In search of hotel excellence: Wickaninnish Inn

In late June, I took my summer vacation by flying out to the west coast of Vancouver Island, Canada, staying at the renowned Wickaninnish Inn just outside of the remote, surfing mecca of Tofino and right on the rocks overlooking the mighty Pacific. But what caught my eye first were its ratings.

Travel + Leisure readers voted the Wickaninnish Inn as their top-rated Canadian resort in 2012, and the property has consistently ranked as the magazine’s top Canadian resort, or near the top, since it opened its doors in 1996. Additionally, Condé Nast Traveler ranked the Inn on its Gold List as Best for Leisure Facilities in 2012. So, what makes this place so perfect?

Becoming an official member of Relais & Châteaux only 15 months after its opening, the Wickaninnish Inn has a strong family origin. Construction began in the summer of 1995 with 46 deluxe guestrooms and The Pointe Restaurant, and the site has a chronology of expansions, including the Ancient Cedars Spa, the Lookout Library, the Driftwood Café, a fitness room and the Beach Building, which includes 30 additional rooms. As of now, the Inn totals 63 deluxe guestrooms and 12 suites.

At the end of my vacation, I reached out to Wickaninnish Inn Managing Director Charles McDiarmid to glean some more information about what made for a spectacular stay. McDiarmid, whose father launched the Wickaninnish Inn, previously worked at the Four Seasons Vancouver, and his experience there has been critical for bringing the Inn from great to exceptional. 

McDiarmid’s time at the Four Seasons greatly influenced his training protocols. Two key lessons were, first, the importance of properly motivating and encouraging staff members, and, second, creating those magical moments for each and every guest. Even though it’s a Canadian property, McDiarmid is adamant about hiring internationally, employing people from 14 countries across six continents. In fact, his HR director makes a point to visit Asia and Europe once a year to maintain relationships with leading hospitality schools.

All this coalesces into extraordinary guest services. This is critical when considering the resort’s isolation and the need to truly make visitors feel comfortable and at home. Global hiring certainly helps, as it means they can accommodate guests in an array of languages.

The average length of a guest’s stay at the Inn is about average for luxury properties — 2.3 days for fall/winter and 2.9 for spring/summer — perhaps somewhat lighter than expected for a resort. Based on my own experiences, I would chalk this up to two main factors: a variable climate that is not receptive to “lying by the pool” resort behavior, and the isolation of the property. Given those attributes, the length of stay is still higher than expected, most likely due to the superb accommodations and F&B offerings.

My room was indeed luxurious, but not over-the-top lavish. Sitting at my panorama ocean view (recommended room type) window was a pair of binoculars and an accompanying bird guide, perfect for exploring the surrounding old-growth temperate rainforest and nearby national park. The weather on Vancouver Island is so variable that instead of an umbrella, the hotel supplies a full attire of rain gear with boots of all sizes ready at check-in.

In fact, the strong occupancy numbers for the fall/winter season are primarily due to avid storm watchers. Due to the ocean-oriented climate, it rarely snows in Tofino (unlike the rest of Canada!). People come specifically to the Inn to view the 33-ft (10-m) waves crashing onto the beach and cliff rocks, which can be done from the sandy beach itself, from the restaurant or from each guestroom’s window-side fireplace along with a glass of red wine.

This brings us to F&B, which, considering how remote the Inn is, operates under the assumption that guests will eat most of their meals in-house at The Pointe Restaurant or the Driftwood Café. As such, there is excellent choice on the menu, and items cycle frequently. There’s a tremendous focus on local cuisine, and the chef is constantly searching for artisanal suppliers on Vancouver Island. Not only is the wine list exhausting, but equal thought was given to the scotch menu — 260 whisky options in total. It’s even common for people to drive up from Victoria for the day (a 4.5-hour drive each way) just for the food!

I can’t emphasize enough how picturesque the views were from my guestroom. It was truly like waking up in paradise. No wonder so many people migrate to this part of the world in search of spiritual solace.

But, mind you, that solace doesn’t come cheap. The Wickaninnish Inn is not overly revenue-managed and follows a traditional rate structure preset according to the season. I arrived in late June to the tune of just over $500 per night (food and beverage extra).

At such a profound ADR, this case study ushers in the subject of what people really expect for such a price. Is it just sensational surroundings and exceptional F&B, or is there something more, something extra? What level of guest services do people expect at this caliber of resort? What are people’s sticking points?

Obviously, with top accolades year after year as well as stellar online scores, the Wickaninnish Inn is doing a lot more right than wrong.