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Shangri-La Hotels has opened its first property outside the Asia Pacific region in the Canadian city of Vancouver. Its general manager Stephen Darling reveals what persuaded the group to move into new territory.
There cannot be many general managers who get the chance to have a say in the design their own hotel. This rare opportunity fell to Stephen Darling as a 61-storey tower, the third largest in Canada, began to rise in Vancouver.
"The owner of the tower wanted a hotel in it but he did not know what it would look like or anything else about it. But as his idea evolved, he needed to pick some brains so I helped the owner go through the decision making of what the hotel should look like in terms of space," Mr Darling said.
At the time he was general manager of The Westin Grand in the British Columbian city. During his five years there (1999-2004), it won its four diamond/four star status and, in 2001, Mr Darling was named Canada's Hotelier of the Year.
Originally the proposed hotel would take up the bottom 15 storeys of the tower and have 87 rooms. There would be 20 storeys of condominiums above it, partly as economies of scale and partly to keep the bankers happy, Mr Darling said.
But the hotel needed a strong brand. So Mr Darling approached his old employers Shangri-La. He had worked for them for ten years before joining Starwood but all of Shangri-La's 60 luxury hotels were in Asia or the Middle East. The brand had never ventured into the Western world.
"The owner decided Shangri-La would be the right choice so I took the concept to the ceo (then Giovanni Angelini). He said he would do it on three conditions. That the room count was raised, that it would be the best hotel in Canada and that I would re-join Shangri-La," he said.
He re-joined in September 2004 and the room count was raised to 119. Then he and the architect, James Cheng set about creating a hotel that would be the first in Canada to be awarded five diamonds.
Mr Darling has been involved in hotels since his teens when he worked as a bellboy in a Montreal hotel during the summer holidays to improve his French. From this start, he returned a year later and was promoted to doorman. It was then they he abandoned dreams of going into the law or studying music, architecture or technology and enrolled at Cornell University to study the hospitality industry. He has since worked in many hotels but he has never designed one.
They worked on it for four years. "It was like putting building blocks together. We would be saying to each other ‘If you put that there, you could not have that there.'"
Eventually the hotel emerged. There is an underground level where vehicle arrive and from where guests are met and escorted straight to their rooms. The front desk and lobby are at street level. There front desk is paperless and check-ins are done on a tablet or laptop.
"It's the interface between the public walking on the street and the interior of the grand lobby. There is glass on two sides facing the sidewalk so as people are walking by this glass, they feel they are part of the hotel.
"We plan to open an outdoor terrace there at the end of May. We are not a bastion separated from the public. Before the opening we interviewed people in the lobby. We know that the public has a huge interest in the hotel. We are doing two tours a day so the local community can embrace it and be proud of it.
"I would say we can't exist without the support of the local community," he said.
The hotel has been opened for just three months but it is already making a mark. For the moment, it is very much a business travellers' hotel - 90% of the guests are on business compared to just 10% on leisure. But he thinks that ratio will reverse when the summer comes.
It is set in Vancouver's centre, just five minutes walk from most of the main downtown offices. Guests include Americans, Canadians, Britons, continental European and a growing number of Asians.
Despite its situation in a modern high rise tower in the heart of a western city, Mr Darling said the hotel had not forgotten its Asian roots. The decor has a distinct oriental touch and it was what he described as the "thoughtfulness and grace of Asians" that makes the Shangri-La different from its competitors.