Amid tight competition, Ottawa hoteliers finding room for fresh attractions

From treasure hunts to outdoor ‘ice bars,’ local industry eyeing new ways to entice guests in face of rising competition
OCCO kitchen
OCCO Kitchen owner Mark Steele takes a break at his eatery’s new location at the Albert at Bay Suite Hotel. Photo by Mark Holleron

This story originally appeared in the April edition of OBJ's newsmagazine.

During a brief break from the frenzy of activity that always surrounds a new restaurant opening, OCCO Kitchen owner and head chef Mark Steele flashes the grin of an entrepreneur who’s found the ideal business partner.

Nobody who knows him would be too surprised to find out that partner is a hotel. Steele, after all, spent years as a chef at the Fairmont, Hilton and Marriott chains before launching his first OCCO Kitchen in Orléans four years ago.

In early March, Steele opened a second OCCO location at the Albert at Bay Suite Hotel, serving up pub grub ranging from homemade beef burgers on freshly baked buns to fish and chips with craft beer-infused batter.

It was no small venture, with Steele and the hotel combining to spend $2 million to completely gut and rebuild the space formerly occupied by a pub. But the restaurateur is confident his investment in the 160-seat eatery and bar will pay off handsomely. 

“It’s great to have 200 rooms attached to your restaurant,” the affable Newfoundland native says. “People who are here visiting, they need that product, they need that service. I also really like the dynamic of this approach, because a lot of hotel restaurants, they’re kind of old, stale, boring. With this, it’s really exciting. It’s a standalone restaurant that thrives on being edgy and inventive. To pair that up with a hotel, I think we’re probably setting a new trend.”

John Cosentino, the Albert at Bay’s longtime general manager, says Steele brings an “edge and flair” to his culinary creations that is already luring plenty of curious foodies from outside the hotel in addition to guests who dine out for breakfast, lunch and dinner at the new venue.

“We had a few opportunities with other businesses, but … Mark, with his credentials and his background, we saw it as the perfect fit, so it was a no-brainer for us,” he says of the collaboration.

The Andaz hotel’s ‘ice bar’ attracted more than 1,000 visitors in February. Photo provided

'Cool' new ideas

The Albert at Bay is far from the only Ottawa hotel that’s undergone renovations or launched trendy new activities recently in an effort to stand out in an increasingly crowded market.

Kanata’s Brookstreet Hotel, for example, recently debuted a new children’s activity modelled on the popular “escape room” concept. Each weekend, part of the resort’s convention space is converted into a 1,000-square-foot room where kids hunt for “treasure” stolen from the hotel’s giant bee mascot, Buzz.

“Escape rooms now are so popular, and they’ve been trending the last few years,” says Brookstreet general manager Nyle Kelly, who figures the room drew about 40 or 50 eager youngsters for its debut on the Family Day weekend in February. “We know that our leisure business is an important part of our success, so bringing families in and having something for them to do is really important.”

Other local properties are trying to capitalize on annual events such as Winterlude with special promotions to attract guests and outside visitors.

The Andaz Ottawa Byward Market installed a bar sculpted out of ice on its rooftop patio during each weekend of the annual February festival, with hotel guests being admitted for free and outside patio-goers paying a $5 cover charge. Hardy partiers packed the patio to capacity every weekend, with a total of more than 1,000 people coming out to sample apple-cider cocktails and other adult beverages designed to warm their insides.

“That was definitely a cool attraction,” says the hotel’s marketing manager, Rachel Kerr. “It was one of the most popular events we’ve ever done.”

The venerable Chateau Laurier, too, has gotten into the act, recently remodelling its signature Zoey’s lounge and hiring a full-time “mixologist” who specializes in exotic cocktails.

It’s all part of the hotel’s ongoing effort to “stay one step ahead of the game” when it comes to the latest industry trends, says director of public relations Deneen Perrin.

“It has to be about engaging your guests in so much more than just an overnight stay,” she explains. “I think hotels in general always have to be looking at what they’re doing.”

The rising popularity of short-term accommodation platforms such as Airbnb has ratcheted up competition in a local industry that’s already expected to be adding hundreds of new hotel rooms to its inventory in 2019, notes industry expert Michael Tarnowski. 

Properties looking to separate themselves from the pack need to look at every angle to find an edge, he says – ideally without breaking the bank. 

“I think the emphasis has to be on augmenting that (hotel) experience even more and really being able to stand out not only from the Airbnbs, but also from the competition,” says Tarnowski, a former industry executive who now teaches at Algonquin College’s School of Hospitality and Tourism.

“But those are expensive propositions, and it takes a lot of time and planning to work out these kind of add-ons. In doing that, you’re always measuring the demand. You have to be able to justify that.”

At the Lord Elgin Hotel, which embarked on a multimillion-dollar renovation of its 355 guest rooms a couple of years ago and recently remodelled its restaurant, general manager David Smythe says such projects are simply good business practices.

“The competition is very stiff,” he says. “A lot of properties are improving their product, so it’s paramount that we remain competitive in that regard.” 

Perrin says even before Airbnb and the like came on the scene, savvy hoteliers were always seeking new ways of offering customers something a little different from their competitors. 

“I don’t think that’s a result necessarily of the Airbnbs,” she says. “I think that is hospitality as a whole.”