Heading up a Toronto icon

Somehow, someway, I was able to squeeze in a Q&A with Heather McCrory, the GM of The Fairmont Royal York in Toronto. Add to that her double duty as the regional VP, Central Canada, for Fairmont Hotels and Resorts. It’s still a wonder that my late-evening email interview request was answered at 6:05 a.m. the very next day.

For those unfamiliar with the iconic downtown Royal York, its room count fluctuates between 1,365 and 1,472 depending on suite allocations, along with bustling F&B and a cohort of 1,200 employees. Heather is also championing a multimillion-dollar renovation down the pipe amidst a treble of stiff competition from new luxury entrants including Four Seasons, Ritz-Carlton, Shangri-La and Trump. Managing all this points to a leader with a definitive type-A personality.

But I didn’t meet Heather in her cozy office just to pay homage. I wanted to know what it takes to reach the top of the industry while still maintaining your sanity! So, let’s dive in and see what we can glean.

Larry Mogelonsky: You’ve been called a “hotel superwoman” for your abilities. How do you manage the seemingly impossible task of being GM of Canada’s largest hotel, let alone your other responsibilities?

Heather McCrory: There is a certain degree of sacrifice that one has to make. But the secret lies in balance — delegating to my executive team and focusing on leadership development within our vast organization. By ensuring dedication to mission-oriented goals and reminding everyone that our relationship with the guest is paramount, our priorities will shine through.

LM: That’s easy to say, of course, but what of the complexities of meeting the demands of owners, fulfilling the growth of your management team and delivering the brand’s values to the guests?

HM: Wow, all at once? The common thread is this: delivering special moments to our guests. When we all focus on this core objective, there is clarity to our actions.

LM: And the same route to accomplishing this objective?

HM: There is no question that there are financial targets we have to meet. We are fortunate that the strong business climate in Toronto has translated into excellent RevPAR growth. Looking back, it’s funny how despite all the new high-end competition, our ADR continues to climb, and our 2012 occupancy percentage has hovered at 75%, a record high. Further, the gear up towards the PanAm Games in the summer of 2015 has provided a “line in the sand” in terms of capital project delivery and a further impetus to accelerate our renovation activities.

LM: Tell me more.

HM: We have a commitment to a very substantial renovation. This will see a critical upgrade of our guestroom stock and an enticing enhancement of our Fairmont Gold product. In effect, we will create a hotel within a hotel, with some 103 luxury rooms differentiated through larger room size, separate elevators and check-in, enhanced services including complimentary food and beverage components — breakfast, open honor bar and evening hors d’oeuvres. In doing so, the Royal York will not only match other downtown product, but with our F&B leverage, deliver value that exceeds that of our new competitors. Exciting stuff indeed.

LM: You’re one step ahead of me. The past year has seen the launch of three new luxury brands within walking distance: Shangri-La, Ritz-Carlton and Trump. What business impact have you seen from these new luxury properties?

HM: It certainly has been a busy time for Toronto. Those who have not been here in the past few years might not even recognize the downtown, which at times seems to be a sea of construction cranes. All of this is good news for the Royal York, as the city center once again reinvigorates the waterfront — literally, our front yard!

But to answer you more specifically, the addition of this new luxury room stock has created a new super-premium pricing tier. For too long the Toronto hotel market has had to deal with price compression: a narrow spread between the higher- and middle-priced products. These new entries, as well as the enhanced Four Seasons in the Yorkville area, have created a whole new pricing echelon. This means that we can demonstrate excellent customer value for our core product while effectively positioning the new Fairmont Gold within this strengthened high-end segment.

LM: Tiered pricing?

HM: Tiered products, actually. We define completely separate competitive sets for each of our core and Gold products, managing both with individualized STR reports and revenue management programs. And we have the added advantage of being able to upsell between products, a particularly apt tool in the convention segment.

LM: When you ask someone where they’re staying in Toronto, they typically say the Royal York, not the Fairmont Royal York. What of the brand?

HM: There is no question that the Royal York is an icon. We’re Canada’s classic downtown hotel while the Banff Springs, also a Fairmont property, is Canada’s iconic resort. So it’s no wonder that our name gets abbreviated. The genesis of the Fairmont chain was to create an international presence for the old Canadian Pacific Hotels brand: a name that clearly has little relevance outside of Canada. Thus, the DNA of the Fairmont chain incorporates the core elements of what we believe in: engaging service, unrivalled presence and being authentically local. It all fits. We are equally proud of both our Fairmont brand and our Royal York traditions. They go hand-in-hand.

LM: Let’s finish with the issue of personal and work life balance.

HM: It’s true that my husband often drives to our cottage north of the city while I am finishing the day’s work. Balance means that members of my team take all of their vacations. It also means ensuring that everyone on staff knows their responsibilities in their role as a team member to both the guest as well as the owners. Balance is at the very core of how we successfully operate and how we will continue to grow in the future. Ultimately, it is the secret of our success.