Posted by: Bob Fisher | May 9, 2009

Hôtel-boutique, Québec Chic: How two small Québec hotels embody the culture of hospitality

Something old is new again

In the boutique hotels of Old Montréal and the Lower Town of Québec City something old is new again.

In these two world-class cities, guests at boutique hotels are very much au beau milieu des choses — at the heart of things — their needs and senses satisfied and enhanced in an historical context unique to each establishment and to the communities in which they are located.

In these graceful hotels there is much to please the eye; but there is also much more than meets the eye.

Examples of the boom in this expanding area of the hospitality industry, the boutique hotels of these two seaport cities — on the longest inland waterway in the world — are not only purveyors of genuine service, but they also epitomize traditional principles of the hotel industry.

It is their subtlety of design and fine integration of art, architecture, history, and functionality that give these boutique hotels their discrete “feel”; the guest feels secure, relaxed, gently stimulated, and at home. If grand hotels such as Montréal’s Ritz-Carlton or Québec’s Château Frontenac are triumphant symphonies, these old quarter boutique hotels are lyrical concertos.

Serving the wayfarer

Despite our predilection for a home base, we are a nomadic species. We travel of course for many reasons and our journeys have generated numerous important industries, in particular the hotel business.

But a hotel is more than just a building or a business; it is a social institution. And the core value of that institution is a human ideal that we may either take for granted or underestimate.

As a colleague said to me during a press trip to Québec City, it is only when people “break bread together” that they truly understand who each other is. The result can be a common understanding and peaceful co-existence. And by providing a haven for wayfarers from disparate backgrounds, the hotelier has been throughout history a principal catalyst for peaceful social interchange and civility.

A cultural phenomenon

Some guests want a hotel that is out of their realm of experience, a brief escape from the mundane. For others — business travellers in particular — it is an extension of their day to day lives and a tool of the trade. Hotels are also public venues in which the outside world is accommodated and encountered, and in which community rituals and events occur.

As a public service industry that is interdependent with the human need to move from place to place, the hotel is a way station where the commerce of civilization is conducted. As demonstrated by novels, plays and films like Grand Hotel, Hotel, Plaza Suite, or Separate Tables, the hotel is a microcosm of human social behaviour. A serious business, the hotel is also a cultural phenomenon — especially the boutique hotel.

The community connection

In large urban centres, hotels are often civic centres and points of reference for the traveller, as well as for locals. Hotels are mini-communities of relative strangers and even though part of the thrill of travelling is to encounter the unknown, they are also comfort zones of familiarity.

In some of the more exotic hotels throughout the world, travellers experience opulence, architectural grandeur, class structure, and in some cases a surrealistic diversion from reality. In most categories, however, a good hotel offers a multi-dimensional environment that accommodates diverse people and events with efficiency, professionalism, and value. And hotel design — an architectural genre in its own right — is an integral part of the business of accommodating travellers. In fact every new hotel that is built or every hotel that is refurbished is a laboratory of hotel design.

Urban renewal and redesign

Hotels have also achieved civic goals that may have been overlooked. They have often been the key element in the urban revival of large metropolitan centres, and the catalyst for other leisure industries. And hotels serve as municipal centerpieces for a multitude of community functions that increase the economic and cultural viability of the municipality. Containing intricate unseen mechanisms that support the social, economic, and political life of a community, hotels have also been showcases of urban architecture and icons of city. Hotels are big business, but they are also repositories of history.

As an essential part of urban renewal, the boutique hotels are often found in historic districts of cities that have undergone a regeneration. But instead of levelling existing structures and creating a new milieu, the boutique hotels revive what was originally there, thus having their distinctive and exponential effect on city centres. As low-rise, low-density housing for travellers they also interact with many other small businesses and amenities that are also partners in the hospitality industry: restaurants, art and antique shops, and local museums to mention just a few.

A social service

Students of urban studies, geography, and sociology will recognize that hotels are both process and product of a larger infrastructure. For example, one only has to consider the historical connection between hotels and railroads — this is especially true in Canada — to understand the interaction between hotels and transportation systems, and how this combination accelerated the economic growth of cities. Both are people-focussed businesses, and both can evolve into profitable national networks.

But in Canada, we also now have a growing network of “small is beautiful” boutique hotels each of which is an individual expression of some aspect of Canadian culture. They tend also to be businesses that are family-owned and -operated, all of which emphasizes and validates the local community experience that they engender. And this is why the guest of the boutique hotel feels an immediate sense of belonging to the chosen destination.

The boutique phenomenon

No longer a tiny niche market for upscale guests, boutique hotels have become the differentiated choice for discerning travellers who want a total experience and not just a place to sleep. They have now become mainstream.

According to Llewellyn Price, General Manager of the Auberge Saint Antoine in Québec City, “It is an indication of the evolution of business in a global environment in which you have to differentiate … become differentiated in order to attract clients who are much more aware as consumers.” In the boutique hotel part of that differentiation is a question of scale — a higher ratio of guests and “hosts.” This of course allows the hotel to place much more emphasis on personalized service.

And according to Kevin Gillespie, General Manager of L’Hôtel Nelligan in Old Montréal, “There is real interaction at the front desk and elsewhere, lots of one on one, more immediate feedback and problems solved on the spot. We also allow our staff lots of freedom to interpret their duties in their own personal style as opposed to a style mandated by corporate policies and procedures. And we hire our staff not necessarily because of their knowledge or training credentials but according to whether they are right for the job.”

The boutique hotel is a genre hotel and an alternative to the large chain hotels, many of which provide an excellent product but a product that is often a predictable as opposed to an original hotel experience. And those who have discovered the benefits of a boutique hotel are intensely loyal guests who see the hotel as a reflection of themselves. According to Kevin, guests speak in terms of returning to “our hotel” or “The Nelligan” as opposed to “the hotel.” “They also identify with our hotel as if they were saying, ‘If I could, this is how I would decorate my home.'”

Authenticity not just versimilitude

Because of their increased knowledge of the world, travellers today also want a more experiential and authentic form of accommodation that truly integrates them into the destination. The boutique hotels can give this sense of place and of history as they themselves are fully integrated into the local communities. Emphasizing authenticity and a respect for the local environment, the artistic and architectural design elements of a boutique hotel — and its management policies — reflect this small scale cohesiveness.

The boutique hotel is reminiscent of the traditional European inn or relais but it takes the essential elements of that culture of hospitality even further. Unlike the grand hotels that dazzle and astonish clients with their beauty and design, the boutique hotel is a reachable concept for the guest who can easily relate to the rationale behind the business; it is an intimate yet private travelling experience.

Two boutique role models

The integrative nature of the boutique hotel is particularly evident in Montréal and Québec; both are cities in which life still reflects a human scale. And L’Hôtel Nelligan in Old Montréal and L’Auberge Saint-Antoine in Québec’s Lower Town are two excellent illustrations of this particular art of the hotelier.

A poetic hotel experience

The Nelligan is named after one of Québec’s most celebrated poets, Émile Nelligan who lived and worked in the area. Born into a French-English family, Émile was very much a wayward genius who was not understood by the conventional literary society and thus was not accommodated in the mainstream. The hotel is a tribute to him, his art form, and to literature in general. Throughout The Nelligan guests are reminded of his contribution to Québec culture by excerpts from his poetry inscribed in discreet fonts on hotel walls. His photo-portrait — that of a young artist with dark vulnerable eyes — takes precedence in the lobby bar but does not dominate the scene. This focus on a single and singular Québec artist also underscores the individual and differentiated nature of boutique hotels.

The poetic theme of The Nelligan is reinforced by the quiet attention to detail, rhythm, and balance. Whether it is the intricate but subdued floral arrangement in the lobby, the classic simplicity of chef Yann Turcotte’s cuisine in the aptly named hotel restaurant Verses, or the skilful harmonization of classical and modern design elements, a stay at The Nelligan is an experience of mutual understanding. Guest and host share the same appreciation for human language and aesthetics.

And the design features of The Nelligan constitute a kind of language through which the guest can easily read the intentions and purposefulness of the owners and management. The Nelligan is an aesthetic experience in itself which is neither extravagant, overpowering, nor contrived. As Kevin Gillespie explains, it is the collaboration of a team of “critical analysts”: owner, architect, builder, and designer. And in Québec all members of this team work under the aegis of the Ministry of Culture and its urban preservation bylaws.

Like other boutique hotels, The Nelligan has many added-value features in its common areas as well as in its individual rooms (35 rooms and 28 suites). From a practical point of view, I especially appreciated the high speed Internet access in my room but also the business centre Internet access, which is provided at no additional cost. But on the personal comfort and aesthetic appreciation level, the décor of the room with its original stone and red brick walls, the fireplace, the goose down pillows, and the CD player that is set to soothing symphonic music after housekeeping staff perform their daily unobtrusive magic, really set the tone for my stay at The Nelligan.

Like many boutique hotels, The Nelligan is perfectly situated in Old Montréal, within easy walking distance of important cultural and historic institutions such as the imposing Notre Dame Basilica, Place Jacques Cartier, the Montréal Science Centre and (my favourite) the Pointe-à-Callière Museum of Archeology and History. Old Montréal with its cultural amenities and distinct style is of course a destination in itself — and it is just outside The Nelligan’s front door.

Boutique hotels are often family projects. In The Nelligan’s case, it is the result of two visionary and entrepreneurial brothers, Tony and Costa Antonopoulos. The brothers immigrated from Greece to Canada 30 years ago and eventually established a number of quality restaurants. This led eventually to a venture into the boutique hotel business, of which The Nelligan is one of three.

The Antonopoulos Group also operates L’Hôtel Place d’Armes and L’Auberge du Vieux Port, both also important heritage sites. The Nelligan was built into the façade of two historic 19th century properties, a restoration project that cost $8.5 million. Its prime location can best be appreciated from the rooftop terrace that overlooks the old port, the St. Lawrence, and old Montréal — especially during the General Manager’s complimentary wine and cheese every evening between 5:00 and 7:00.

But what really distinguishes a boutique hotel is its personnel. And Kevin Gillespie is the kind of General Manager who personifies the ideals of the boutique hotel. Raised in a small town in Scotland, Kevin trained in hotel and restaurant management and eventually worked as a chef in Switzerland, Israel, and Guam, before coming to Montréal. Having worked at numerous large Hilton hotels, he obviously found a special niche when he was appointed General Manager at The Nelligan.

As we chat in the lobby bar of The Nelligan, Kevin speaks quietly but convincingly about his belief in the fundamental principles of the hospitality industry and his commitment to his guests. He is not a manager-in-a-suit whose authoritative presence can be seen formally greeting high profile guests in the lobby. He can be seen interacting directly with guests, carrying bags, and arranging for other personal services. He is a hands-on manager whose unmannered communications skills, intuitive understanding of people, and guileless friendliness are very much a constant theme of The Nelligan. Kevin is the perfect host.

A passionate hotel experience

Québec culture is renowned for its commitment to the historic roots that are the legacy of the French régime in the Americas. As the province’s motto (Je me souviens/I remember) attests, a respect for history and the past is integral to the culture. This is also a fundamental element of L’Auberge Saint-Antoine, both in its design and its dual role as a hotel and part of the history of this city which has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is also a boutique hotel that succeeds in marrying the past with present, especially in its deft design features

Built on one of the city’s richest archeological sites, the Auberge is an artful blend of three historic buildings, a wharf, and a cannon battery, all dating from either the 17th, 18th, or 19th centuries. As the excavated foundations next to the hotel entrance testify l’Auberge Saint-Antoine is a hotel that celebrates Québec’s heritage. It is a multi-dimensional property that combines contemporary architectural and design features with priceless artifacts, the latter making a direct connection between guests and the generations of real people who lived and worked on this spot in previous centuries.

In the heart of one of the most historically rich urban communities in the Americas, L’Auberge Saint-Antoine is surrounded by four centuries of history, and as is the case with The Nelligan, all this is right outside the front door.

The traveller staying at the Auberge is very much immersed in a living French culture. Steps away from historic sites such as the Place Royale where Samuel de Champlain built the first established habitation in North America in 1608, the Auberge is also close by contemporary community resources such as the Old Market, the Old Port and (next door) the Museum of Civilization. The latter is another excellent example of how contemporary architecture can successfully blend into an historic frame of reference. From my window the roof lines of the Auberge, of the Museum, and of the Old Town itself merge in a timeless fashion. And this suspended animation is the beauty and virtue of L’Auberge Saint-Antoine.

The interior of the Auberge could be mistaken for a contemporary art gallery or textile museum; the fluent and strategic integration of hotel amenities — reception area, lobby bar and breakfast room, conference area — quickly engage the guest.

The art and artifacts that are a continuous theme throughout, create an ambiance that is historically significant and evocative. This is achieved in such a subtle and inclusive way that the guest feels connected emotionally, aesthetically, and intellectually. The hotel is also a form of theatre in which the narrative is clear; time is transcended. And this too is why Québec City itself (especially the Lower Town) is a living treasure. Here in the capital city of Québec, history and culture are passionate pursuits. L’Auberge Saint-Antoine is another expression of that passion.

Universal themes

Boutique hotels emulate the visual arts in many ways, in particular by incorporating universal themes into their designs. L’Auberge Saint-Antoine in particular is a seamless blend of structure, milieu, and purpose. By integrating into the hotel’s thematic design scheme more than 500 of the over 5000 objects of everyday life that were found on this site, the Auberge pays homage to the generations of pioneers who founded Québec and Canada.

Throughout the hotel, guests will find theatrically-lit vitrines containing the artifacts; a collective aide-mémoire that this is indeed the real thing, real history.

But what is even more striking is the intimacy with which some of these pieces of the past are blended into the guests’ quarters. For example, beside the door leading to each room there is a small window to the past containing some fragment of an artifact, usually a piece of pottery or ceramic. And embedded in the night table next to the bed, another small showcase serves as the most unusual night light I have ever seen. In my room a three by four inch piece of a china cup with a delicate blue pattern glows softly. In the Auberge, you can hear history whispering.

A family tradition

The roots of the Price family, the owners and developers of the L’Auberge Saint-Antoine, go back almost two centuries in Québec. Originally of Welsh origin, the first generations of the family members who immigrated to Canada focussed on the forest industry. In 1810, William Price arrived in Québec City. This was at the time when Napoléon Bonaparte had imposed his blockade on Britain and lumber for the essential shipping industry and the Royal Navy were unavailable. William became an essential supplier to that empire. (And if Napoléon had not been otherwise occupied militarily, the United States would not have succeeded with the Louisiana Purchase, which of course eventually resulted in a predominantly English-speaking North America.)

This legacy of entrepreneurship and insight was passed down from generation to generation and the family continues today to make a significant contribution to the tourism industry of Québec City. Working with prominent architects, conceptual designers, and a decorating team, a sixth generation of Price family members continues the family’s commitment to the preservation of an historic site and the values and principles inherent in such enterprises.

Referring to the Auberge, conceptual design director Philip Cozzi says, “Every project lets you know what it wants to be if you allow it to.” The authenticity of the design was achieved in part by putting it into context. The designers did this initially by taking the same walking tour that visitors to Québec today would. Cozzi’s team researched indigenous materials and created a palette for the Auberge that emulates the city itself. In addition to the treasures found on the site, the hotel was also renovated using materials from the site that were recycled and reused. If you visit the Auberge, note the reception desk; you are looking at 300-year-old reclaimed oak.

Hotel design also requires the articulation of a design philosophy. And Décors Price Amyot Price has instilled in the Auberge its philosophy of individualism and divergent styles; an historical theme appropriate to Canada and to all the Americas. The hotel has a distinct, eclectic personality that reflects the Québec landscape. Nature-based prints, bright organic colours, and subtle textures add to the subliminal and coherent unity of the design. Like Québec City, L’Auberge Saint-Antoine is part of the fabric of Canadian history.

Essence and elegance

L’Hôtel Nelligan and L’Auberge Saint-Antoine are among the best examples of a renewed commitment to the ideals inherent in the hospitality industry, ideals that go beyond commercial considerations. They are also examples of true “value-added” service, to their guests and to the communities in which they do business.

I recall a day spent wandering on foot throughout Paris and the realization at the end of the day that, except for the purchase of a croque-monsieur sandwich and a bottle of mineral water, I had spent nothing — but gained a great deal. Most of what I experienced on that day was contextual.

It is this contextual value that is difficult to estimate when staying at a boutique hotel, but it is real value. Although boutique hotels are not inexpensive, the real value-added benefits need to be taken into consideration. Their location and therefore reduced transportation costs are significant benefits. Inclusive services such as a healthy buffet breakfast, the personalized service, and numerous other amenities that are never added to your bill should be taken into consideration. And of course the art and history inherent in many of these establishments are complimentary.

If considering a stay in a boutique hotel, be sure to check out their inclusive packages as well as their shoulder season and low-season rates. In all-season cities like Montréal and Québec low-season rates can be quite attractive. And remember that as a “treat yourself” getaway, a stay at a boutique hotel has all the ingredients of a spa.

Boutique hotels are often referred to in travel media as being “chic.” I do not disagree with this designation but I would amplify on that descriptor. The word is borrowed of course from the French. Although in English the word does suggest elegance and sophistication, it can have a connotation of adherence to a contrived “fashion.” In French, the word is rather more complex. In that language it has many shades of meaning suggesting — among others — elegance, charm, art, skill, aesthetic refinement, virtuosity, and character. This is the true essence of boutique hotels like The Nelligan and L’Auberge Saint-Antoine.

For more information

To learn more about Montréal, Québec City and these two boutique hotels, visit the following websites:

Tourism Montréal

Québec City

L’Hôtel Nelligan and the Antonopoulos Group

L’Auberge Saint-Antoine

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