Downtown Ottawa hotel landscape suddenly chic

David Sali
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“Fun” isn’t a word generally associated with business meetings, but it’s the one Ash Wilby chose to describe the “creative spaces” at Ottawa’s newest downtown hotel.

Among the guest-friendly amenities at Ottawa's new Alt Hotel are a 24-hour cafe that serves alcohol at night.

“They are fun rooms to be in,” the sales manager of Group Germain’s Alt Hotel said last month after giving an OBJ reporter a tour of the new building at 185 Slater St. “You go into some meeting rooms and think, ‘Oh my gosh, I have to spend the next eight hours of my life in this room?’ These are fun rooms.”

From the cozy guest quarters outfitted with minimalist work stations to those brightly painted meeting spaces featuring whiteboards on the walls, the Alt is part of a new wave of “lifestyle” hotels that are changing the face of the industry across North America – and the National Capital Region is no exception.

“These aren’t your grandfather’s hotels that are coming into Ottawa now,” says Pat Kelly, a former general manager of the city’s Westin Hotel who now runs his own travel consulting firm. “These are really cool brands.”

The 148-room Alt Hotel, which opened last month, is Group Germain’s 13th property in Canada and seventh under the Alt banner. The Montreal-based company is planning to open another hotel at the redeveloped Arts Court late next year under its more upscale Le Germain brand as part of an aggressive nationwide expansion campaign.

Group Germain isn’t the only chic hotel operator establishing a presence in the capital in 2016.

Another of the “cool brands” set to make its debut this year is Hyatt’s Andaz Ottawa ByWard Market, which will become the international chain’s first Canadian hotel under the Andaz banner when it opens its doors at the corner of Dalhousie and York streets in August. The 200-room lodging will join other Andaz-branded hotels already located in cities such as London, New York, Shanghai and Tokyo.

To Steve Ball, the president of the Ottawa Gatineau Hotel Association, the opening of a pair of trendy boutique hotels within a few months of each other is a sure sign the local industry is in robust health despite several high-profile closures over the past few years.

“If you’re going to measure growth opportunity, look at the people that invest,” he said, noting Group Germain spent $30 million on its new Slater Street Alt location. “They wouldn’t do that if they didn’t think the return was there. It tells us we’re doing some things right in Ottawa. It shows confidence in our marketplace.”

In all, about 800 hotel rooms have disappeared in Ottawa over the past couple of years, many of them downtown. But Mr. Ball chalked up the closure or conversion of facilities such as the Holiday Inn on Cooper Street, Minto Suites Hotel on Lyon Street, the National Hotel & Suites on Queen Street and the Quality Hotel on Rideau Street to coincidence, not a long-term trend.

“We didn’t lose them because of lack of business opportunity in hotels,” he said. “We lost them for odd reasons. So to have the Andaz and Alt kind of replacing some of that inventory is really good because they’re great brands.”

In fact, Ottawa’s hotel market is one of the healthiest in the country, according to Brian Stanford, senior managing director of CBRE Hotels Valuation and Advisory Services in Toronto.

Ottawa tied Montreal for the third-highest average occupancy rate among Canada’s 12 major markets last year at 72 per cent, he said, a number that isn’t projected to change much in 2016. Meanwhile, the city’s average daily rate ranked fourth behind Vancouver, Quebec City and Montreal.

“Those are pretty healthy numbers,” Mr. Stanford said. “In part, I think the decline of some bad inventory has certainly helped the industry,” he added, calling some of the recently shuttered properties “functionally obsolete.”

The local scene is being rejuvenated thanks to new brands such as the Alt and Andaz, he said. They tend to have fewer rooms and a more laid-back feel than traditional highrise luxury hotels, Mr. Stanford explained, featuring more modern designs, bright colours, natural lighting and amenities like free Wi-Fi throughout the building.

These brands cater to millennials who want spaces where you can “sit and relax with your laptop, have a glass of wine, be seen, see people and, even if you’re not formally socially interacting, you feel like you are,” he said.

The Alt Hotel, for example, has a 24-hour cafe that serves locally catered food, offers alcohol in the evening and features computers equipped with high-speed Internet that guests can use free of charge.

Mr. Kelly said millennials are the fastest-growing market segment in the hospitality industry, and anything Ottawa can do to beef up its share of that pool of potential customers will benefit tourism in the region.

“It’s going to help the image of the city within the travel market,” he said. “It’s also good because the additional (hotel room) inventory will help relieve some of the pressure that’s been created by a bit of a soft supply and a strong demand.”

That inventory is expected to grow further if Morguard, the owner of the former National Hotel site at 361 Queen St., launches its proposed redevelopment of the property. The company announced last summer it was planning to demolish the two conjoined hotel towers and replace them with a new 300-unit lodging that would be part of a mixed-use complex.

The developer hasn’t provided any updates since then, but Mr. Stanford said a hotel would be a logical anchor for such a proposal.

“I think they’re looking at that as an opportunity to try and maximize the development mix between commercial, residential and hotel uses,” he said.

In the near term, Mr. Ball said he would be “thrilled” if the city can duplicate its occupancy numbers from 2015, conceding this spring’s numbers have been “a little bit softer” than last year’s. But with Canada’s 150th birthday on the horizon in 2017 and the long-awaited redevelopment of LeBreton Flats slated to include a hotel and other amenities expected to lure more visitors to the downtown core, he sees a bright future ahead.

“All the excitement will be LeBreton Flats,” he said. “We’re a ways away from seeing anything concrete, but at least now we’ve got a proponent. I can’t imagine a 150-room hotel would be what the owners would want. There will be a lot of discussion over the years ahead as to just what this community needs or is missing right now. We’ll see. But it’s exciting for sure.”

- with files from Tom Pechloff

Organizations: Slater Street Alt, Group Germain, Andaz Ottawa ByWard Market Ottawa hotel National Hotel Suites Ottawa Gatineau Hotel Association Holiday Inn Minto Suites Hotel Quality Hotel CBRE Hotels Valuation and Advisory Services

Geographic location: Ottawa, Canada, New York North America National Capital Region Dalhousie London Shanghai Montreal Tokyo Cooper Street Lyon Street Queen Street Rideau Street Toronto Vancouver Quebec City

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