After spending decades living the nomadic lifestyle so typical of a top-level hotel manager, Denis Gilles feels like he’s finally where he’s meant to be.
“Ottawa is home,” says the new general manager of Hilton’s first two downtown properties in the nation’s capital, the Garden Inn and Homewood Suites.
Gilles, who officially assumed his new post on March 5, is back in Ottawa following a seven-year absence. After overseeing the former Crowne Plaza’s conversion to the Delta Ottawa City Centre, he criss-crossed the country with the SilverBirch Hotels & Resorts chain, managing properties in Sainte-Hyacinthe, Que., Fort McMurray, Alta., Halifax and finally, for the past year, Regina.
“I was on the road for seven years and now basically I’m back home,” says Gilles, who was born in Paris and grew up in Quebec City but now considers the capital his city. “It was the perfect opportunity.”
The new Hilton lodgings are set to open this fall at the site of the former National Hotel & Suites at 361 Queen St. The chain is pouring $40 million into a full-scale makeover of the Morguard-owned property, which will be home to a 175-room Garden Inn geared toward leisure travellers and the 171-unit Homewood Suites catering to extended-stay guests.
Gilles, who spent 15 years at hotels in Vietnam, the Philippines and China before returning to North America in 2008 to manage the Crowne Plaza’s downtown Ottawa property, says Hilton – which operates nearly 600 hotels and resorts in 85 countries – was long overdue to establish a presence in the heart of Canada’s capital.
"Wherever you turn (in Ottawa), it’s a Marriott property. We need to be able to compete. There is only room for Hilton to grow."
“For the brand, it’s very high exposure,” he says. “It’s very high-profile. Wherever you turn (in Ottawa), it’s a Marriott property. We need to be able to compete. There is only room for Hilton to grow.”
The new facilities will have all the amenities tourists would expect from one of the world’s most famous hotel brands, including 4,500 square feet of conference space, a bar, restaurant, pool and fitness facility. But Gilles says he’s also hoping to inject a quality that’s harder to define into the guest experience at the new properties, which are expected to employ about 130 people.
“I’ve been around long enough to know that it’s not possible for anybody to be the best (in all facets),” he explains. “I want the properties to be memorable – when (guests) come, they say, ‘Hey, I don’t know what it is in here, but it’s different.’”
Gilles, who left Ottawa in 2011, says he feels a bit like that when he strolls the central business district and sees how projects such as light rail, Lansdowne Park, Zibi and the pending redevelopment of LeBreton Flats are poised to transform the city’s core.
“When I left Ottawa, there was no construction anywhere,” he recalls. “Everything, day after day, was the same. Now, when you go anywhere, there’s construction everywhere. It’s moving. You feel some evolution in Ottawa. It’s not the sleepy town that it is used to be known as. You feel that something is happening.”
Ottawa room inventory to jump 10%
The new Hiltons aren’t the only hotel properties slated to make their Ottawa debut this year. Le Germain is gearing up for its grand opening at the new ArtHaus complex on Daly Avenue later this month, while three more new lodgings are expected to be completed near the airport before the year is out.
All told, the region’s total room inventory could jump by more than 1,000 in 2018, an increase of 10 per cent. Steve Ball, the head of the Ottawa Gatineau Hotel Association that represents more than 50 properties throughout the region, says it remains to be seen how quickly the industry can absorb the addition of so many extra rooms in such a short span of time.
“Does the pool get any deeper or do we just share more clients among more properties?” he says. “Who knows?”
Ball says he’s encouraged by what he’s hearing from local hoteliers, who seem to have dodged the much-dreaded “hangover” following a record year for the city’s tourism industry in 2017.
“January (occupancy) this year was better than January last year,” he says. “We’ve got nice momentum. Hopefully, it’s the carryover halo from (the Canada 150 celebrations in) 2017. There’s optimism that we’ll maintain the momentum for sure. February was also a good month. March, I’m hearing, is a little softer, but there is great optimism that we’ll hold our numbers going into the summer.”