Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Fort Garry Hotel gets bigger, better

Rebranded historic hotel to add 35,000 square feet of space

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The Fort Garry Hotel that Winnipeggers have come to know and love for nearly a century will be no more as of next month.

The hospitality-industry institution, which opened in 1913, will be rebranded the Fort Garry Hotel, Spa and Conference Centre on Nov. 15

The new moniker is a direct result of the hotel taking over 35,000 square feet of banquet and meeting space on two floors of nearby Fort Garry Place and upgrading it with more than $1 million worth of renovations.

"It will have a big impact on how we package the hotel. We're taking the opportunity to rebrand it so it speaks to the services we'll be most recognized for. It strengthens the hotel overall," said Ida Albo, the hotel's co-owner and managing partner.

The Fort Garry's move is part of a trend that has seen a number of Winnipeg hotels beef up their banquet and meeting facilities in the last few years in response to what industry officials say is a growing demand for vibrant new space for staging everything from wedding banquets and fundraising events to corporate training seminars.

"The banquet business is no longer four walls and a bunch of tables and chairs," Taras Sokolyk, CEO of the Winnipeg-based Canad Inns hotel chain, said in an interview. "People are now looking for a unique experience for an event."

That's why about three or four years ago, Canad Inns expanded and upgraded the banquet facilities in its Polo Park hotel to handle dinners and events for up to 1,000 people, and why it's also hosting more special events in the hotel's nightclub for groups seeking a more exciting setting for their event -- one that offers the latest in audio/video bells and whistles.

Manitoba Hotel Association president and CEO Jim Baker said not only has there been an increase in the demand for banquet and meeting space, but the events themselves also seem to be getting larger.

He said not all hotels have the room to expand their banquet and meeting space. So he gave the Fort Garry Hotel owners full marks for getting around that problem by expanding into neighbouring Fort Garry Place.

Albo said she has had her eye on the fourth and fifth floors of Fort Garry Place for some time. (The two properties are completely separate entities although they are joined by a fourth-floor walkway.) The new space will enable her staff to handle functions for up to 800 people, nearly triple its current maximum.

"I think we'll have the most space in the city other than the Winnipeg Convention Centre (to host events). When people needed (banquet and meeting) rooms for more than 270 people, we were never able to access those events. Having the grand ballroom at Fort Garry Place gives us access to those events. We're thrilled," she said, noting the new space has already been booked for weddings, conferences, trade shows and political dinners in 2010.

Winnipeg Convention Centre general manager Klaus Lahr said the Fort Garry expansion is good news for the city because there aren't a lot of large, high-quality banquet/meeting facilities available.

"We have an over-supply on the budget side of the market," he said. "But there are very few offerings at the higher end, and the Fort Garry is a high-end operator."

Workers have been busy with renovations at Fort Garry Place since August. Just last week, the two floors were filled with a small army of workers restoring gold leaf finishing on the ballroom's ceiling, putting down tiles, touching up bricks and painting walls. The walkway was also being fitted with new flooring and portraits of 18th-century women on the glass windows.

Paul Haverstock, director of catering at the hotel, said while the fourth-floor ballroom will be the focal point of the new space, the fifth floor won't disappoint either. It will feature two smaller ballrooms, which can be converted into five break-out rooms for conventions with divider walls. He said the hotel is taking great pains to ensure people walking over to Fort Garry Place won't notice they've entered a different building.

"The decor package was chosen as if Fort Garry Place was designated a national historic site (as the Fort Garry Hotel has been). You'll feel like you haven't left the hotel. The Old World feel of this place will sell itself," he said.

Miriam Bergen, whose family owns Fort Garry Place, which has a combination of residential and commercial tenants, said a formal arrangement with the hotel was a good fit.

"We already had the (fourth floor) link in place and their food is great. We've had our company banquet at (the Fort Garry Hotel) the last two Christmases. They run a very clean kitchen and their service is very good," she said.

Albo said the hotel's co-ed spa on the 10th floor -- dubbed Ten Spa -- has become a destination unto itself for people looking to pamper themselves with a Turkish bath experience. Open since 2007, the space used to house offices for the Crystal Casino, which closed in 1999 after a 10-year run on the hotel's seventh floor.

Dave Angus, president and CEO of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce, said the expanded Fort Garry Hotel adds some much needed capacity to the local market to host "conferences of all different sizes."

It's a growing business

At least five local hotels have expanded and upgraded their banquet and meeting facilities in the last four or five years.

Who's doing it?

The latest is the Fort Garry Hotel, which is taking over two floors of banquet and meeting space in the adjacent Fort Garry Place and spending more than $1 million on renovating and upgrading the space.

Others that have also undertaken major expansions or upgrades include the Victoria Inn Hotel and Convention Centre, which added another 6,000 square feet of banquet, meeting and convention space in 2006 to give it 33,000 square feet in total; Canad Inns Polo Park, which expanded its banquet capacity about three years ago to handle groups of up to 1,000 people; the Viscount Gort, which is adding another 9,000 square feet of banquet space as part of a multimillion-dollar facelift; and the Four Points Sheraton, which is undertaking a $14-million expansion that includes a new banquet hall and four new meeting rooms.

Why are they doing?

Manitoba Hotel Association president and CEO Jim Baker said demand for banquet/meeting space is growing. And fundraising dinners and other special functions also seem to be getting bigger.

"So it makes a lot of sense, if you're a hotel that's got the staff and equipment already, to go after that business," he said.

Canad Inns CEO Taras Sokolyk said many of today's customers are also looking for more vibrant, fun places to hold their fundraising dinners and other special events. And hotels have to respond to those changing demands if they want to survive and thrive.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 13, 2009 B6

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