Andrew Torriani stands on the roof of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in downtown Montreal amid the bustle and din of construction work and points out the sweeping view that takes in the St. Lawrence River to the south and Mount Royal to the north.
That commanding vista is one of the featured attractions of a group of ultra-luxurious condo units being built atop the Ritz - an ambitious hotel-and-residence project - in Mr. Torriani's bold bid to return the once-dowdy "Grande Dame of Sherbrooke Street" to its former glory.
The Ritz's $130-million top-to-bottom makeover is in part an effort to regain ground lost over the years to the upstart high-end boutique hotels, a phenomenon not restricted to the Montreal hospitality market.
In Toronto, for example, there are four major hotel-residence projects under way - including a Shangri-La and a new Four Seasons - as the big boys of the luxury accommodation business shoulder their way back into the market.
"The boutique concept has kind of reached saturation point," Mr. Torriani said in an interview yesterday during a tour of the renovation work on the legendary Ritz, which opened in 1912 as the first Ritz-Carlton in North America; guests have included the Queen, Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, Richard Nixon, Golda Meir, the Shah of Iran and celebrity couple Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
"We're positioning ourselves in a space where we're smaller and more intimate than before [the Ritz is shrinking to 130 rooms and 46 condos from 229 rooms] so we have everything a boutique hotel offers, plus the Ritz brand and reputation for top-notch service," he said.
The Ritz slipped as a five-star destination over the past several years and took a hit from the flurry of luxe boutique hotels that sprang up, he concedes.
Now, it's time to fight back with a new look that also highlights the Ritz tradition of excellence and powerful brand name, he said, citing its famous motto: "We are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen."
Chicago-based hotel consultant Ted Mandigo said the bigger hotels have no choice but to cherry pick the latest trends in hospitality - including the streamlined furnishings and introduction of high-tech toys pioneered by the boutiques - if they are to survive
The 21st-century Ritz hews to the popular business model these days of building a mix of guest rooms and condo units, allowing for higher returns and a steadier revenue stream. The Montreal Ritz's condos start at about $1.3-million and top out at about $12-million for a two-storey, 8,000-square-foot penthouse with floor-to-ceiling windows.
"History has shown us that when you've got a well-recognized luxury brand, you're able to get a premium on the sale of the residences," said Alam Pirani, executive managing director of hotels at Colliers International.
The new Ritz in Montreal marks a revival of the full-size luxury hotel business in the city, which once boasted but lost a Four Seasons and a Shangri-La. The boutique hotels helped fill the void, Mr. Pirani said.
One boutique-hotel operator in the city isn't impressed by the Ritz's roar back to life.
"I'm not sure it will work. It risks being too corporate," said Ana Borrallo, who started Old Montreal's Hôtel St-Paul with her husband Javier Planas.
Mr. Torriani is president and chief executive officer of Ritz-Carlton Montreal; his family-owned company, Monaco Luxury Hotel Management Co., is a partner in the Ritz project.
Privately held Ritz Carlton Montreal will be a member of the Ritz Carlton hotel network upon reopening next year and will be required to meet the Ritz-Carlton standards, with regular quality-control visits.
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