To celebrate the sesquicentennial, it’s worth noting that Canada’s history of hospitality began in the winter of 1605, when Samuel de Champlain launched a dining club, The Order of Good Cheer. Champlain used f&b as a way to raise the spirits of the men during a hard winter at the Habitation in Port Royal, Nova Scotia, which is the oldest, permanent European settlement in Canada.
Since then, Canadians have expanded our hospitality by launching legendary hotel brands like Canadian Pacific and Canadian National hotels, which eventually morphed into the collection of castle, chateaux and manoirs that are the basis of the Fairmont properties. Canadians also launched the Four Seasons and Delta brands. These flags grew to a scale where they became irresistible to foreign buyers. While they’ve gone global, independent Canadian properties and brands still exist. The question is, how can stand-alone and independent properties and chains compete with big international brands?
Big and small hotels all promise service and claim to understand your business. All offer to do whatever it takes to earn your business. All are rated by the same star system. The challenge is getting noticed in the messaging clutter that bombards anyone with a cheque to write. But once on-site, is there much difference in how a program is executed between a big international brand and a local independent? Other than to the absolute points-hog, does property choice make a difference to a delegate?
According to Dorothy Hatt, regional sales director for Group Germain Hotels, more and more people are looking for personalized service. “We’re non-standard, we’re trendy, we’re unique,” she said. “At Group Germain Hotels, we believe in sincerity in our approach to customer services and our aim is to always put the guest first. For us, one of the keys is to create that emotional connection and in order to do so, we create social spaces within our properties and we encourage initiative within our staff.”
“Nimble” is the word most often used to describe dealing with independents. Barb Haynes, sales and marketing manager at the Penticton Lakeside Resort Convention Centre & Casino, says, “We have the ability to be nimbler. We have the ability to be more competitive in the marketplace, and make faster decisions because I only have one place to go and he’s in the office next to me. So being an independent with a smaller team approach probably has more advantages.”
One of the dual challenges for many, not all, independents is working in “tier two” or smaller destinations. Speaking of Penticton, Haynes adds, “Not everybody knows who we are because we’re not Kelowna. We’re down the street and we’re about farm-to-table dining, wineries, picnics and kayaking off the beach in front of the hotel. We’re smaller and much more experiential driven. So if you’re looking for an experience that is different, you can do it easier here than in some of those larger centres. The thing we fight against is lack of awareness.”
Awareness becomes key if Haynes is correct on trends. “Planners have a tendency to focus more about the corporate space than the destination. I think destination is going to become more and more important because consumers think more globally than they did before. We’re travelling differently, are more educated about travel, how to get there and what to do than before. I think it’s time for folks to consider the destination options, not just the corporate facility they’re trying to book.”
Another family-owned chain is the eight-property, Charlottetown-based Rodd Hotels and Resorts. Marketing manager Mike Robertson says, “In Atlantic Canada, Rodd Hotels and Resorts have strong brand recognition, but outside of that, there’s not quite as much. We have one national sales manager for the chain, where a large brand will have salespeople all across the country. And ours is based out of PEI. So there are challenges, but we feel we are competitive and on the radar if a company chooses to come to Atlantic Canada.”
A trend Robertson is riding is the growing movement to support local businesses, which he believes gives Rodd a lock in the client quest for the authentic.
Those who are leery about going independent should consider our Canadian reticence. We don’t often sing someone’s praises, but if you’re bad, we’ll tell everyone. The bottom line is that it’s worth remembering that independents survive by succeeding in executing client business. Canadians have been doing it for 400 years.
Allan Lynch is a freelance journalist based in New Minas, Nova Scotia. He writes extensively about the business events industry.