Boutique luxury case study: The Hazelton Hotel

The Hazelton Hotel is a very fascinating case study. Situated in the heart of the chic Toronto shopping enclave of Yorkville, this 62-room, 15-suite independent hotel opened in the summer of 2007 to instant applause and 5-star status. Since then, it has become a landmark for Canadian ultramodern hospitality as well as for its feature restaurant, ONE, and for celebrity spotting, especially during the Toronto International Film Festival.

The Hazelton is also weathering a surge of new luxury brands to the city including the Thompson Hotel (opened June 2010), a Ritz-Carlton (opened February 2011), a Trump Tower (opened January 2012), Shangri-La (opening early 2013) and a new Four Seasons down the block (opened September 2012) — all of them substantially larger and able to leverage international corporate engines. Yet no one at the Hazelton is overly worried, especially David Mounteer, the GM, who believes that his hotel’s biggest strength is its boutique status and its unique approach to luxury.

Larry Mogelonsky: As general manager, what approach to luxury do you and your team adopt?

David Mounteer: People don’t want the old-fashioned, “white glove” version of luxury. Many high-end hotels are holding on to that concept and think that the ‘white glove’ treatment is what the consumer wants, even though the reality is quite different.

This modern iteration of super-luxury is less about formality and pretense. Instead, it draws on the warmth, comfort and personable nature that guest services can offer. That’s where the Hazelton excels.

Guest services here have embraced this approach. And furthermore, we have tailored every aspect of the hotel to fit this ideology — the room, the materials, the fabrics, the furniture, the art. It’s extremely luxurious but also approachable and totally unpretentious, embodying a new niche in the marketplace.

At some of the hotels I’ve stayed at, I feel like I’m sleeping in an operating room. The Hazelton delivers that rare balance between super-luxury, modern design and personality — not just in terms of the building but in the services we offer as well.

Our team is dedicated to creating that “coming home” feeling for visitors. Our guests are people who travel often. They’ve experienced luxury properties across the globe, and they say that the Hazelton is where they feel most at home. That’s exactly what modern luxury is about — it’s about warmth.

LM: In what way do you gear guest services toward the qualities of warmth and personality? Could you describe any specific stories that demonstrate the impact on guest experience?

DM: When I visit New York City, I always indulge in a street hot dog with sauerkraut and spicy mustard. It’s something special, and Manhattan is the only place in the world where I can get that feeling. To me, that’s luxury — it’s scarce. It’s only in New York where I get that feeling, and it has nothing to do with cost!

It’s in this capacity that we strive to play to our guests’ needs and wants on a much deeper level than the competition. We empathize with and enjoy the people who stay here.

Here is a parallel from a real experience on property. We have a guest who stays here who was born and raised in Montreal. He told one of the bell services team that he missed Schwartz’s smoked meat sandwiches every time he came to Toronto. You can only get Schwartz’s in Montreal. So, we FedEx Schwartz’s smoked meat for him when he stays with us every few months or so. We even order their kosher pickles!

We have another client from Montreal; he stays here every few weeks. We could send him a bottle of champagne or something along those lines, but that wouldn’t have a personal impact on his stay here. This client and I were talking at the hotel’s bar one afternoon. He mentioned that despite his great satisfaction with his stay here, there was one minor flaw — he didn’t have the ability to watch his favorite hockey team while in Toronto.

Without notifying him, I called the hotel’s tech department and asked them what we could do. We called the cable company to remedy this problem, which they did. Then we informed this client that he could watch his favorite hockey team in his hotel room whenever he so pleased. I think it goes without saying that this type of very personalized service creates a far greater impact than sending a bottle of champagne to his room.

LM: Considering that the Hazelton Hotel attracts many high-profile guests, are there any privacy issues or personal requests that the staff find difficult to appease?

DM: Catering to high profile guests is not easy, but it is fun. The Hazelton’s approach to privacy and confidentiality is second to none in Toronto. The Hazelton attracts A-list Hollywood stars and top musicians, and we do our best to ensure their privacy. For starters, we create code names for certain high-profile guests to ensure that they receive the privacy they desire.

Often, these high-profile guests make all sorts of eclectic requests. These types of guests tend to have erratic travel and work schedules, and it is our responsibility to ensure that they are always comfortable when they’re with us. Such demands often come from a stressful place; they’re under a lot of pressure, and the fulfillment of these demands helps alleviate that pressure.

Their presence, in fact, invigorates the staff and helps us perform to our best. I always find high-profile guests to be a motivational boost. In many ways, high-profile guests are far easier to please than our other guests. They are often more vocal about their wants and needs — many even come with a specific list of requirements. With most guests, you don’t learn about what they want until they arrive or after they’ve left. You have to dig deep and listen; you have to observe very carefully. So in this sense, it’s much easier with high-profile clients.

LM: Can you cite any specific examples of demands high-profile guests make?

DM: One high-profile guest from the music industry comes to stay with us two or three times a year. He is known to be a rather fastidious fellow when it comes to his accommodations. He has been known to simply walk out of hotels if they don’t meet his expectations. But when he comes to Toronto, he will stay nowhere other than the Hazelton.

This particular guest likes cookies. He has a specific cookie recipe — oatmeal raisin cookies — and the recipe has to be carried out in a precise way. It’s posted in the kitchen at all times whenever he stays with us. These cookies have to be ready to go at any time, whether it’s 3 a.m. or 3 p.m. The cost isn’t too high, and it’s an easy request to fulfill because the communication beforehand is explicit. In the end, we’re happy to oblige — it’s what we’re here for.

LM: How do you choose your team to meet the level of clientele that stays at the Hazelton? Is there is a specific HR philosophy by which you abide when considering applicants?

DM: We have a great team; we know what we’re looking for in people. We listen to candidates during interviews very carefully, and there are certain key elements that pique our interest. When considering new employees, we primarily look for the yearning motivation to take care of people. If a work applicant says in earnest, “I just love to take care of people,” I’m pretty much sold at that point.

It’s that essential quality we try to find in our employees, because that’s what our industry is all about. You can teach a skill set, but it’s far more difficult to foster a great attitude in people. Our HR philosophy is to seek not just a refined and experienced repertoire of expertise in a potential employee, but also a positive and motivated attitude. 

LM: How will you position your hotel amidst Toronto’s recent influx of luxury hotels?

DM: Increased competition is a double-edged sword. These new luxury hotels are great for the city — they’ll bring even more people to Toronto every year. The Hazelton and these new luxury hotels will really put Toronto on the luxury destination map.

However, we are not nervous about these new competitors. We are confident that we have exceptional service. We plan on emphasizing and reemphasizing our position as a warm, modern, super-luxury boutique hotel with paramount guest services — services that can’t easily be replicated for a substantially larger hotel.

We have a unique philosophy, a unique staff and a unique property. If we stay true to our values then we will continue to thrive, regardless of the competition.