The Château Laurier’s Catherine McLaughlin on imposter syndrome, volunteering and working in a ‘frickin’ castle every day’

Famous hotel appoints charity gala organizer as new events and activations manager

Catherine McLaughlin
Catherine McLaughlin recently emerged from a career hiatus to join the Fairmont Château Laurier as its new events and activations manager. Photo by Caroline Phillips

Catherine McLaughlin’s career journey may seem like the stuff of fairytales: a woman returning to the workforce following a lengthy hiatus, landing her dream job at the Fairmont Château Laurier, a place that — wouldn’t you know — looks just like a castle.

However, one must not be fooled into thinking McLaughlin was plucked from obscurity and placed into the hotel’s newly created position of events and activations manager. Here’s a woman who’s earned it. For years she’s devoted her time and talent in a volunteer capacity, playing key roles in orchestrating special events and fundraisers for the community.

Now, almost two months into the new role, McLaughlin feels acclimated enough to discuss her position. “I’m honestly loving it,” she said in an interview. “I feel so grateful and privileged that I get to come to a frickin’ castle every day.”

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She is referring to one of Ottawa’s most recognized downtown landmarks, steeped in history and character. There, she works under the “powerhouse” leadership of hotel general manager Geneviève Dumas and director of sales and marketing Lori Wagner.

“I’m learning so much from everyone,” McLaughlin emphasized while expressing her appreciation for her colleagues. “I feel very supported here.”

It had been about 20 years since McLaughlin left her career. In the early 2000s, she decided to sell her paint-your-own-pottery studio, Kozy Kiln, in the west end to focus on her large family and support her husband, Terry McLaughlin, as he ran his full-service construction and general contracting company, Terlin Construction. 

McLaughlin is mom to Charlotte, 20, and to Terry’s adult children from his first marriage, Lindsey, Bryan and Emily. They also have two grandchildren, soon to be three. Her husband, along with their children, have been her “No. 1 cheerleader” in her new job, she said.

Discussing McLaughlin’s return to work would be incomplete without acknowledging her feelings of “imposter syndrome,” a condition that often leads people to doubt their abilities. A part of her was scared about starting at the Château Laurier. 

“At 51 years old, am I confident of who I am as a woman? Absolutely. I’m full of bumps and bruises and scrapes and scars, and I’m grateful for every one of them,” she said of the metaphorical journey that’s shaped her into the resilient person she is today. “But this new job was so unknown to me, and I’m coming into an industry that I know nothing about.

“I had to quash that voice inside my head that said, ‘You can’t do this, you are not smart enough, you are not good enough.’ Quieting those doubts has been quite a process, but now that I’m here, I’m learning that I have an awful lot to contribute here.”

McLaughlin has come to realize she wasn’t brought on board by the hotel to be a computer whiz or an expert at Excel spreadsheets. “They hired me to create innovative and out-of-the-box experiences and activations here at the Château Laurier.”

And that’s an area where McLaughlin truly excels. “It’s very busy in this brain of mine,” she said of her creative ideas, inspired by the world and people around her.

McLaughlin wouldn’t have stumbled upon the job opportunity if it weren’t for her volunteer work. She was a member of the organizing committee for Trees of Hope for CHEO, an annual holiday-themed benefit for the region’s children’s hospital. She thought up this year’s hit theme: Candyland.

During the post-event debriefing session, McLaughlin serendipitously discovered the hotel was seeking to fill a new managerial position for its special events, activities and promotional initiatives. “The question was posed if I knew anybody who might fit this role. That’s when I said, ‘Well, what about me?’” 

The next thing McLaughlin knew, she was updating her résumé, a task she hadn’t tackled since the last century. She had three separate job interviews before being offered the position late last year. 

The hotel’s leadership team had already witnessed McLaughlin’s creative talents through her involvement with its Trees of Hope. They saw how good she was at accomplishing tasks and at working with others. They also recognized her deep connections and relationships with the community and her strong track record in organizing special events. 

Her volunteer contributions extend to the Viennese Winter Ball, Gourmet on the Gridiron, Elmwood Gala, and Spurs & Sparkles, a unique fundraiser she co-chairs with Karen Sparks to showcase the equestrian sport of showjumping in a fun and charitable way. Sparks serves as executive director of Wesley Clover Parks, where the annual benefit takes place.

Catherine McLaughlin, left, and Karen Sparks are co-chairs of Spurs & Sparkles in support of the Queensway Carleton Hospital Foundation. Photo by Caroline Phillips

“Catherine is an inspiring woman to work with,” Sparks told OBJ while also describing her event co-chair as hard-working, creative, meticulous, quality-driven and enthusiastic. “I have tremendous respect for her as a person, a volunteer, a mother, a friend and now as a business leader back in the workforce.”

For McLaughlin, one of her core beliefs is a commitment to being of service to others, a value instilled by her parents, Merv and Joan Olinik. Her late father dedicated 37 years to serving his country as a member of the Canadian Armed Forces.

McLaughlin has fond memories from her childhood of her folks taking her and her brother to the Château Laurier once a year for high tea — a cherished tradition in her family.

“We would roam the corridors of the hotel, taking in the history and architecture of the place. I have no idea if my father’s stories were entirely accurate or not, but that wasn’t the point. He would tell my brother and I to use our imagination and to envision what the ‘castle’ was like ‘way back when.’”

That she now finds herself working at the same grand hotel, in a happy turn of events, causes her to reflect: “If my dad could see me now.”

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