Renovation while treading lightly on tradition

For over 100 years, the Ritz-Carlton Montreal has been more than just a hotel; it has been a bastion of the city’s ‘Great Gatsby’ society. Through its doors, royalty and the privilegee have passed countless times. The hotel has hosted the finest social functions and weddings, including the impromptu nuptials (with only two hours’ notice) of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. If these walls could talk, I am sure they would speak volumes.

The exterior of the Ritz-Carlton Montreal
The exterior of the Ritz-Carlton Montreal

The province of Quebec, including Montreal, is predominantly French-speaking. Yet there is a distinct Anglophone culture in this, its largest city, which steadfastly maintained a strong influence over the province through political appointments and finance. This led to a mini-rebellion (quite significant in a Canadian context) in the late 1970s, culminating in a vote to separate from Canada in 1995 with the yes votes losing by less than a percentage point.

Today, through a stream of legislation, both the city and the Ritz Montreal are truly bilingual. Those ‘Anglo traditions’ that the Ritz has nurtured for a century blend seamlessly and form just a portion of its wider target audience.

CEO and General Manager Andrew Torianni
CEO and General Manager Andrew Torianni

But history alone does not make a hotel, and the property closed its doors for several years to make way for a top-to-bottom renovation. In January 2013, after consuming over C$250 million in capital, a slimmed down Ritz-Carlton Montreal, with 129 guestrooms and 45 private residences, opened. The property maintained its traditional exterior, lobby and oval-shaped ballroom. The original restaurant was expanded and renamed Maison Boulud after a partnership with the famous Parisian chef, Daniel Boulud. Under the skin, very little if any of the old property remained.

Despite the name, the property is not managed by Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co. It is affiliated from a marketing perspective and half of the ownership is held by the Torianni family. Taking the helm as CEO and general manager is Andrew Torianni. A self-proclaimed ‘hotel brat’, his father, Marco, retired from the Coiffure Hôtel du Rhône Geneve in 2012. Andrew owes his deep knowledge of the hotel business to a 24/7/365 infusion, having lived on property for most of his years.

On a recent visit to the hotel, I had an opportunity to sit down with Mr. Torianni in the Bar Boulud to discuss not only the property, but more important his perspectives on the state of the hotel industry.

What are your thoughts on the sharing economy?

You have to look at the accommodations industry a little like television. In the past, there were just a few channels. Now, with cable and satellite, there are many more options for the viewer. It took awhile for the TV networks to adjust, as they had to up their game with not only better content in general, but also productions that targeted specific market segments. The same holds true for the accommodations industry. Where we now have many more products, including Airbnb, we need to understand how to make our products focused at specific market segments. Be clear in the definition of your target guest, then narrowcast your product and message to those audiences accordingly.

Do you expect to see any business lost to Airbnb in the luxury segment?

In a word, no. There are three aspects of hotels that Airbnb cannot duplicate. First and foremost, it is service. A hotel without it is really an oxymoron; it simply cannot exist, especially at the luxury level. The second is a vibrant lobby. We tend to underestimate the strategic feeling of camaraderie that comes from guests’ interactions within. The third is food. Guests want great food, not just quick-serve equivalents. With these priorities well-established, a good hotel can weather this sharing economy storm.

The hotel’s garden
The hotel’s garden

The Ritz has an older, established Anglo-Montreal client base. Yet, as I sit here, I’m estimating the average age of the patrons to be mostly in their 20s and 30s.

This has been a critical focus for us. We retained the Palm Court off the lobby, and it still serves a traditional tea just as Cesar Ritz initiated in 1913. But next door is the Maison Boulud, which breaks the mold. Here, we find an open kitchen with high top tables that seat a dozen, thereby encouraging a younger audience. Today at Maison Boulud, it is hard to tell if a patron is French- or English-speaking. The two societies often blend together, which at first seems incongruous yet somehow in our setting it works.

Speaking of youthful audiences, how can a hotel best approach the millennial market?

Think food! While it is probably incorrect to lump millennials into a single segment, one commonality is their focus on food, not just in terms of consumption but rather from the standpoint of experiences. Think of each meal as an Instagram or Facebook impression. Follow this and you will undoubtedly be successful.

I see the pond. Where are the ducks?

(Smiling) It’s still a little bit too cold. They’ll be here eventually, as they have been for the past hundred years.