SUCCESSION: Canadian hotel dynasties, who are they & what makes them tick?

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Welcome to PART ONE of our STAY Magazine series about legacy hotel owners in Canada. Through this 2024 series, we bring you stories about fascinating people and celebrated hotels—some of the brightest, most textured bits of the rich fabric of our Canadian hotel industry history.

Compiled out of frank and fascinating interviews; from poring over archives and conversations with key personnel, we bring you these first two stories of two Canadian legacy hotel groups—Accent Inns and Gillin Hotels—and their people.

Mandy Farmer, president and CEO of Accent Inns, is renowned for her bold, high-spirited and marvellously successful leadership style and commitment to community values…

Under Farmer’s guidance, British Columbia’s Accent Inns has grown from a regional family-owned business (started by Farmer’s father, Terry, in 1986) into a nationally recognized brand, celebrated for its unique blend of quality, service, and a flair for the unconventional. Her visionary approach has not only expanded the company’s footprint across British Columbia but also led to the creation of the Hotel Zed brand, a collection of eclectic, retro-inspired hotels that cater to travellers seeking a memorable experience.

Farmer’s contributions to the industry extend beyond her business achievements. She is a vocal advocate for sustainability, employee well-being, and community engagement, integrating these core values into every facet of her operations.

Her efforts have garnered numerous awards and accolades, solidifying her reputation as a trailblazer in the hospitality sector.

The Farmer family’s legacy in the Canadian hotel industry is a testament to their passion for hospitality and innovation. With Mandy Farmer at the helm, Accent Inns and Hotel Zed continue to set benchmarks for excellence, creativity, and social responsibility, making a lasting impact on the landscape of Canadian tourism.

We sat down to talk to Farmer about family, leadership, succession and why giving back drives just about every element of the Accent Inns’ business.

Mandy Farmer, president and CEO, Accent Inns


What does it mean to you to be a legacy owner within the pages of Canadian hotel history?

Being a family business means that the chapters of our company’s story are generational. As the “next generation,” I get to reflect on which parts of the business I need to preserve and which parts I need to reinvent.

When I became CEO, I was able to push the boundaries of hospitality’s rules and create a new brand within our company, Hotel Zed. At Zed, we’re rebels against the ordinary. Hot pink waterslide! Sex-positive Valentine’s Day campaigns! Hidden arcades! It’s totally the next evolution of Accent Inns.

When I was about 12 and my Dad started working in hotels, he was just so happy. He knew all the housekeepers by name. He loved reading all the comment cards and making improvements. It was my Dad who decades ago introduced our iconic Accent Inns rubber ducks to the rooms. That was outrageous at the time!

My Dad set the tone for our company with his values, and when I took over I wanted to treasure and nurture them. The way we lead with love is our key differentiator and it started with him. I worked with our leadership to articulate what we were already doing right, define our values, and let them guide the business.

As a legacy hotel owner, how do you contribute to your community? What are some passion projects associated with your hotel(s)?

I care deeply about making our properties safe and happy spaces for our employees, guests and neighbours. I’ve always invested in employee happiness because I know if my staff can leave work with positive energy they bring that into their communities and homes.

We also invest in the happiness of pets. We have an annual HOWLidays campaign that we do in partnership with the BC Humane Society. We host puppy playdates at our locations around the province where the BC Humane Society brings in puppies in need of adoption. You can imagine the impact on staff and community morale when they can spend part of their day playing with puppies. We also donate a portion of our pet fee to the BC Humane Society year-round.

I’m also fiercely proud that we were the first hospitality chain in Canada to have every single location Rainbow Registered. Rainbow Registration is a national Canadian accreditation for 2SLGBTQI+-friendly businesses and organizations. Seeing the Rainbow Registered symbol tells people that our hotels meet a stringent set of standards to ensure 2SLGBTQI+ visitors feel safe, welcomed, and accepted.

How did you come to work in the business?

I never thought I would work for my Dad! I went to Montreal and got a degree in psychology. But I always spent my summers working at different hotels (never ours!) and definitely got bit by the hospitality bug. When I graduated, I began working for the family business as a salesperson and learned as much as I possibly could. That was actually 33 years ago this month! Safe to say, I fell in love with the company and the business, just like my Dad, and I’m proud to be CEO today.

What was the evolution of Accent Inns…not just over the years, but from one generation to the next?

My grandfather started a construction business that my dad and his partners eventually took over. Out of that business, my Dad built and opened our first hotel in the 80s and, even as a kid, I can remember noticing how much happier dad was when he started working on the hotel. He loved the hotel business. That hotel grew into five and was eventually rebranded to Accent Inns.

When I came on, I combined all of the learnings from our family business with my desire to always rebel against the ordinary to create our second hotel brand: Hotel Zed. It’s now grown to three properties! I’ve also launched our first foray into the food and beverage industry: ROAR, a live-fire restaurant at Hotel Zed Tofino.

What are the core values that have led to your success and been maintained through the years?

We’ve maintained our core values since the inception of our company. While they weren’t written down, our core values were always the driving force behind how we did business. As we started to grow, we spent a lot of time talking to our employees and we articulated our four Core Values: Be Real, Have Fun, Make Everything Better and Have Each Other’s Backs.

How does your management style compare to your father’s?

My style has evolved from my Dad’s example. He always cared about his staff. He worked to make each hotel a happy workplace. He brought fun wherever he went. All of our core values that we have written down now always existed in our hotels because that was what he built. Now I am doubling down on his example. Now I am looking for the next outrageous thing we can do.

What is the longevity of your employees?

Wanna hear something awesome?! Forty-four per cent of our team have been here for over three years. Actually, we have many employees who have been with us for over 30! Our retention rate is 82 per cent which is almost double the average industry retention rate of 42 per cent.

I know these numbers because workaversaries are something we really celebrate in our organization. And not with a boring watch or “gift” that nobody wants. When you hit a milestone with us, your manager is given a budget to buy you a personal gift that you actually want! Because we’re celebrating the person, not the milestone.

What are your plans for the future?

Oh, yes. We’re going to continue to rebel against the ordinary and the status quo of our industry. This month, we launched our tenth Hotel Zed Nooner campaign for Valentine’s Day, and we’re really pushing the envelope with sex positivity. We’ll keep making sure our hotels are inclusive and rebellious, and maybe we’ll keep growing. Watch this space—big things are coming!

Are other family members/upcoming generations involved in the business?

My brother is a lawyer in the States, and isn’t interested in the family business which is fine! Right now, my kids are young and enjoying living their own lives. There’s no pressure for them to become hoteliers.

How has the business moved through the generations…and how was it valued as it “changed hands?”

It was purely voluntary! No family pacts. Shares in the company were frozen when I became CEO in 2008. My ownership equity was born solely out of growth.

There haven’t been a lot of transitions. I joined the ownership group, and the only other transaction was when we bought out one of our previous partners in 2021.

When I was brought on as a partner, a valuation was done based on the real estate and business operations. That value was frozen and remains with the previous partners. No value was handed down in that transaction, all my current value I have has been built since that day!

The enduring legacy of the Gillin family’s commitment to excellence in hospitality, diplomacy & industry

The late Pat Gillin, owner, Gillin Hotels

In the heart of Canada’s capital, amidst the ever-evolving tapestry of Ottawa’s cultural, political, and social landscape, stands the Lord Elgin Hotel—a testament to excellence in hospitality, diplomacy & Canadian industry. Its rich history, strategic milestones, and stories of visionary leadership have marked the hotel as a cornerstone of luxury and service in Ottawa.

I spoke with David Smythe, the long-serving general manager and director of operations at Gillin Hotels. Smythe has worked with the organization for over 25 years and he offers STAY Magazine an intimate perspective on the hotel’s journey under the Gillin family.

Constructed amidst the uncertainties of World War II in 1941, the Lord Elgin Hotel was named in honour of the 8th Earl of Elgin, symbolizing a bridge between Canada’s colonial past and its burgeoning national identity. From its inception, the hotel was envisioned as a grand space intended to mirror the aspirations of a young nation, fostered by the collaboration between visionaries like Ottawa businessman, alderman and later Board of Control member Chester Pickering and Prime Minister Mackenzie King.

The evolution of the Lord Elgin Hotel reflects both the development of Ottawa and the adaptive strategies of its management. From hosting dignitaries and celebrities to becoming a preferred venue for diplomatic conferences, the hotel has played an integral role in the nation’s capital.

Acquisition by Patrick Gillin

The Lord Elgin Hotel, Ottawa, Ont.

Before owning the Lord Elgin Hotel, Patrick (Pat) Gillin founded Gillin Engineering and Construction in 1950. The company was involved in significant projects including the Gillin Building, a 12-storey office tower located at 141 Laurier Ave. W. in Ottawa, which opened in 1964. This building, known for its distinctive art deco-style architecture and a prime location near City Hall, reflects the company’s ability to create marquee properties in the capital’s downtown area.

By 1987, Gillin had become an Ottawa construction magnate known for his significant contributions to the city’s skyline, when he acquired the Lord Elgin Hotel. This marked the beginning of a new era for the hotel, bringing it under local ownership committed to enhancing its historic value and appeal. Gillin’s construction expertise and deep roots in the Ottawa community positioned him well to steward the hotel’s next phases of development and renovation.

Major renovation and modernization

Under Gillin’s ownership, the Lord Elgin Hotel underwent its most significant renovation and modernization project. This extensive refurbishment, carried out between 1988 and 1989, was aimed at updating the hotel’s interior to meet contemporary standards while retaining its classic elegance. The renovation, costing $11 million at the time, reduced the number of rooms from 360 to 312, allowing for more spacious and modern accommodations.

Expansion and enhancement

In the early 2000s, the Gillin family embarked on another ambitious project to expand and enhance the Lord Elgin Hotel further. This involved the addition of two eight-storey towers on the north and south sides of the original structure, completed over two years starting in 2001. This expansion effectively integrated new facilities with the historic core, increasing the room count back to 360 and adding modern amenities, including a new street-level restaurant (Grill Forty One) and a Starbucks coffee shop. The expansion was carefully designed to preserve the hotel’s architectural integrity, earning praise and recognition from Ottawa’s heritage community for its sensitive approach.

Visionary leadership and planning

Just a month before his passing, Gillin was actively discussing an eight-year plan for the Lord Elgin Hotel, demonstrating his forward-thinking and dedication to the hotel’s growth. He envisioned extensive expansions and innovations for the hotel, highlighting his role as a “maverick,” “visionary,” and “mogul” in Ottawa’s business and construction scenes, says Smythe.

Family succession and management

After Gillin’s passing at the age of 84, the management and ownership of the hotel and related businesses smoothly transitioned to family members already involved in the business—son Jeff was already looking after hotels, son Chris was managing capital projects related to the commercial division and their nephew was working in Kingston for the build of the Residence Inn by Marriott Waterfront at the time. This family-centric approach to business succession underscores the Gillin family’s commitment to maintaining their patriarch’s legacy.

In terms of operations, Smythe was appointed GM and director of operations of Gillin Hotels in 2004, where he remains today.

Employee-centric leadership

Pat Gillin is remembered for his big heart and an employee-centric approach. His philosophy of taking care of those committed to his company has been a hallmark of his leadership style. The tradition of giving every line associate a cash bonus at Christmas is a testament to his and the family’s appreciation for their employees, a practice that continues to distinguish the Lord Elgin Hotel from others.

Community engagement and support

The Gillin family’s stewardship of the Lord Elgin Hotel has been characterized by a strong commitment to the community and the preservation of heritage over the decades. This is reflected in their ongoing involvement in philanthropic endeavours and their efforts to maintain the hotel as a living part of Ottawa’s history. The addition of historic artifacts and artworks, including loaned and gifted items associated with the hotel’s namesake and other historical figures, has enriched the cultural and historical ambiance of the hotel.

Between 1976 and 2008, Pat Gillin made significant donations to the University of New Brunswick (UNB), his alma mater, for numerous initiatives including scholarships for engineering students in financial need.

Gillin was awarded an honorary doctor of science degree from UNB in 1981 and the title of governor emeritus in 2001.

The Gillin family has maintained the M. Patrick Gillin Award in Engineering Scholarship awarded to deserving undergraduate students who have completed their high school education in New Brunswick, have demonstrated involvement in the community, have achieved a satisfactory academic record and require financial assistance. The Gillin family’s ethos extends beyond the hotel, engaging in a wide variety of community support activities. Most recently the Lord Elgin Hotel hosted an Indigenous dinner curated by Aboriginal chef Zach Keeshig to fundraise for the Wabano Centre, an outreach center for Indigenous people in Ottawa.

Adaptation and plans for the future

Gillin Hotels has faced much adversity over the years, but, like many hotel companies in Canada, the pandemic triggered an unprecedented period of difficulty for Gillin Hotels and its workforce. Smythe explains that finally, in 2024, the hotel is “back to normal” and once again thriving—full speed ahead.

The company’s resilience is exemplified by the lasting legacy and evolution of the Lord Elgin Hotel. The hotel is undergoing significant renovations and updates, signalling a new chapter in its storied history, with a focus on innovation and upscale amenities.

Following Pat Gillin’s death, his sons and other family members, as well as longtime employees and friends like Smythe have continued to oversee the Lord Elgin Hotel, ensuring that it remains a beloved and vibrant part of Ottawa’s urban fabric, their leadership has maintained the hotel’s reputation as a welcoming place for guests from around the world while honouring its rich history and architectural heritage.

The Lord Elgin Hotel, under the stewardship of the Gillin family, stands not just as a hospitality landmark but as a living legacy of vision, dedication, and an enduring commitment to the heart of Ottawa. The hotel carries with it the weight of history and the promise of continued excellence, embodying the true spirit of a legacy hotel in the heart of Canada’s capital.

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