The orange and burgundy were too dark. They had to go. The architectural details of the Fairmont Château Frontenac's lobby had historic value, but the ceiling's old paint job didn't. So management made it a brighter, icy blue. Same with the carpets. Now the place looks more inviting.
A year ago, Fairmont and the Château's owner, Ivanhoé Cambridge, finished $75-million in renovations to the 122-year-old hotel. Three-fifths of the rooms were gutted and rebuilt, conference space was expanded, restaurants reimagined, the lobby brightened and modernized.
Every hotel goes through renovations, but this one was a special case. The Château Frontenac is one of Quebec City's chief landmarks: At the peak of Old Quebec's skyline, it's a UNESCO-recognized heritage site so iconic that it's immortalized on Canadian passports. Change does not come easily for the Château, whose structure is unmalleable, and old-money clientele tends to like things the way they are. Still, change is unavoidable. Even icons have to worry about the kids coming up from behind.
Younger travellers, wary of old infrastructure, tend to prefer more contemporary lodgings, and both boutique and big-chain hotels are happy to accommodate their needs. The Château's renovations were an eight-figure bet on making a castle feel like home to a new generation of clients. One year in, both its owner and manager say, the gamble's paying off.
The hospitality business is competitive, and Ivanhoé Cambridge has actually divested most of its hotel holdings, trimming a portfolio of dozens to just seven. The company originally decided to get rid of all of them. But it held onto the Château, a symbolic hotel in which the landlord – the real-estate wing of Quebec's public pension manager – has a vested interest in keeping strong.
Keeping it, says Sylvain Fortier, Ivanhoé Cambridge's executive vice-president in charge of hotels, has two-fold benefits. "It's our postcard asset," he says. And after investing in renovations, returns are coming in "higher and faster than we thought."
The first wing of the Château Frontenac opened in 1893 on the former site of governors residences Château Saint Louis and Château Haldimand, becoming one of Canada's premier railway hotels – a stopover destination built by Canadian Pacific Railway. Luxury was always in mind: Of the first 170 rooms, 93 had bathrooms and fireplaces – both considered indulgences in the 19th century.
The castle-like complex expanded over the years to include an 18-storey tower and 611 rooms. It has entertained guests such as Queen Elizabeth, Alfred Hitchcock and Paul McCartney, and, during the Second World War, became the nerve centre for the Quebec Conferences, playing host to leaders such as Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and William Lyon Mackenzie King as they discussed strategies to end the war.
The hotel is deeply ingrained in the city's cultural fabric. "It is as iconic to Quebec City as the Eiffel Tower is to Paris," says Paule Bergeron, a tourism officer for the city. "There's a lot of passion with the Château – it's really a love story between the people of Quebec and its visitors."
The Château Frontenac has undergone plenty of renovations over the years, but until last year, the most recent round was in 1993, when a new wing was installed that includes a pool, fitness centre and outdoor terrace. A frequent guest helped fund the pool, insisting a hotel of the Château's calibre should have one.
Robert Mercure, a fourth-generation hotelier who was raised in Quebec and has helped run hotels the world over, joined the Château Frontenac in 2007 as general manager. In early 2012, after devising a five-year strategic plan, he presented Ivanhoé Cambridge with what he calls a "possible evolution" for the hotel.
"We had fallen a little behind," Mr. Mercure says. The clientele was skewing older, and there was a perception that the hotel was tired and out-of-style. "We wanted to break that perception," he says, and prove "that you can be a heritage property but can also be trendy, interesting and dynamic."
Renovations began in summer of 2013, headed by design firms Wilson Associates and Rockwell Group. The top priority was conference space – the hotel was regularly losing group bookings after guests found out that meeting space there had already been spoken for. So management ousted some of the boutiques that filled the Château's lower level and expanded its conference footprint to 43,000 square feet.
Rooms were refurbished and refurnished with modern fixings, with upgrades to thermal pumps and ventilation systems. The lobby's colour scheme was converted to blue, brightening it up while paying tribute to the ice floes of the St. Lawrence River. Some of the new features complemented the old: LED lighting was installed, bringing out more details in the hotel's woodwork and giving the vintage chandeliers a little more sparkle. Artifacts, unearthed during the city's 400th-anniversary archeological digs, are on display throughout the lower level.
Champlain, the Château's anchor restaurant that pays homage to the city's famous explorer namesake, was redesigned, and its traditional Québécois cuisine reinterpreted by Stéphane Modat, a three-star Michelin chef and new addition. The hotel also introduced 1608, a wine and cheese bar christened after Quebec's founding year, and The Sam, a bistro that offers a more casual experience than the Champlain.
Reaction, Mr. Mercure says, has been mostly positive. "There's a very small percentage of people who had some comments where they feel it should be a museum and never change at all," he says, "but the reality is, hotels have to constantly evolve and remain relevant in the marketplace."
Heritage-rich hotels like the Château Frontenac, entangled in the histories of their cities, can be key motivators for travellers in picking a destination, says Tony Pollard, president of the Hotel Association of Canada. But keeping them up is crucial. If a traveler's staying there for a week, he says, "you'd better make darn sure you've got everything you need for them."
Still, he admits, it can be a frustrating investment. "In a lot of cases, it's easier to build a new hotel from the ground up," he says.
In spite of its near-exit from the hotel business, Ivanhoé Cambridge insists the $75-million price tag for Château Frontenac was worth it.
"We're happy that we kept it," Mr. Fortier says, "and we're happy that we're going to make money with it."
$75-million: Cost of renovations at the Château Frontenac.
300,000: Number of guests the hotel receives every year.
611: Number of rooms.
3,000: Number of meals it serves daily across its three restaurants.
12: Total length of hallways in the building, in kilometres.
650: Pounds of honey harvested each year from the Château's beehives.
$599: Cost of a room on a Tuesday in mid-July.
$949: Cost of a luxury Fairmont Gold room in the "boutique" main tower on a Tuesday in mid-July, with views of the St. Lawrence River.