Rock Star Newfoundland

by Ilona Kauremszky
Special to Hotelier Magazine

St. John's, Newfoundland -- What’s going on in Newfoundland’s hotel scene? Breathing new life into derelict buildings has not only revitalized the local economy but insiders here say it is transforming the whole hotel scene. For Canada’s youngest province, it’s no surprise the commotion is coming from a group of entrepreneurs, many of them from the under-40 crowd.

And just as Newfoundlanders are known for fine warm hospitality, that feeling resonates loudly around the hotelling scene. It’s a little known secret here that if you’re ever stuck at the airport someone will whisk you home. And if you’re staying at one of the local inns, chances are pretty good that your host will pick you up at the airport. It’s the Newfoundlander’s welcome and it starts the minute you set foot on The Rock.

Here’s a piece of the Rock in the heart of Newfoundland:

Hometel on Signal Hill
On the base of Signal Hill sits an unassuming lane anchored by a row of brownstones. At first glance, the three-storey brick homes remind one of Manhattan and walking into one the feeling of upscale luxury certainly reaffirms it. The 10 dwellings house three-bedroom suites furnished in soothing oatmeal tones with dark mahogany furniture topped with framed black and white portraits of Cape Spear and old wooden boats.

It’s Hometel. The neologism is a combination of home and hotel and the owners of the city’s newest property promise to make guests feel like a home-away-from-home. Opened as a soft launch in March 2005 with the official opening in September 2005, this hotel concept is fashioned after the apartment hotel trends that are gaining popularity around the world among big brands like Marriott and Hilton’s Garden Inn. Here you get the garage, driveway, stainless steel kitchen appliances, deep soaker tubs not to mention services like high-speed wireless internet and free long distance calls anywhere across North America.

And for trend-setting, you can’t get anymore trendier than this. “In St. John’s we’re definitely a trend-setter for this concept,” beams co-owner Robert Hall of the project which was constructed on the former property of St. Joseph’s School in a once seedy part of town. But says Hall, the neighborhood is quickly changing with swanky BMWs and Volvos lining the streets.

“We’re finding business travellers stay longer. They want a lot more space and often families are coming to visit them on the weekends,” the 40-year-old entrepreneur says of his client base which comprise of executives from the oil and gas industry, senior civil servants as well as clients from the eastern seaboard states.

The Hometel concept also resembles a luxury corporate camp in which long stay business travellers stay, hold their meetings, and hook up with family who visit on weekends. For Hall’s client base which is currently 70% corporate, one trend he notices is that a lot of companies are travelling in small groups.

“Many audit teams and legal teams who are working on cases are often traveling in twos and threes from head offices and the house gives them a perfect opportunity to have a private guest room with their own private suite yet they can meet in the living room to do their work,” he observes of his 4-star Canada Select property.

For the décor Hall says, “We try and put as many brands inside the brand because we don’t have the national affiliations that other companies have so a great way to see Hometel is to put all these identifiable high-end brands into the rooms themselves so a customer from away will know they are getting a quality product,” as he lists the Occitane bath products, Egyptian cotton sheets from Caban and Starbucks coffee available throughout the suites.

Part of a two-phase development, Hometel will be apart of a newer adjacent boutique hotel, The Peninsula, which is set to launch this fall. Plans are to renovate the old St. Joseph school which the developers/owners say will radiate luxury in a relaxed environment. The 30-suite property will accentuate a cool urban condo lifestyle. A rooftop Jacuzzi, teak style patio furniture and a full service Aveda spa are some of the plans for the fall launch.

“It’s almost a given now that hotels need a spa if they are trying to compete especially with corporate and local markets. This spa will be a highlight,” he notes.

Hall and business partner, Kevin Nolan, owners of the development company Nolan Hall have refurbished historic buildings throughout St. John’s and have become highly sought after for converting otherwise derelict buildings into luxury style residences.

Average daily room rates during the peak season (May through September) run $159-$199.

Blue on Water
This married dynamic duo who have launched other successful restaurant ventures around The Rock have recently refurbished a warehouse building on the oldest street in North America into a plush boutique hotel and exclusive seafood restaurant.

Appropriately named “Blue on Water,” Jason Brake, 34, and his wife Leslie, possess the enthusiasm about their latest business venture that is almost intoxicating and their quick down-to-earth smiles have converted a lot of first-time visitors into repeat customers.

Opened in October 2004, after a massive 7.5 month renovation project, Brake reports his business has been operating at 95 to 100 per cent during the summer peak season and drops to 75 per cent in winter. “We don’t advertise. All our clients are word of mouth,” he says about the rooms where the average daily occupancy rates in high-season are priced from $129-$179.

His client base is comprised of 75 per cent corporate bookings mainly executives from the oil patch industry who prefer this property notes Brake because “we are homey with only seven rooms and they get to know everyone in the restaurant. I’m always there.”

With close proximity to George St. next to the harbour and steps away from the Convention Centre and Mile One Stadium with shopping nearby, the property is in the hub of St. John’s. The four-star Canada Select property is furnished in dark woods and queen-sized beds topped with cocoa suede covered duvets, a 42-inch plasma TV equipped with a satellite for 240 channels, high-speed Internet, and free local calls; while on the main floor, the trendy restaurant whips up fresh seafood and grilled steak.

Taking cues from some of the hippest hotels and restaurants in Manhattan, Brake rhymes off the very stylish Dylan Hotel, the illustrious Nobu New York restaurant and what Brake reports as the number one restaurant in NY, Per Se as models. “You almost need a letter from God to get in there,” he explains of the exclusive four-star eatery helmed by Executive Chef Thomas Keller.

For the hotel trend in St. John’s Brake certainly sees there is lots of room in this market. “I see hotelling going toward the boutique style here,” he says and adds, “I definitely see there is a lot more room for more hotels.”

House Inn
What can you do to a historic home once considered one of the most important homes in St. John’s? The former prime ministerial residence over the years has morphed into such lives as a frat house but a few years ago the home was salvaged and refurbished to a stately private residence and was recently sold to a B&B entrepreneur who is now cutting his teeth with his latest acquisition, the Park House Inn.

The Park House Inn is a hybrid between a B&B and inn as owner Daniel Benoit offers a two-course breakfast with fresh local ingredients but he also offers his guests the option of fine dining and allows them full use of the historic residence which houses an airy parlor with stoked fireplace perfect for fireside chats as well as the room’s focal point, a magnificent dining table with antique brass candelabras culled from his many antique collecting jaunts.

A transplant from Newfoundland’s west coast, Benoit fell in love with home restoration years ago and has listed 12 homes under his belt. His B&B stints have been around the island and three years ago the friendly entrepreneur took the 7-room property under his wing and rebuilt the historic property to building specifications, ensuring all the rooms have five piece bathroom fixtures with each room boasting a fireplace and rich deep wooden furniture pieces without compromising the building’s integrity.

In his prized room, the 600 sq. ft. Executive Suite, a four-poster mahogany queen-sized bed and original paintings hang on the wall, creating the regal opulence for any statesmen but furnished with all the modern day amenities such as a plasma television, high-speed internet, Jacuzzi, Judith Jackson bathroom products and mood lighting.

And with the oil industry just getting richer, this past February Benoit purchased another historic home, the Banberry House next door, a six-room B&B. He is now using the two properties together providing more catering services for private events and using the garden for outdoor functions.

“We’re hoping to capitalize on this oil boom. Our boutique inn is more elaborate than most B&Bs throughout the city,” he says of the venue located on Military Road, steps from The Rooms, the new provincial art gallery and museum, and the Basilica of St. John the Baptist.

Geared mainly to the summer leisure market, Benoit adds that during the off-season 80 per cent of his clients are business travelers. “We’re hands on. For me, an inn represents an intimate place where you can have a nice dinner if you choose to. It’s the same homey feeling,” he notes.

Last year during peak season of May through October, the average occupancy rate was 90% with an average daily rate of $140. Currently Benoit says the city houses 42 B&B establishments. Among these there are only five high-end. “We rank number one here,” he beams of his Canada Select rating.


photo: Stephen Smith

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