STAY for our rundown of the W Hotel Toronto’s opening

A new hotel opening in a city like Toronto tends to draw a certain amount of fanfare.

Westley 2

The mainstream media are invited, along with a carefully selected number of relevant social media influencers pulled together by the PR agency of record and a few of our industry’s trade publications. It’s easy to be dazzled by the flare of it all. It can be hard to experience the true essence of the property to understand the lived experience of guests, staff and travellers alike.

Why do these things matter? Because much of what makes a modern hotel successful extends so far beyond its location, the brand flag it flies, RevPAR and its valuation. Much of the success comes from the intangibles. Especially at a brand like W Hotels, one known for taking risks and breaking boundaries.

Luckily for its patrons, the W Toronto delivers. And lucky for our readers, STAY Magazine abides.

If I was to distill the W Toronto down to one word, that word would be culture. One would expect a W-designed hotel would naturally centre around culture. That part is fairly easy and can be replicated. But it’s not the kind of culture I am referring to. More to come on this.

WOW suite

But first, the people

The first time I wandered into the W Toronto, I literally wandered in. I had been following the opening via some long-standing colleagues. Characters individually. Character collectively. I walked into the hotel via the driveway. The main doors were still closed because the opening was a couple of weeks away still. I navigated through the various delivery trucks into the lobby of the hotel. And the first person I saw was behind the bar mixing cocktails.

I headed over to the area and recognized the friendly barkeep as none other than Craig Reaume, General Manager of the soon-to-open hotel. Craig and I have known each other over the years as we both bobbed and weaved through various stages of our respective careers. He is a rising leader amongst Canadian hoteliers, and mine as a hotel industry educator. He is the undisputed beacon of culture creation at the W Toronto.

Reconnecting with Reaume at the opening, I asked him how he created a culture of culture itself at the W Toronto. He shared, “It’s a blend of the corporate W brand and my own approach to leadership. My goal is to create a welcoming inclusive culture. The W brand encourages this. But it also comes from my own lived experience. I am the GM of a luxury hotel in Toronto. And I have been an openly gay man for 30 years. It wasn’t always accepted. But here, everyone knows me, they know my partner and they all feel encouraged to be themselves. It’s not just good HR practice. It’s good for business. We want to help our guests feel welcome too. We truly believe diversity is healthy for everyone.”

The W brand clearly placed its food and beverage and events venues centre plate. Co-created by the dynamic team of Brian Weston, director, beverage and food venues and executive chef Keith Pears—these venues are truly sublime.

I first met Brian Weston while he was general manager, food and beverage at Toronto’s Shangri-la Hotel and Keith Pears while he was executive chef of the Delta Hotel Toronto. They were both welcomed to inspire my staff and students at Centennial College’s School of Hospitality, Tourism and Culinary Arts while I was dean.

I watched these leaders learn, grow and shape the cultures around them over the years. And over the last two years, as the W Toronto was forced to delay its opening, I watched them both travel the country, the continent, and the world as they were encouraged to remain connected to the true spirit of hospitality and encouraged to pursue self-discovery, a pretty bold risk taken by Reaume.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure the hotel would open with all three of these players. In the talent war, we are experiencing, I expected them to be recruited elsewhere. Perhaps W’s ability to attract and retain top talent comes down to its defining element – culture. How they manifest it becomes something for us all to indulge in.

Suite with a view

Culture counter

Billed as a hotel in celebration of Toronto’s storied art scene, diversity of culture and legacy of non-conformity, the W Toronto liberally uses Yorkville as its community backdrop. I would expect Yorkville purists would take issue with this relatively further eastern location of the property. Nonetheless, the hotel delivers on its design promises. Most notable, music and creative artistry take centre stage at W Toronto, boasting Canada’s first W Sound Suite, the brand’s signature recording studio experience.

I reached out to Tony Elenis, president and CEO of the Ontario Restaurant Hotel and Motel Association for his reaction to the opening of the W Toronto. Elenis shared, “Every great city has a W Hotel. It was time for Toronto to get one. It is changing the image of what hospitality is all about. W still stands as the iconic concept and the leader in attracting a younger generation to a luxury brand. We should all take notice. Especially our younger generation of workers. This is the place to be”

From the psychedelic rock of the 60s and the hip hop of today to the street art of Graffiti Alley, Toronto is known for its multidisciplinary artistic legacy. W Toronto honours and adds to this cannon with a collection of original work beginning with the W Monument on Bloor Street. Created by Sid Lee, it reflects biophilia and hippie culture through the use of natural crystal rock patterns and a bold palette of psychedelia.

It reminded me of something I recently read. Commenting on the growing trend of micro-dosing psilocybin among corporate leaders, author Michael Pollan said with his tongue-in-cheek, “What would capitalists do with psychedelics? They’d invent micro dosing so people can be more productive.”

I am not sure what the original architects of Yorkville’s counterculture would think of Marriott’s interpretation of its DNA at the W Toronto. It may be more of a corporate interpretation of that culture. But my humble perspective is that this hotel delivers in spades. Partly from the design and mostly from the people.

The world around us is changing. Our guests have new expectations. So do the people who work in our hotels. The W brand is a welcomed addition to Toronto’s diverse hospitality scene. Both from a guest experience perspective and from an employee experience perspective. This is the true revolution at hand.

For what it’s worth, there is definitely something happening here.

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Joe Baker

Joe Baker is a passionate leader within Canada’s tourism, hospitality and education sectors and a vocal advocate for a resilient, inclusive, future-forward industry. He is CEO of Joe Baker & Co., a human capital consultancy focused on strengthening hospitality and tourism organizations and people. Baker was dean at Centennial College’s School of Hospitality, Tourism and Culinary Arts where he led the most significant transformation in the school’s over 50-year history. He serves on the board of directors of Tourism HR Canada and the Tourism Industry Association of Ontario.

Joe can be found everywhere @thejoebaker.