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When Katie Marti toured the new-look Algonquin Resort, she felt a part of her childhood had been rejuvenated. Ms. Marti, a travel writer living in British Columbia, grew up in Saint John, just over 100 kilometres from the iconic New Brunswick property that dates to 1889. She had fond memories of family occasions at the resort, including a celebration of her grandparents' 50th wedding anniversary.
More recently, however, a sense of nostalgia for better days affected her visits.
"When I was a kid 30 years ago, it was a place that my grandparents' generation would go for a special event. It wasn't too extravagant but it was very elegant. I think it had lost that appeal because it became very dated and hadn't kept up with modern tastes," says Ms. Marti, who was one of the first guests at the property following a massive renovation.
"You felt sad because the hotel was losing its lustre. But now it has come back to life."
A beloved part of the vacation town of St. Andrews By-the-Sea, the Algonquin was sold in 2012 to Southwest Properties and New Castle Hotels and Resorts. The new owners shuttered the property to make dramatic changes. When it was reopened in 2014, more than $30-million had been spent and the hotel had shed its old name – the Algonquin Hotel and Golf Course. The new Algonquin Resort is the first Canadian property that is part of the Marriott Autograph Collection, a group of approximately 90 independent hotels that provide a distinctive holiday experience.
"One of the main goals of going through this process and being an Autograph property is to keep it historic, but to also make it high-tech and high-touch for today's traveller," Algonquin Resort general manager Matthew Mackenzie said.
In fact, becoming a distinctive destination is a trend in the hospitality industry, according to Larry Mogelonsky, founder of marketing consultancy LMA Communications Inc. As consumers experience what he calls the disillusionment with major brands, the chains have responded by creating "soft brands," where hotels develop a unique identity while remaining part of the chain.
"Baby boomers and millennials share a need for experience," Mr. Mogelonsky said, and basic core products don't deliver that.
As a Marriott Autograph Collection property, the Algonquin can have the benefits of the larger chain's back-end functions, such as operations and reservations, yet maintain a unique identity.
While becoming a soft-brand hotel within a chain has obvious benefits, it's not always the right thing to do.
"It's a double edged sword," Mr. Mogelonsky said. "It gives the hotel operator some flexibility, but that has a cost. You have to spend the money in marketing because you don't have the major brand supporting you any more." Another issue to consider is the long-term commitment to a brand, which is often a couple of decades.
But every rebrand is bespoke, involving many variables, he adds.
Prior to the renovation project, the Algonquin had not experienced a makeover since 1998. The recent overhaul was far more comprehensive. While the exterior still has the appearance of a Tudor-style mansion, the interior was ripped apart and redefined.
The 233 guest rooms have kept a turn-of-the-20th-century sensibility in decor, but now they also include contemporary colour schemes, MP3 players and large flat-screen TVs. Among the amenities is a new fine-dining restaurant that retains the title of the property's previous eatery, Braxton's, named after the Algonquin's original chef from the 19th century. A fitness centre with state-of-the-art equipment has been incorporated. And a new indoor pool includes perhaps the most striking addition to the Algonquin – a three-storey waterslide.
Another major upgrade, Mr. Mackenzie said, is the second floor, where 10 guest rooms have been refurbished to include a patio with a view of the sunrise and the Algonquin's grounds. Nightly rates for these balcony suites have increased by between $80 and $120, depending on the season.
The hotel had had a string of owners and property managers, including Canadian Pacific, Fairmont Hotels and the New Brunswick provincial government. Since reopening, the Algonquin has seen a 10-per-cent year-over-year growth in occupancy through the first two quarters of this year, and Mr. Mackenzie said there has been "significant increase" in occupancy and average daily room rates during the summer.
He added that when the hotel's golf course opened for the season in May, he witnessed a spike in wealthy visitors from Canada, New England and elsewhere, some of whom arrive via the connection with Marriott.
With files from Christina Varga