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Hôtel Le Crystal’s Geoff Allan balances strategic know-how with a passion for people

Hotelier of the Year

Anyone who meets Geoff Allan can’t help but instantly feel they’re in the presence of a rare breed of hotelier. Standing 6’3” tall, the man casts a large shadow, literally and figuratively. Ask him a simple question and he offers volumes of information and analytics, peppered with an infectious and witty dose of sardonic humour. Undoubtedly, this is an hotelier with a brilliant mind.

After cutting his teeth as bartender at the Prince of Wales Hotel in Waterton National Park in Alberta, Allan joined the Chateau Lake Louise, as a dishwasher, progressing through 11 jobs over a nine-year period. In 1987, he left the hotel world for a brief stint at the Montreal Stock Exchange before returning to the property in 1988. After working for Fairmont Hotels for more than 16 years he left in 2001, eager to spread his wings as an entrepreneur. Stints followed at Quintessence Hotel and Château Beauvallon in Mont Tremblant, allowing him opportunity to focus on what he does best — opening hotels and watching them blossom into successful ventures.

These days, the 47-year-old husband and father of three, with another on the way, has found his groove, using his analytical mind and strategic bent to position Montreal’s Hôtel Le Crystal de la Montagne as a market leader by cultivating service excellence, promoting unique product offerings and embracing technology.

Since opening the 131-room hotel in May 2008, as part of a mixed-use development owned by Pierre Parent (owner of Resort One) and James Essaris (a parking lot entrepreneur), the graduate of Concordia University has carved out a niche for the elegant five-star property. And, he’s done it despite opening while the economy was heading into a downward spiral and, as he’s quick to point out, “with numerous delays.”

“When we opened we came into a marketplace where there was little five-year growth on the horizon. There were a few new projects coming on-stream and a few others under construction, slated to open in 2009, so we had to ensure we had market share,” explains Allan. His mission was clear: “Be a dominant presence in the market by being aggressive to create momentum.” Two years later, the effusive Allan boasts “We have an excellent story. We survived the storm extraordinarily well.

“We were new enough that we didn’t have a huge dependency on the group segment,” recalls Allan of the early days. The hotel ended 2009 with 104 per cent RevPAR index in its comp set, and a Trip Advisor Top-10 rating, outperforming the five-star and boutique hotel segment by five per cent and ending the year with 64 per cent occupancy and an ADR of $209.”

This year, fuelled by its best month ever in August, when it reached 85  per cent occupancy and a rate of $226, Le Crystal is tracking for 66 per cent occupancy and an ADR of $214, for overall RevPAR growth of three per cent. “To be profitable in a condo hotel is extraordinarily difficult given 50 per cent of top-line room revenues are distributed monthly to unit owners — not to mention supporting five-star service standards for the hotel and residents who don’t subsidize hotel costs,” explains Allan.

Clearly, Le Crystal has benefited from Allan’s sharp eye for detail, his ability to identify risks and probabilities and his boundless energy. The hotel’s sparkling space certainly doesn’t hurt, either. Capped by a gleaming metallic dome pointing to the sky, the mammoth structure straddles two worlds — 52 residential units and a hotel (situated on floors four through 11) boasting 131 elegantly appointed suites with fully equipped kitchenettes. Each room features oversized bathrooms with separate walk-in showers and deep-soaking tubs, two flat-screen TVs, marble floors, crystal chandeliers and expansive floor-to-ceiling windows that can actually be opened.

But, it’s the personalized service that sets the standard. With a staff of 100, Allan develops “content-rich employees, confident in recognizing the subtleties of fine service and better interpreting guest behaviours.” He’s quick to explain 75 per cent of the employees are new to the industry. “But they have talents well suited for the nature of the task they’re doing. It brings in fresh eyes, a fresh approach and a variety of background experiences that can make their experience here function with a slightly different tonality,” he says. “It’s all about natural, organic employees who don’t speak from a script,” he explains. And, they’re happy, he says, pointing to the hotel’s turnover rate of less than 25 per cent.

At a time when hoteliers are struggling to build profitable foodservice offerings, Allan’s affinity for F&B — developed and cultivated during his time at Fairmont where he oversaw 43 restaurants and orchestrated the opening of 12 F&B outlets in Dubai, on the same day — has led to the creation of a top-notch food experience that continues to win critics and foodies alike.

The hotel features two dining options: La Coupole, a 140-seat deluxe brasserie and the casual Café Millesime. The former offers an affordable three-course table d’hôte menu for lunch ($25) and dinner ($45) as well as a gourmet version priced at $60, while the latter offers a relaxed and casual space where guests can indulge in croissants and coffee in the morning. Renovations are underway to transform it into a lobby bar that will also feature canapés and wines-bythe- glass during the early evening hours. “We want to bring the bar into the lobby and foster a lobby community — the urban professional’s happy-hour destination.”

For those looking for pampering, the 9,000-square-feet Izba spa on the hotel’s 12th floor does just that and more. The tranquil space even boasts its own medical and surgical facility where guests can take advantage of a broad range of services, including botox or wrinkle and cellulite treatment.

While many GMs are intimidated by technology, Allan has effectively mastered Internet channels to target techsavvy customers. “To say we exploit analytics is an understatement,” he quips. “In the evolution of hotel technology — especially in the early stage — GMs felt intimidated by technologists, who would communicate with a vocabulary that made the simplest hotelier feel like they knew nothing about the new world of revenue management.”

Instead of relying on consultants to navigate through the labyrinth of information, Allan hired people “who had a notion of it and put them through training sessions frequently and vigorously so they could become more knowledgeable resources. Over time, you end up learning about the fundamentals of a paper click campaign, organic Internet search engines and crafting text messaging that is ideal for search-engine optimization.”

The strategy has been a stroke of genius. Over the past nine months, the number of visitors to Le Crystal’s website climbed by 75 per cent. “We used to have 19,000 to 20,000 visitors a month, now we’re up to between 33,000 and 35,000 visitors,” he boasts. “When we hit 40,000 we hit a magnitude of critical mass,” he says, postulating even if you convert one per cent of those 40,000 visitors it will translate into 400 conversions at an average transaction value of $600, for monthly web revenues of $240,000.”

Allan’s focus on Internet channels as well as the hotel’s hi-tech offerings — both in its rooms and meeting spaces — has led to the birth of a “smart” hotel. It’s the only property in North America to feature the fully integrated Siemens Hotel Solutions system. “The technology is the backbone of our heating, ventilation and water-management systems,” he explains. “The advantages are we use the microchip guest cards to secure all areas and monitor temperatures in all rooms and locations.”

The hotelier demonstrates the same level of commitment and dedication he shows to guests and staff to the community at large. “As a maturing business, you realize that giving is a greater responsibility.” The hotel has donated more than 400 room nights, and $25,000 to charities, with a focus on children and women’s shelters. But whatever the cause, Allan ensures it resonates with Montrealers.

Last year, he created a ‘Salon des Artistes’ on the hotel’s meetings floor, showcasing the artwork of autistic children. “When guests walk through the space they see we’re not just a building on the corner of Rue de la Montagne and Rene Levesque. To contribute to the community we need to be in touch with the emotions of the city.”

As interest in the environment continues to mount, Allan and his team have embraced greening, and it’s producing positive results. In 2009, Le Crystal was runner-up for the Environmental Hotel of the Year award, part of the Ulyses awards program presented by Quebec Tourisme. And six months ago, in a quest to eliminate Styrofoam from the cafeteria, employees proposed bringing in their own cups and dishes. Allan took the suggestion and went one step further, purchasing dishes and glassware for all staff.

Two years after opening Le Crystal, Allan is proud of the achievements and progress. He acknowledges running a mixed-use property with different owners, during a time of economic turmoil, has been challenging. “To manage just the hotel is academic enough, but this creates a spider web of interconnected benefits and expenses, which have to be carefully identified, validated, paid for and appreciated.”

But if anyone can do it, Allan can. Just ask Sean O’ Donnell, owner of Hôtel Quintessence. When he was in the conceptual phase of opening his boutique property in Tremblant he went looking for someone with experience and knowledge and found Allan. “Geoff provided a wealth of knowledge down to every single little detail. He was invaluable in the planning with the architects and other professionals for the project and instrumental in the follow up with the contractors executing the work, making sure the designer’s ideas were  practical and appealing.”

It should come as no surprise then that after a career spanning 27 years, Allan is negotiating to buy into ownership of the property, with an announcement imminent. If all goes as planned, he looks forward to one day being able to take the model of what’s worked successfully at Le Crystal and transferring it to under-performing or distressed properties, exporting a “thrifty five-star experience to boutique four- and three star properties,” he explains, the excitement palpable in his voice.

Regardless what happens, the ambitious hotelier never wants to be typecast as “one of those boring GM guys. I try to keep the team animated without trying to be a comedian,” he says. “I de-stress them by always keeping in context the scope of a challenge. There’s no question, they feel my pressure at times; but it’s mitigated by the global view. If we under-perform in a month, instead of getting mad at them, I ask them to interpret the results. Like any property trying to ramp up, we approach it with a certain amount of healthy tension to take our results seriously and with a refreshing view of how we move forward with solutions.”

photography by richmond lam

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