For Deneen Perrin, her career at the Fairmont Château Laurier has been in many ways like a fairytale, complete with its own charming castle.
Friday marks her last official day of working at not just the hotel but a downtown landmark that’s been her second home for more than 22 years.
From fancy dinners and famous folks to emergency evacuations and power outages, the popular director of public relations has seen it all.
On Monday, she moves over to a new castle look-alike, the Royal Canadian Mint, where she starts her new job as senior program manager of policy and stakeholder relations. The Crown corporation is led by chief executive Marie Lemay, a former CEO of the National Capital Commission.
Perrin says she’s been wanting to shake things up in her career for some time, and believes the COVID-19 pandemic has given her the courage to actually make a change.
“If I didn’t love what I did for so many years I wouldn’t have stayed for as long as I did,” said Perrin, 50, who was first hired at the hotel in 1998 as a co-ordinator after having done a four-month college placement there a couple of years prior.
“I thought I’d be here for two years and then do something else, but then I just loved it. I loved everything that the hotel stands for. I loved the people, the building and the history. It just felt like home.”
Perrin said the timing now feels right for her to make a move. It helps that her children, Sophia, 20, and Alex, 16, are older now, giving her more opportunity to devote herself to new challenges.
“It’s important to do what you do really, really well in life,” she explained. “You need to be dedicated, you need to be loyal, and those are all the things I try and teach my kids.
“But I want them to also know that change is good, change is important, change helps you to grow. The only way that you will grow is if you make the leaps. It’s taken me a little bit of time to do that change, but I’m excited about what it will bring.
“I’m moving to a position that will allow for me to learn so many new skills and also use the skills that I already have, and that is really important to me.”
At times, the Château Laurier has been a dream job filled with champagne parties, high tea sandwiches and encounters with the likes of Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, the Obamas and members of Ottawa’s business, diplomatic and political elite. The hotel, with its chandeliers, crown mouldings, Roman columns, marble staircase and floors, and copper roof and turrets, is a designated national historic site.
“We say the hotel is rich in history and young at heart,” says Perrin.
One of Deneen's favourite periods with the hotel was in 2012. That’s when the Château Laurier hosted parties and special dinners to celebrate its 100th birthday (tragically, the visionary behind the hotel, Charles Melville Hays, had been travelling on the ill-fated passenger ship Titanic and didn't survive the sinking to attend the grand opening).
The hotel offered a limited-time, $100-a-night rate that saw guests line up outside the hotel as early as 4 a.m. to book a room. The Château Laurier also held an amnesty day for visitors to return historic treasures and other items they’d pinched from the building over the years, no questions asked.
Perrin remembers, during Canada’s 150th celebrations in 2017, emerging from the hotel’s front entrance to marvel at such spectacles as a giant mechanical spider and fire-breathing dragon roaming the roads, and skaters racing at top speeds down the Red Bull crashed ice course set up next to the Château Laurier.
“I truly did get up every morning and think, ‘I work in the best place ever,’” says Perrin, who’s had three very different general managers: Pat Kelly, the late Claude Sauvé and Rick Corcoran.
"I truly did get up every morning and think, 'I work in the best place ever.'"
Perrin’s hours at the Château Laurier were understandably reduced after the pandemic hit the travel and tourism industry particularly hard. The hotel closed temporarily during the first lockdown, and when it reopened, strict measures were put in place to ensure the health and safety of guests and employees.
“I have never felt unsafe,” Perrin says emphatically.
The hotel’s public relations role is an exciting one “but for various reasons,” she says, before launching into a series of stories about crisis management.
The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the U.S. caused such global fear that the hotel had to quickly evacuate part of its building as a precautionary measure. Fortunately, suspicious activity next door at Parliament Hill turned out to be nothing.
Another time, the hotel was flooded with false reports of a crazed gunman escaping into the Château Laurier following the 2014 tragic killing of a Canadian soldier at the nearby Tomb of the Unknown Solider. Perrin said she had to act “swiftly and quickly” to set the news media straight and to reassure the public all their guests were safe. The hotel was one of many downtown buildings that went into full lockdown that day.
When a giant sinkhole swallowed part of Rideau Street in 2016, the hotel temporarily lost power, heat and water. Again, excellent communication with the hotel guests was key, said Perrin, who is bilingual and speaks conversational German.
“A lot of people see the sexy part of this job, and there is that, absolutely. There are a lot of great parties, great events. But there are a lot of things that go on behind the scenes that nobody ever sees.”
Such as Perrin running around in her sneakers, juggling hundreds of silent auction items and fluffing up dozens of Christmas trees for the annual benefit that the hotel hosts for CHEO each holiday season in its main ballroom. She started Trees of Hope when she first joined the hotel, raising $3,000 in its first year. In 2019, the event took in a record haul of $125,000 for the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario.
Perrin – who was born in Sudbury and raised in Gatineau – sat on the CHEO Foundation board for 10 years and was previously a member of the Downtown Rideau BIA board and former Algonquin College Foundation board. She continues to sit on the board for Make-A-Wish Eastern Ontario.
Perrin may be leaving the hotel, but her loyalty remains. She will continue to stay at Fairmont hotels during her future travels.
“I do think tourism is going to come back. I really believe that people are eager to travel again, but right now we need to do what’s safe.”
One wonders whether Perrin is tempted on her last day of work to walk off with a hotel souvenir. There’s an enormously large and heavy book of signatures of all the celebrities who’ve ever stayed at the hotel, for example.
“No, I want that to live on forever – that’s why I made it sooo big,” she replied. “If I had one memory I could leave with, it would be one of the original Château Laurier doorknobs. That kind of craftsmanship does not exist anymore.”
What does she need Château Laurier doorknobs for? She must know the doors at the hotel will always remain open for her.