel has never advertised for new personnel. In fact, Larcade will tell you the company attracts constant interest from Sequel wannabes, all of them anxious to get in on a piece of the unique corporate culture. Among the reasons for this amiable work environment is the absence of any rigid hierarchy that often saddles most companies. At Sequel, management is undertaken collaboratively. “When someone comes forward at any level with a proposal, we look at it and a decision is made within 24 hours,” says Larcade. “We move quickly and are very fluid.”


A truly modern hotel company, Sequel has no corporate head office. Instead, employees work remotely, employing technology liberally to support this approach. As a result, the company operates with costs that are approximately 30 per cent less than most other hotel management firms. Members of the Sequel team also receive ample flex-time. The entrepreneurially minded general managers Larcade selects enjoy a level of autonomy overseeing their units, which she believes translates into success, although they’re expected to follow Sequel’s guidelines on such corporate essentials as financial targets, operating philosophies and best practices. 


Recently, the economic downturn has meant Sequel is “fighting tooth and nail to drive incremental revenue and market share,” says Larcade. Over the past year, the company’s sales have grown to $12 million, up from last year’s $9.3 million. But it’s devoting a lot of time to harnessing new distribution channels and social media, like Expedia, Twitter and Facebook, as well as the need to bring in additional sales people. This hiring binge is a surprising move, Larcade allows, at a time when most brands are scaling back, but it’s one she believes is timely for developing new revenue streams. And the results — measured every minute, every hour and every day — are encouraging. In May, room revenue at Château Beauvallon was nearly double over the previous May. “We’re stealing market share from our competitors,” she says.”


And the game continues with Sequel’s efforts around group sales — a segment of the market that represents between 30 and 50 per cent of its business. In pursuit of growing that lucrative side of the business, Larcade recently placed an anonymous sales call to her own sales managers, and noted the response time was anywhere from the Sequel standard of two hours to an unacceptable 24 hours. When she drilled down, she discovered the system needed an upgrade. The Web-based, graphics-heavy, customizable request-for-proposal program that this exercise produced is a
Canadian first.


In this economic climate, Sequel is poised to survive, believes 180 Marketing’s Courtois. “They offer tremendous value for what you’re getting. They’re striving to become the best, even though they’re still a small company.”


Being different, Larcade fiercely believes, is the future of the hotel industry. “People are going to look for original. They want to identify with an experience. They don’t want a stay that’s sterile. They want one where they’re touched by an experience, whether that’s by food, an incredible bed or the art on the walls.”  


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