Groupe Germain set for major expansion
Chain boosts capacity with new Toronto hotel, North Hatley acquisition

Three mornings a week Christiane Germain goes through a vigorous cardio and strength building workout under the guidance of a personal trainer at her Montreal home. Then she brings that discipline and energy to the office, a habit that is generating big time results for Groupe Germain the boutique-hotel chain she controls with her two brothers.

During the past six months, the company has quietly boosted capacity by almost 50 per cent. The jump was due to two moves, the acquisition of L'Auberge Hatley late last year, and the construction of a 122-room hotel in downtown Toronto, scheduled to open later this month.

"When you run a company you think about it all the time," Germain, the company's president said. "My workouts are very important to me. They are the only time that I forget business altogether."

Germain's determined focus on her hotels is evident the moment you met her. In the midst of an introduction with a reporter last week, she suddenly got a mean look on her face, for no apparent reason.

She turned slowly to a doorman, who with an increasingly pale face started fumbling with his walkie-talkie. "I've told them to keep the volume down on those things," Germain said smiling. "It can disturb the guests."

The result of Germain's attention to detail is also evident in the room at the group's Mansfield St. property...if you can find one to look at. "We're all booked," Germain said. "But there is one where the guest hasn't arrive yet." The room is decorated with understated elegance, noticeable in the design as well as the choice of furniture, artwork, linens and draperies. Almost no detail was left out.

A fully booked hotel in the traditionally quiet month of February, is nothing new for Germain. The occupancy rate at the company's hotels was close to 80 per cent last year compared to a 68.5 per average among its Montreal peers. And with the two hotels being added to the three they already own, Germain is projecting 2003 sales of about $21 million, up from $14 million during 2002.

Germain grew up in the hospitality industry. Her father Victor operated several of Quebec City's most successful restaurants, including Le Fiacre, one of the provincial capital's first steak houses. But Quebec City was too small for Christiane Germain and while still in her teens she went to Toronto's Humber College to study hotel and restaurant administration, before working in a series of restaurants in San Francisco, Vancouver, and Montreal.

But it was in 1988, when Germain and her brother Jean-Yves took their first big gamble. They persuaded their father, to let them remodel an old office building he owned, and to turn it into a boutique-hotel. The term boutique-hotel refers to the movement of a subset of hotel consumers who are turning away from the major chain's cookie-cutter offerings, toward smaller, more personalized establishments that cater to specific markets.

According to Gilles Larivière, president of Horwath Horizon Consultants an industry expert, the term originates from ex-Studio 54 co-owner and Manhattan developer, Ian Schrager, who achieved considerable success, promoting the new philosophy in the hotels he has developed.

But Germain, was one of the first to try the concept in a big way in Canada, and her first hotel, the Germain des Près became an instant hit. A few years later the group opened a second Quebec City hotel, followed by Le Germain, a 101-room property on Montreal's Mansfield St.

Germain's current focus is on the $25 million downtown Toronto project, which Le Groupe Germain is building in a partnership with developer Tony Cohen, whose stepfather Charles Bronfman is well-known to Montrealers.

According to Cohen, several things impressed him about Germain, whom he met through a mutual business acquaintance. These include her energy, her attention to detail and her almost total fixation on the customer.

"I know it sounds corny to say that she cares about customers but she really does," Cohen said. "We are doing several things in the new building which cost a lot of money, but the ordinary client won't automatically see. But he will walk away saying "Gee that was a comfortable hotel.""

For example the Toronto hotel's ventilation system was set up using a horizontal as opposed to a vertical layout, which would have been much cheaper, meaning that noise travels less and the hotel will be quieter. In addition, at 380 square feet, the rooms will be larger than usual for a hotel in its class, and have higher 11" ceilings, to give the impression of space.

"If we had cut the ceiling height a bit we could have added an extra floor," Cohen said. "But we wanted to improve the guest's experience."

As one of Quebec's most successful businesswomen coupled with her photogenic looks, Germain gets asked to do a lot of interviews. Her press clipping file is about a half inch thick, and includes a favorable review in the prestigious Conde Nast Traveler as well as a cover story by Hotelier Magazine, which named her Hotelier of the Year during 2000, a sign of her growing recognition in the industry. But she takes all the attention in stride.

"You know there aren't that many high-ranking women businessmen," Germain said. "So I just answer (the media's) questions. Besides, it's good for business."


Photo caption: Christiane Germain, president of Groupe Germain led the growth of her family's business into a multi-hotel chain, by focusing on travelers who want specialized service and a personal touch.

Sidebar: Getting ahead

o Christiane Germain grew up in the hospitality trade, working in her father's Quebec City restaurants. But she left the provincial capital at a young age to study restaurant and hotel management in Toronto.
o Her big break came in 1988 when she and her brother convinced her father to let them convert an old office building he owned into a small boutique hotel, Germain des Près, which caters to upper middle class guests, and young professionals.
o The Germains then opened a second Quebec City location Le Dominion 1912, followed by Le Germain, on Montreal's Mansfield Street in 1999.
o Germain's latest moves are the acquisition of L'Auberge Hatley late last year, and the construction of Toronto's first boutique-hotel which is set to open later this month.



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