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Calling Hilton Home

One year after a $52 million renovation Whistler's Hilton is as much home as hotel.
Vivian Moreau spends a day behind the scenes at the re-birth of Whistler's original luxury hotel.

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By Vivian Moreau

In the lobby of Whistler’s Hilton hotel guests clomp through in full snow gear, back from the mountains with snowboards tucked under arms. Wheelchair tennis players in town for a national tournament swish past. Other guests in bathrobes and flip flops with faces rosy from the hot tub head to their rooms.

The front doors slide open and more guests burst in from the snowfall, a glazed expression on their faces. “Four hours to get here from the airport” a woman says. “Vancouver was a mess.” I tell her that people in Vancouver don’t know how to drive in snow. “Neither do people from New York,” she says with a Big Apple burr.

It’s Saturday afternoon on the American Thanksgiving weekend. Just two weeks before Hilton’s general manager had been worrying over low bookings for the weekend, but once snow began to fall the phones started ringing and now the hotel is three-quarters full.

“All hell is breaking loose,” says executive chef Jay Lynn, with a grin. In the banquet room there’s a dinner for tennis tournament players, families and officials. In the dining lounge there’s a private dinner for a Surrey business. The Hilton’s kitchen will pump through about 240 meals that night and yet the dozen culinary staff are smiling and joking.

“We take our craft seriously but we don’t take ourselves very seriously,” Lynn says.

In the controlled mayhem the snowy long weekend has wrought it’s easy to forget that just over a year ago there was still rubble in the halls from the hotel’s two-year renovation and general manager Pradeep Puri was phoning contractors to demand when the tile work was going to be finished.

When Mississauga-based Westmount Hospitality Group acquired the 289-room hotel in 1999 the two-tower, four-wing hotel had already gone through various incarnations, opening in 1982 as Whistler’s first large hotel , the Delta Mountain Inn . The hotel was then shut down in 2003 and gutted to the studs as part of a $52 million renovation, reopening in December, 2005 as the Hilton Whistler Resort and Spa.

Like many Whistler hotels, the Hilton is a strata property. Although Westmount and partner Goldman Sachs own the building and property, rooms are owned by individuals who have access to their suites for several weeks per year, with the suites being rented out the rest of the year, and profits being shared by the strata owners, the hotel and the property owners. Hilton provides the name, operates the hotel with staff hired and trained to company standards.

A business model made popular in the 1980s by large hotels and resort developers around the world that looked to divest themselves of long-term capital commitments that go with being property owners and focus on the more lucrative returns found in managing and operating hotels, the model nevertheless presents challenges. With most North American grand hotels that started out as family-owned institutions in the U.S. and railway owned in Canada, managers had to report to one or perhaps a handful of executives or owners, but with strata-owned properties there can be as many owners as there are rooms. Coming to consensus over budgets and capital expenditure approvals can be a nightmare.

But, according to the Hilton’s Puri, it can also mean a fresh approach, with suggestions that help to make the hotel feel like a home, not just temporary digs. He gives the example of one owner who objected to exposed plumbing under bathroom counters and so a design change was made for built-in cupboards in washrooms.

“It’s another set of eyes and when they question you on certain things sometimes you look at things differently,” Puri said.

Different hotel approaches may be the trend if last month’s Four Seasons’ structural change is any indication. Four Seasons CEO Izzy Sharp announced Bill Gates and a Saudi prince were investing $3.2 billion in the chain that Sharp founded in the early 1960s. Market analysts speculate that by taking the company private Sharp is returning to a model of hotels acquiring real estate.

Puri disagrees.

“I don’t think hotel companies will be doing that, they would not be buying properties, but what may end up happening is a lot of the equity partners may come in and start buying the hotels,” he said. Puri said there are rumours that some equity companies are interested in purchasing Hilton and competing Starwood, that own the Westin hotel chain.

But on a Saturday afternoon the biggest concern for concierge Lori Pearce is finding where a pregnant guest can go for a massage.

Concierge are organizers, connecting hotel guests with tours, activities, and information they want or need, the most common questions being “Where is the gondola?” and “Where do I buy my tickets?”

The concierge calms down guests who land at Vancouver International Airport only to discover there is no shuttle bus to the hotel. She makes arrangements for impromptu engagements, explains to guests that they can’t drive to Jasper by noon and relays dietary restrictions to the kitchen. In the job for nine months, there has been only one question that stumped her, a request from an older, portly man for a soft tour. “You mean like squishy, mattress sleeping soft?” she asked. But no, he meant a low impact outdoor tour.

If a squishy mattress had been in order, housekeeper Nancy Jian would have known what to do. Jian has worked in housekeeping for 15 years through the hotel’s incarnations. Jian begins work at 8 a.m. with a meeting of all the housekeepers in the staff lunchroom before starting in on the 12 or 15 rooms she will clean in an eight-hour shift. It takes up to 45 minutes to clean a room, many of which are equipped with full kitchens.

Jian says there have been changes in attitudes over the years. Tipping is now infrequent and some guests stay to watch how to properly make a bed, because they have never been taught the task. And how many couples has she, ahem, interrupted? “I’ve never counted,” she says, with a giggle, holding her orange rubber gloves in front of her face.

Hotels, I learn, are like feudal castles. Guests stroll through wide carpeted breezeways that connect towers unaware of the details that make the hotel hum. It’s what’s behind the front desk, in the windowless reservations room, that paints the bigger picture. It’s the study carrel-sized switchboard cubicle or the back stairways that staff use to get around and errant guests use to discover B.C. bud that intrigues.

The collection of Kleenex boxes, terry towel slippers and bathrobes tucked underneath the front desk aren’t enough for one early evening patron who in bathrobe and slicked back hair wants to know why there aren’t any bathrobes in a size to fit her shivering three-foot tall child.

Murmured commiserations fade as I head to the bowels of the hotel for a tour of boiler and sprinkler rooms with maintenance staffer and former Ontario tugboat captain Gord Jukes. Arriving in B.C. two years ago to look for work in his field, Jukes made a side trip to Whistler and landed a job with the Hilton instead. His days are filled with twice a day rounds of checking gauges for the massive hot water tanks, pumps, and boilers, completing tasks like shovelling snow away from the heated outdoor pool deck and following up on trouble calls.

“Toilets plug, heaters fail, phones stop working,” he says. “When you’ve got a full house you’ve got guests calling and you can really run your butt off.”

Jukes also spends time explaining simple things, like how to work a North American stove to a European guest.

Back on street level an early evening crowd in the bar is divided between watching American college football and an NHL game. Heads swivel back and forth. A woman who’d been asking for a massage at the spa two hours earlier is chatting with three companions over drinks. A couple play snooker at one of the two pool tables.

“This bar is a secret locals spot,” the bartender says , “as opposed to others that are just places to get drunk.” He’s just finishing up the day shift, making way for evening staff to come on who will stay until 2 a.m. closing.

In the ballroom across the hall a buffet dinner is underway for wheelchair tennis athletes, in the third day of a four-day national tournament. Competitor Sarah Hunter is B.C.’s number one ranked quad player. Her seven-month-old daughter Kate is wide-eyed, nestled on her lap.

“I stay at a lot of hotels over the course of the season,” Hunter says, “and this one ranks quite high.” Hunter says when staff realized an error had been made in room assignments — that although Hunter’s mom was next door the rooms did not adjoin — they were quickly provided with two dinner tickets.

Echoing through the breezeways that connect the hotel’s two towers is gifted piano playing by Seattle resident Summer Stevens. In town to snowboard with her husband and friends Stevens quickly found the heart of the hotel, the baby grand piano that is a constant magnet for musical guests. Stevens plays her own untitled compositions for half an hour in the early evening and when she leaves others step in: a small boy with Ode to Joy and Pink Panther theme, a Japanese snowboarder and his coach, and a long-haired man joined by a couple he’s never met but ends up in the bar with for the remainder of the evening.

By 10 p.m. the crowd in the bar has completely turned over and the energy and volume ramped up. The hockey game is now on a 17-foot screen that’s been lowered in front of the room’s massive stone fireplace. The adjoining dining room is almost empty save for two structural engineers from Kelowna and Salt Lake City who share stories, but not their names, about the vagaries of building the Symphony Express, Whistler’s latest chairlift, and the importance of staying in a hotel with kitchen facilities.

“We have to be up early and out by 6:45 a.m. and you can’t do that in an ordinary hotel room,” one says.

On the fifth floor of the south tower a pizza is delivered to room 551 while in the kitchen buffet food is trolleyed in and one staffer asks if it’s all to be thrown out. An assistant chef who hasn’t eaten since before she came on shift eight hours earlier scavenges a plate of tortellini.

Night auditor Alain Niculescu is originally from Romania. He worked for hotels in Vancouver before discovering Whistler. “I came on vacation and never left,” he said. “There is so much enthusiasm here, everybody is happy to be here.”

The hotel’s general manager agrees. Pradeep Puri said when recruiting staff are frantic about hiring and training yet another round of up to 100 employees he reminds them of the energy the newcomers will bring.

Puri says Whistler is not just a training ground for seasonal hospitality workers, it can be a career fast tracker. He points out that because of the large transient population, for those who want to stay in Whistler advancement can come quickly in the hotel business. The man who spent most of his hotelier career with the Westin hotel chain — starting as an accountant and working his way up to general manager of a 1,700-room Toronto property — before making the leap to renovate and re-open Whistler’s Hilton says he wishes he’d discovered the resort’s potential earlier. “If I’d known about Whistler 20 years ago I would have been here and I would have stayed.”

His night auditor puts it another way.

“If you are happy, the customers are happy and with every guest we can smile a lot and feel relaxed,” he said. “Here we don’t want to leave, you just don’t want to leave.”

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