As the flashbulbs popped at last year's Toronto International Film Festival, one visiting celebrity was walking the red carpet in a bellman's shoes.
The Ritz-Carlton's management won't say who that high-profile guest was – like any luxury hotel, privacy is part of the sales pitch. But when the "talent" found himself without the right black shoes, with all nearby shops closed and little time to spare, lending out the new kicks the bellman had just bought for himself was just part of the Ritz's new role as the centre of the action at TIFF.
The festival has always presented a massive marketing opportunity to area hotels, but with the opening of the Bell Lightbox theatre in the heart of the entertainment district, the celebrity buzz that used to be dominated by Yorkville mainstays such as the Four Seasons, the Hazelton and the Park Hyatt has shifted south. Now, as the luxury hotel market downtown becomes more crowded, this year's TIFF will see a battle among the fresh faces of the five-star industry to differentiate themselves.
Last year was the Ritz's first TIFF and, according to director of sales and marketing Daniel Newberry, it was so crucial to establishing its luxury image that it was "almost like a second opening."
"After the festival in 2011, our restaurants, our bar, our spa, the hotel, all of those things, revenues significantly increased," he said. "It was a great opportunity to showcase the hotel, especially being the first year."
The Ritz will have some company this time around. The Trump Hotel and Tower opened its doors in January. The Shangri-La, part of a Hong-Kong-based chain of luxury hotels and resorts particularly well-known in Asia, had planned since its inception to peg its launch to this year's TIFF.
"TIFF is our opening party, if you will," said Shangri-La spokeswoman Jill Killeen, standing in the lobby this week as workers hammered some final construction elements into place.
While the spanking-new hotel will just be establishing itself during this year's festival, it will be home to a summit bringing together Asian and North American film executives during the festival. Jackie Chan will be in attendance, and Harvey Weinstein is emcee.
The hotel will have some help bringing its brand to the fore in Toronto. Exclusive luxury club the Soho House is right across the street – as it happens, in a building that was one of Toronto's first hotels in the 19th century. Even before it had a permanent location, the club made a name for itself with A-list parties at the festival in recent years, and should help to bring awareness to the Shangri-La's home block.
"If the Shangri-La was opening on its own without the Soho House, it might be a bit different. … That's the most active street corner," said Si Si Penaloza, a TIFF veteran and a writer who focuses on luxury travel and hotels. "The cachet that is won during TIFF, it is such a fierce competition. The [five-star] category is so crowded now. It's the make-it or break-it season."
Local hotels are sparing no expense to bring the luxury – the three upstarts in TIFF's surrounds are importing staff from their various chains to help boost their VIP game. The Trump has brought in its Soho location's entertainment manager, who already has relationships with many of the actors and their agents; the Shangri-La flew in its head bartender Serhan Kusaksizoglu (known to most only by his English nickname, Charlie) from the corporate office in Hong Kong, to fine-tune the mixology at its lobby bar; and the Ritz has flown in staff from around the world, including one from Grand Cayman brought in specifically for her pressing skills, since when stars are seen stepping out of the hotel having asked for their clothes to be pressed, they cannot be allowed to look anything less than perfect.
It's all about the details. At the Trump recently, two Bollywood stars were guests and requested a South Asian breakfast one morning that required staff to find an ethnic grocery store to track down a certain type of chutney. Beyond those special requests, there are also small touches such as a mirror that is electric-powered not to fog up after a shower.
The Shangri-La also lines its halls in padding covered with raw silk. Its lobby boasts a Fazioli piano from Italy with 18-karat-gold hinges and wheels, and depending on your cocktail, your swizzle stick could be made from special wood aged in rum and sugar cane to enhance the flavour. It keeps a private trainer on hand for those with "higher fitness demands."
And at the Ritz, where rooms overlook the red carpet, if you bring your status chihuahua, bowls embossed with the dog's name will be waiting in the room.
The image a hotel establishes during these 10 days can stick with it, proving their A-list service is a must for the new five-star crowd.
"If it's not illegal, immoral or unethical, we'll make it work," the Ritz's Mr. Newberry said.