The Prince Touch

Irwin Prince wears many hospitality hats. As chairman of the Hotel Association of Canada and president and COO of both Days Inn Canada and Realstar Hospitality, there are many hotels for him to visit, places where he must make sure the chrome shines and there are points on the toilet paper rolls.

Realstar Hospitality is part of Realstar Group, which Irwin's older brother, Jonas, co-founded in 1974. Besides hospitality, Realstar is involved in apartment building development, banking, sports and entertainment, and health care.

As an apartment owner-manager, Realstar handles more than 30,000 units, “a drop in the ocean” in U.S. scale. But, says Jonas Prince, “by Canadian standards, that's significant.”

Hotels, too, are a robust business for the Prince brothers.

It was Jonas who two years ago put together a consortium with Lehman Brothers Real Estate and the government of Singapore to buy all 73 properties — every Holiday Inn and Crowne Plaza in the United Kingdom — owned by InterContinental Hotel Group. The joint venture paid InterContinental one billion British pounds for the portfolio.

Realstar plans to open an office in Delhi, India this winter. “We've been watching that market for the last two years,” Jonas says. The focus there will be developing hotels for economy and midmarket domestic travelers — much as in Canada, where Irwin, not Jonas, is the face of Realstar.

“I'm out visiting a property or prospective owners, discussing opportunities for branding and converting,” says the younger Prince, “but I also spend time talking to existing owners to make sure we're doing the best possible job to service them, both on the revenue side and the operations support side.”

Irwin's deft touch came clear in October when I spent a day with him visiting Realstar franchises in Ontario. We stopped at several Days Inns and a Motel 6, each with its own personality. At each property, Irwin talked — easily — with the manager and front-desk staff.

Realstar has been working with Days Inns as its master franchisor for Canada since 1992 and has increased the midmarket brand's Canadian presence from 10 to 90 hotels. Its relationship with Accor started in 2003, when it entered into a joint venture with the giant, French-based hotel company to be its master franchisor for Canada for Motel 6, Studio 6 and Novotel. Realstar aims to develop or franchise 60 new Accor hotels, with a combined value of $500 million Canadian, in the next five years.

“We've never sold a Days Inn franchise to someone where Days Inn is not the appropriate product for that market,” Prince says. “What the Accor brands give us is more bandwidth and the greater ability to offer a branding solution where we otherwise would not have had one.

“We've been operating in the Canadian market for more than 34 years,” he adds. “We have credibility in the marketplace. We've developed a good skill set and a great customer base, and a lot of our customers have been asking us for additional brands. We think the Novotel brand is a perfect fit, as is Motel 6 on the budget side.”

What particularly quickens this Prince's pulse is the Novotel Montreal Airport, a joint venture between Realstar and Accor that opened in December. The 130-room property is in the suburb of St. Laurent a few miles northwest of the airport. It's situated in Montreal Technoparc, home to many high-tech and biochemical research development facilities. It certainly fits its context.

The hotel is ultramodern. With a facade of opaque spandrel glass, a wind-resistant, double-doored porte cochere and a curved, minimalist front, it reflects both its intent and its locale. “When we designed it, we left stucco alone and went for a much more contemporary-looking environment,” Prince says over lunch in Trio, the hotel's striking restaurant.

In the past 10 years, five Novotels have operated in Canada. “We plan to grow that to 25 Novotels in the next half-dozen years,” he says. They will be both conversions and new-construction. “We expect to have at least one Novotel in every major city across the country, and from there we'll move out into secondary markets.

“We've designed the prototype with the ability to tailor it to the particular environment the hotel is in,” he says. “It's not so important that the exteriors look the same. The hotel has to fit the environment.”

LOCALE, LOCALE, LOCALE

No matter the brand, the Realstar hotels I walked through in the fall felt fresh — even the conversions. They also seemed organically connected to their site: The Days Inn-Orillia, for example, is across from Casino Rama, a gambling emporium that does good business from the area, Ontario's Lake Country. With meeting facilities that can accommodate up to 35, a fitness center and a swimming pool area complete with whirlpool, it aims to appeal to both families and business travelers.

“We've got four-sevenths of the week that are primarily corporate and three-sevenths that are primarily leisure-driven,” Prince says. “That dynamic is not terribly different from the U.S. experience.”

What is different is the density: “We're roughly the population of California spread out along the 49th Parallel, so our population centers are Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary, Ottawa, Edmonton and Halifax,” he says. Not only does that mean enormous opportunity for hotel development, it also means that Canada can be Realstar's key mission.

“In Canada, rather than being the branch office of a franchise company, Realstar is owner of the franchise rights, so our only focus is on generating the most revenue and the greatest operating efficiencies for our hotels,” Prince says. “We're not distracted by other activities in the United States. Our sole focus is Canada. We don't bring somebody to Canada to inspect the hotels.

“We understand the market because we live in the market. That allows us to establish very close working relationships with our owners, and we very much view our business as one of relationships.”

Realstar hotels are newer than their U.S. counterparts. “Every brand in Canada is younger than its U.S. benefactor,” Prince says. “Because most brands in Canada come out of the United States, typically we've got younger inventory, which will typically result in a better-quality product across the board.”

Realstar favors new construction “because as we add more new hotels, we're very sensitive to bringing on a conversion hotel that doesn't meet that higher standard,” he says. At the same time, new construction means slower growth, which is why Realstar's Motel 6 “is the best possible product in the economy segment in Canada.”

REALSTAR'S NEW FRONTIER

The vehicle Realstar intends to use to push its hotel envelope — and the envelope of Canadian hotels in general — is Novotel, among Accor's more sophisticated flags. With the tag line, “designed for natural living,” Novotel is positioned as a full-service hotel targeting both the business and leisure traveler. It has meeting rooms, a restaurant, a fitness center. It is designed for gateway cities and up-and-coming business and/or high-tech areas, as exemplified by the Novotel Montreal Airport.

Let's start in Trio, the restaurant where Irwin Prince and I had lunch one chilly January afternoon. We sat in one of the semicircular banquettes, facing a “convertible” table that can seat eight for group meals, or two sets of four, or four sets of two. Depending on the arrangement, the table accommodates both face-to-face and lateral socializing. Flexibility is the hallmark of that table, the restaurant — and the hotel itself.

We shared a lunch of Asian duck rolls, salmon sashimi and bleu cheese flan. Each modest, beautifully presented dish offered three portions, and balance ruled. The featured wines are Canadian and inexpensive; they are offered in three-, five- and seven-oz. pours as a kind of loss leader — and a way to celebrate the personality of the country. The pinot blanc was delicious.

The colors of Trio are taupe, rust and sienna, the ambience earthy and rustic-modern. Lending a pleasant touch of eccentricity to the lobby and Trio are dark wooden room dividers that evoke a forest. The one separating the lobby from the bar you traverse on the way to Trio is echoed in the backdrop to the front desk.

“Virtually every brand in Canada comes from the United States,” Prince says. “So we have a lot of beige stucco hotels; that is the inspiration from the U.S. What we did when we decided to create a prototype Novotel was draw upon European flair and savoir faire.”

Today, he says, “design is less formula and more form. It's not about cookie-cutter, it's about creating an ambience. At night, this is not a hotel restaurant. If you didn't know you'd come in through a hotel entrance, you'd swear this was a great, standalone retail restaurant.”

That sophistication extends beyond Trio's walls. The guestrooms feel airy; light bars over the headboard of the bed provide neutral, clear illumination for reading, and the angling of the bathroom entrance — as in Motel 6 — enhances the feeling of space. The colors are beige, white and brown, the wall coverings textured vinyl, there's a clean-looking duvet — and, unlike in so many new U.S. hotels, there are just enough pillows. The bathroom sink is raised and minimalist, the wood blond and sleek, and in shelves next to the double closet are several drawers. Open a top one and you'll see an in-room safe on its back, so you don't have to bend over to use it.

The meeting rooms boast the latest audiovisual equipment, and furniture in breakout areas is both circular and rectangular; this isn't about boxes exclusively. Also in the breakout area: a large, distinctive station from which to serve food. Flanking that are two large wall-mounted high-definition televisions. One shows the latest Montreal Airport information, the other the news.

The Novotel also has a swimming pool and an exercise center with the latest in fitness equipment, including the mandatory televisions. The art on the walls throughout the hotel is original, modern and local.

The Novotel Montreal Airport is “refreshingly upbeat without being intimidating,” Prince says. “It's a very comfortable space. The transition from lobby to lounge is seamless, which you don't see in other hotels in our niche. When people come in, they just say wow.

“What we're demonstrating in a hotel is that you can be innovative and imaginative and satisfy a guest's requests at a midmarket price.”


For more information and related articles go to www.LHonline.com.

A DIFFERENCE IN SCALE

The Hotel Association of Canada lobbies for 8,287 properties representing 439,818 rooms and 378,000 employees earning $8.6 billion and $17.9 billion (both Canadian) in revenue.

The American Hotel & Lodging Association (AH&LA) has more than 10,000 members representing 8,800 properties with 1.3 million guestrooms. It represents 315 corporations covering all major hotel brands.

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