Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 16/8/2019 (525 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Maybe you’ve spotted it on your way to a wedding reception in the Provencher Ballroom or an appointment in Ten Spa. Or perhaps you work downtown and first noticed it while strolling down Broadway on your lunch hour in search of a hotdog vendor. And maybe you’ve paused and wondered what "it" is exactly, albeit hopefully less dramatically than a fellow did a couple weeks ago.
"I was going through my notes the other morning, double-checking what needed to be done, when all of a sudden there was this loud bang-bang-bang on the window," says John Unisa, standing near the front entrance of the Fort Garry Hotel, steps away from his "office," an olive-coloured, regal-looking structure he and the rest of the storied inn’s employees refer to as the bellhut. "I looked up and this guy was staring inside at me, yelling, ‘Hey, what is this thing? What are you doing in there?’"
Since 1999, the oval-shaped bellhut, made of metal and glass and measuring a mere 1.5 metres wide and a little over three metres across, has served as the year-round headquarters for the Fort Garry Hotel’s crew of combination bellhop/valets. Need your vehicle parked? No problem. Luggage carried to your room? Point them the way. Directions to a local point of interest? Dinner suggestion? Check and check. (As if on cue, Unisa, dressed in his official uniform — white shirt, violet tie, dark vest and black pants — instructs a guest heading off on foot that The Forks is a five-to-eight-minute walk "in that direction." Also, if she’s in the mood for some great Japanese fusion, KYU Grill, located in the main market, "can’t be beat.")
"Their primary job, of course, is to serve hotel guests but you could almost call them goodwill ambassadors for the entire city, as we’re situated close to the train station and get a lot of passersby who aren’t staying here necessarily, but still need assistance," says Jane Snow, the Fort Garry’s director of rooms, whose job includes scheduling and supervising the hotel’s 12 bellhops. "I’m also involved with the hiring and the type of person we look for is someone who makes a great first impression, is personable, outgoing, and able to interact with people from all walks of life. I can proudly say everybody presently working here fits that description to a T."
Prior to accepting her current position, Snow worked at a number of hotels across Canada, including one in Whistler that had also had a dedicated outdoor station for its bellhops. The problem with that one was it wasn’t fully enclosed, so it didn’t shelter workers from "the snow, the rain, all that," she says.
"I can honestly say I’ve never seen anything quite like ours, which also acts a bit like an eye on the street," she continues. "If there are problems in the area or if somebody is in distress, the guys can immediately get in touch with the Downtown BIZ or police, as needed."
With almost 30 years of experience under his belt (also black), Unisa’s father, Gerry Unisa, is the Fort Garry’s senior bellhop. He’s been employed there so long, guests, some of whom were kids when he first carried their bags and now show up with their own children in tow, often jokingly refer to him as "the last man standing."
The elder Unisa caught on with the hotel in 1990, a few months after he moved to Winnipeg from Manila. Originally, he was stationed near the reception desk on the main floor, where he assisted people as they checked in or out. He and his fellow bellhops transferred outside in 1999 after owners Richard Bel and Ida Albo, who purchased the hotel in the mid-1990s, came up with the idea for a stand-alone edifice, situated on the sidewalk facing the main entrance.
"The way I understand it, they had seen something similar in another city, maybe New York, and thought it would be a good fit for Winnipeg," Unisa explains, pointing out their hut is equipped with an air-conditioner and a heater.
Referring to himself as a "people-person," Unisa, 59, admits he’s passed up a number of opportunities through the years, jobs that would have netted the married father of two more pay, in favour of what he describes as a "stress-free environment."
"Let’s say you work in a hospital; the money’s good but money isn’t everything," he says, nodding hello to a couple on their way into the Palm Room. "A lot of the people going in and out are sad, depressed. Nobody wants to be there. Here, most of the people you meet are on vacation, they’re in a good mood, everybody’s happy. I can’t speak for the other guys but that’s why I choose to do this job."
Unisa, who works 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. Monday to Friday, later if there’s a function going on inside the hotel, says he didn’t try to persuade his son one way or the other, when John applied to be a bellhop eight years ago.
"It was his decision, he’s not a young boy any longer," he says. "I told him, ‘All I can do is give advice. Whatever makes you happy, go for it.’ For now, he seems to have made the right decision."
"I don’t know about that," says John, 32, with a chuckle, when asked if he plans to follow in his dad’s footsteps, and still be parking cars and lugging baggage when he’s pushing 60. "I love what I do, don’t get me wrong, but no, I’ll probably be doing something else when I get to his age."
Echoing his father, John, who works the day shift Wednesday through Sunday, says the best part of his job is interacting with hotel guests from all over the world. Earlier this year, he was able to assist a husband and wife who had moved to Winnipeg from the Philippines, and were staying at the hotel before moving into their home.
"They were outside talking one afternoon and because I speak perfect Tagalog, I was able to understand what they were saying and join in on their conversation," he says. "The smile on their faces when they heard me speaking their native tongue was pretty special."
Of course, some of the guests he and his cohorts attend to are more famous than others, he admits.
"There’s kind of an unwritten code, which is don’t speak unless spoken to, but yeah, sometimes your eyes kind of bulge out when somebody like Robin Williams is suddenly standing right in front of you," he says, referring to the late actor as a "great guy, very down-to-earth."
"Two years ago Keanu Reeves stayed here for close to two months and it was hard at first not to be a little starstruck. But he was so friendly, always stopping to say hi and ‘how are you’ to all the staff, that eventually you just start talking about everyday things, like how his morning at work went." (Some scenes from Reeves’ 2018 release Siberia were shot in rural Manitoba, near Cooks Creek.)
Like the Unisas, Patrick Pagador also immigrated to Canada from the Philippines. His first job in Winnipeg was as a line-cook but the moment he heard the Fort Garry Hotel was looking for bellhops, he threw his hat in the ring.
"My only experience with bellhops was from seeing them portrayed in the movies," he says, whispering, "You always have to be prepared," after fetching a red BIC from his back pocket for a guest who, out for a walk, inquired whether Pagador had a light.
"During my interview, they told me part of the job is parking cars. I know how to drive automatic and stick, so to me it sounded perfect."
"That’s an easy one," he replies, when asked if there have been any particularly memorable vehicles he’s slid behind the wheel of, during his four years at the hotel. "One time I got to park a Tesla X; that was pretty sweet. You’re only in these things for a moment or two — our lot is just around back — but it’s always interesting to spend a few seconds checking out the features and stuff."
Listing actors Sean Penn and John Cho as the most famous people he’s personally dealt with, Pagador says the freedom his job offers, being out and about on the street is what he enjoys most.
"Being downtown you definitely run into some… interesting characters but at the same time, there’s almost always something to do, whether it’s polishing the railing on the staircase or making sure there isn’t too much dirt and grime on the hut’s windows," he says. (How big is the bellhut? John Unisa says the record for the number of bellhops that were able to crowd inside at the same time is five.)
"I also like sharing my favourite places to eat in Winnipeg," Pagador continues. "If somebody asks where a good place for dinner is, I try to send them to hidden gems like Thida’s Thai on Donald (Street). That’s a great restaurant, plus it’s not too far from here."
Oh, there’s one more thing Pagador appreciates about his job: when he arrives for duty at 3 p.m., his attire is always waiting for him in the bellhops’ changing room, clean and pressed.
"We walk in, our shirts are hanging up, our pants are nicely ironed. I can’t tell you what a great feeling it is never having to do your laundry for work."
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.