With over 22 years of experience in hospitality, Garrett Turta has seen many trends come and go. Now approaching his 6th year as the General Manager of the Fairmont Hotel MacDonald in Edmonton, he is putting his mark on the 103-year-old hotel with the addition of technology that could put some modern hotels to shame. Construction began 6 years after Alberta became a Canadian province by the Grand Trunk Pacific Railroad; the Hotel MacDonald is an iconic piece of history and part of Canada’s grand railway hotels, which include the Banff Springs Hotel, Chateau Frontenac, Chateau Lake Louise (where Garrett Turta held a post for 2 years) and other hotels that span coast to coast. We sat in the Confederation Lounge, a lounge set near the lobby with views of the North Saskatchewan River Valley and plush chairs that have been open since 1915. With the fathers of confederation looking down upon us, we talked about the future in a historic hotel named after Canada’s first prime minister.
Next Digital: “What’s the toughest part of your job?”
Garrett Turta: “I don’t think anything is always that tough, I think it’s different demands and how things go. I think if I was to say; the toughest part is with the softer economy over the last little while, just trying to make sure everyone is kept employed and kept going are probably the hardest things in which I’ve had to deal. We were able to get thru it, the economy is getting better, and it’s great. In this hotel, we are like a close family, so you’re seeing everyone and interacting with them; some larger hotels we have, that are 1300 rooms and you have 1500 colleagues it’s almost impossible to know everyone, where in this hotel you get to know everyone by name.”
ND: “What attracted you to work at the Hotel MacDonald?”
GT: ”I’ve been with the brand (Fairmont) now, oddly enough tomorrow is my anniversary. 21 years with the brand. It all started when I was in school, and my dad got me into the industry. We were in Saskatchewan, and he was in farm machinery and decided to take a risk and get into hotels with the downturn in the 80’s, and it worked out great. I worked there with him, and it started from there. I went to school at SAIT in Calgary, it’s something I fell in love with, it’s something different every day, and you meet different people, it’s never the same day, it’s always creative.
ND: “Have you had a chance to travel within the Fairmont Brand?”
GT: “I got started at Hotel Vancouver, then Vancouver Airport, then at this hotel from 2004 till 2006, I worked in the Rockies at Lake Louise for two years, then St. Andrew’s New Brunswick: so right across Canada. Then I was over in Scotland in Europe for a couple more years and back here for the past five years. I’ve gotten to go across Canada and back a little bit.
ND: “Did getting that Canada wide perspective helps you with your job?”
GT: “It does, you’re exposed to so much more, you see different markets, and you interact and see different things. You get to see how different promotions and things you do work with different people in other parts of the world, it gives you a vast background. One of the reasons I think we travel around a lot is to get that different exposure and that different vision.”
ND: “Do you have a dream hotel you’d like to work at?”
GT: “I don’t know, we have so many great hotels in our brand; If there was one thing I’d say more so: my family really likes Jasper, and they always say ‘dad, as your last hotel, make sure you get to Jasper and work out of there,’ and I really like Jasper (Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge) as well. It’s got that nice resort feel about it, it’s a little more spaced out with the cabins, which I’m assuming is not an easy hotel to run, but still very interesting.”
ND: “What do you think is the outlook for Hotel MacDonald? Considering the recent economic downturn in Alberta.”
GT: “I think the economy is getting better, actually this June is going to be one of the best revenue months for the hotel, as things are starting to come back, and I think the back half of this year is looking good as well. I think the economy is getting better; there are things that are happening. We as well are getting investment, there’s more investment into the downtown core, with Ice District, and we are seeing the J.W. Marriot coming which I think is a good thing as well, as it will elevate the city a little more. We will be getting a major renovation, which we are starting right now. We added a Fairmont Gold Floor in 2016, and we will be redoing all of our rooms later this year – early next year. Then the Confederation Lounge will be getting renovated, after that we will renovate all of our meeting rooms and public spaces. I think it’s going to be interesting to see what’s going to happen. I think the economy is getting better; signs are looking up – I think we are through the worst of it.”
ND: “Do you stay up to date with technology? Especially technology advancements in hospitality?”
GT: “Yes for sure! We have a company called Kipsu; it’s a texting feature which we utilize with the rooms. I think it’s interesting how we have phones, but we don’t talk on the phones, even my kids have phones but they text back and forth as opposed to calling, which I sometimes find frustrating – but that’s just me because I’m a little impatient. Anyways, it’s a texting feature where we can go back and forth with our guests, if they are looking for their car or want us to make a reservation, even if they have a general inquiry they can text and we can answer quite quickly, they don’t even have to be in the hotel to ask those questions. We have a company called PressReader; we don’t have newspapers delivered to the hotel anymore. If you are staying in our hotel, connected to our Wi-Fi, there are about 4000 different publications you can get, which are all complimentary. Most people read the news on iPads and computers nowadays. We as well do mobile check-in, we want to make our check-in desk a little more residential, like going to grandma’s house. We can come and welcome you, breaking down that barrier of the front desk. Another big thing we are working on is, we don’t have it here yet but we are trying, I personally use it at home, is AI – I know Amazon’s Alexa is working with hotels right now in the States. You could say ‘Alexa, have them bring up my car, valet number xxx’ the ticket goes through and the car can be retrieved. Technology is going to start to grow, more and more, AI I think is going to be pretty interesting to see what’s going to happen.”
ND: “Do you find it difficult to implement new technology into a historic hotel?”
GT: “It’s fairly easy. We’ve been able to put in a lot of things quite easily. I think it’s just a matter of getting it right and getting it fitted in certain hotels within our brand that are testing it right now. Once we figure that out, we will be well on our way. I think it (AI/Smart home) is the way things will go.”
ND: “Do you think technology takes away from the customer experience people expect from a luxury hotel?”
GT: “I don’t think it does. It won’t be like airlines. I think when people come to a hotel, especially for leisure or different things. I think there will be a certain element that will want to check in and have the key sent to a smartphone, and the phone will open the door, I think that will come in the next little bit. But in our industry, you’ll never get rid of servers. People have different ideas of technology in hotels, like where you could just come with an app to order food, and somebody brings it, but I don’t think that’s why you go out, you go out for service and to engage and interact. You come to hotels, and you want to be able to ask the front desk about what’s unique around, as much as AI and stuff is good, I think you will always see – I know when I go somewhere I want to talk to somebody and ask ‘where do YOU go?’ and you get that insider path. I don’t want to go to West Edmonton Mall, no offence to West Edmonton Mall, that’s where everyone goes. I want to go somewhere unique, somewhere authentic, those are the experiences we want to capture, and we try to do that within our hotel, that’s where you’re going to see the concierge come through, they know those areas and that’s never going to go away, it’s that personal touch that you’re looking for.”
ND: “Is there any technology that you wish currently existed to implement into the hotel?”
GT: “hmm… I don’t know. Different things come up, and it’s interesting. I think within our brand we have a lot of things that are coming through; it’s just a matter of time. I’m trying to think back to what it would be, but I don’t know. I think we are moving in the right direction with technology. I don’t have an answer for that one.”
ND: “Ha-ha, yes, it’s a hard question.”
GT: “yes, I’m trying to think if there are different ways, I mean you think in a kitchen if you can make it perfect every time – but then you are taking away the creativity, where you can alter it and make it better. I think a lot of our industry will be that personal touch, where you have a chef free to add a personal touch and tailor the meal for you. I think we are doing ok.”
ND: “Do you get to work directly with your technology vendors to find the best solution within the individual hotels?”
GT: “It happens with our brand a little bit, but a lot of the stuff comes directly to us. Different vendors and in different areas, they will come to each hotel, and we will run it up the flagpole – see if it’s something that could work everywhere, and we have different test hotels. That’s how a lot of different things come in – because they reached out to various hotels and they tried it, and the brand adopted it. Some go directly to the brand, some go directly to the hotels, it’s interesting, but I think it’s going to be a fun ride for the next little while.
ND: “How do you determine your IT budget, with rising customer expectations of Internet speed and automation?”
GT: “The majority of it comes from capital projects. We will start working on it, and if we can make it fit, then we will try and work it within a year’s capital. Every year we invest in upgrading our Wi-Fi infrastructure – making sure it’s the latest and the fastest. We take money for different things. Every year for our point of sale, for food and beverage and the hotel, we make sure we are upgrading and investing. We see what’s coming down, either from the brand or within the hotel, to make sure we are up to date. It’s funny because in your home it’s usually one router and away it goes, but in a hotel like this, it’s a big cost, but it’s one of those things that you need to have for the guest experience. It’s one of those things from an owners perspective where there is no return, other than making sure people are happy and keep coming to the hotel.”
ND: “Is your job 24×7? Do you live and breathe the hotel?”
GT: “Yes, it’s tough. I used to think every once in a while before we had a mobile phone and email you were always doing things and taking work home, but now you always take it with you – even on vacation, you’re always somewhat connected. But I think that’s with anything now; it’s tough to disconnect. But it’s also important to disconnect and find that time. I find for myself I enjoy being connected, I enjoy knowing what’s happening and having my finger on the pulse, making sure everything is good. But that’s the way I am. “
ND: “What inspires you to come to work every morning?”
GT: “It’s about the great things we do, and the great comments we get. When people are happy about what we’ve done and created different foods for different events; just seeing the looks on people’s faces when they are happy. When they say ‘you’ve made my anniversary,’ ‘you’ve made my stay,’ ‘you’ve made my wedding night,’ ‘you’ve made my birthday that much more personal,’ that’s what keeps it going – that’s what our team thrives on. It’s what really makes the difference for me. Watching people be happy and energetic and celebrating a good thing.”