In Search of Hotel Excellence: Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac

When you have a property that’s more than just a hotel, but an icon for a city (and perhaps a country!), calling the role of General Manager complex is an understatement. Such is the situation that Robert Mercure finds himself in as one of the leaders of Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City, Canada.

Approaching 120 years old, the property sits adjacent to federal government land where the archeological site of Chateau St. Louis, the original seat of the French government in North America. It was from this location that the 1600s colonial governor oversaw operations that stretched from Louisiana to the Great Lakes. That building burnt to the ground in 1834 and it took some 60 years until the original portion of the Chateau Frontenac was built in its place. The present property, inaugurated in 1893, has been expanded numerous times and now comprises some 618 rooms on 18 floors. The property dominates the old walled city of Quebec (itself a UNESCO heritage site), with a copper roof, multiple turrets and sloped peaks. To say that this hotel’s exterior appearance is totally unique is an understatement – it’s on practically every postcard of Quebec City that’s bought!
Inside, the property is anything but cookie cutter. The massive lobby looks more castle than hotel, with every surface symbolically carved or emblazoned. Each subsequent addition required careful architectural consideration. The result is a labyrinth of corridors, all heavily decorated. Just study the map on the elevator landing and you’ll quickly appreciate that housekeeping efficiency was never the architects’ priority.
To prevent total bedlam, the hotel is simplified into ten-room rate booking categories, with significant variations in each category. My room was considered a mini-suite – windows on three sides and tucked into the dormers of multi-roof peaks.
Sure there are numerous chain properties available as alternatives. Yet, when in Quebec City, I can’t imagine staying anywhere else. Bragging rights come from sleeping in the location where Churchill, King and Roosevelt attended the Quebec Conferences of 1943 and 1944 where they planned the D-Day invasion, or, in more modern times, where Reagan and Mulroney discussed the early forms of NAFTA. The hotel oozes history from every pore.
My conversation with Mr. Mercure focused on the property and some of the unique challenges at work. He acknowledged that the property’s room stock needs upgrading to keep pace with ever-evolving luxury standards. With the last major re-model some twenty years ago, and further rooms upgrading several times since then, it’s time to re-up the ante in terms of being the clear #1 property in the marketplace. And, while the 4.5 out of 5 star guest satisfaction rating achieved in TripAdvisor would be considered acceptable by most hoteliers, Mr. Mercure has set his sights set even higher.
Whereas summer peak traffic fills the property from May through September, and the world famous Carnaval de Quebec provides a two-week respite each February, the group segment is a critical component to off-season success. Even here, the property has a need to increase the available space for meetings.
To address these issues, Mr. Mercure was eager to tell me about a major expansion plan scheduled for official announcement coinciding with their 120thanniversary. The focus of this renovation, the tenth or eleventh in its history, will see complete guest room revitalization and an expansion of meeting space, creating some of the most unique venues in North America or perhaps the world.
“This new work will go quite literally under the current property, linking our meeting space with the historic site that exists to the south under the Dufferin Terrace, a restored heritage site operated by ParksCanada. In effect, this expansion will be part construction, part excavation and part archaeological dig. The plan is to create artifact displays and heritage expositions based upon local discoveries.
Once completed, we’ll be able to hold events in a new facility that plays homage to our 400 year old history. That is completely unique for what is typically called the New World.”
In terms of the guest rooms, Mr. Mercure was equally excited in saying, “Our guest rooms are core of our business success. We want them to be the best in the market. But this will not be a run-of-the-mill hotel renovation. Almost every room has unique elements. We never know what we’ll find when we remove walls or try to change plumbing fixtures. Each room, in effect, is its own mini-archaeological exploration, albeit only from the past 120 years.”
Food & beverage will also be a key element of this redesign. While our meal was in the illustrious Le Champlain dining room, the ambiance is nonetheless indicative of old world and the menu still rather traditional. Mr. Mercure and his culinary team have plenty of ideas for a full menu overhaul.
The hotel itself just completed a multi-million dollar roof replacement. This being a copper roof, recent increases in commodity prices caused some serious financial juggling. Nevertheless, rather than sending the old green-oxidized roof to the recycler, the owners – La Caisse de Dépôt (Quebec Pension Fund) – authorized donation of these panels to local artisans who created a unique series of artwork from these elements. These remarkable sculptures, decorative panels and other art pieces are on display, with funds from their sales to be used to support young emerging Quebec artists.
The three pillars of Fairmont management are expressed as: Unrivalled Presence, Authentically Local, and Engaging Service. Mr. Mercure has a fourth axiom: Protecting History. From all the postcards, you’d think that this property is a cash cow, regardless of who’s in charge. Clearly, this is not the case. Not only must he keep pace with the heightened expectations of the modern consumer, but he also must appease the preservationists at large. With great historic presence also comes great expense and Mr. Mercure is hard at work to balance this delicate equation.
(Article published in eHotelier on August 14, 2012)

Larry MogelonskyIn Search of Hotel Excellence: Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac