Traditionally, hotels were designed for one thing: sleeping. But when developer John Torode conceived of Calgary’s first boutique hotel, Hotel Arts, in the city’s Beltline warehouse district, he had a lot more than beds in mind. He envisioned a hotel that would suit guests when their eyes were open as well as it would when they were closed.
Indeed, Torode wanted to not only soothe visitors but also stimulate them. And, in the process, he wanted to stimulate the community, too. Calgary was a yawn; he wanted to make it a yodel.
“Per capita, Calgary has more postgraduate degree holders than any other city in Canada,” says Fraser Abbott, director of business development at Hotel Arts Group, the hospitality space’s parent company. “Because Calgary primarily is an export economy, that’s a high concentration of highly educated, highly affluent individuals who have travelled the globe. John wanted those people to be able to have the same cultural experiences in Calgary that they had in other cities around the world.”
To kick-start his vision, Torode purchased nearly an entire city block on 12th Avenue in the city’s up-and-coming Victoria Park neighbourhood, just south of downtown. The Beltline was a dodgy area, but beneath its blemishes Torode saw the potential for a new, flourishing arts district.
Step one was creating a compelling reason for people to visit the area, since they were so used to avoiding it. Torode’s pet project, therefore, became turning 12th Avenue’s anchor—the Holiday Inn Calgary Downtown—into Hotel Arts, a luxury hotel that would celebrate and support Calgary’s emerging Beltline community.
Although Torode exited Hotel Arts Group in 2010, the hotel has since continued its transformation under the leadership of general manager and vice president Mark Wilson. In fact, in the past eight years, the property has undergone four rounds of renovations—with more to come. “We’ve witnessed tremendous change on the property, and just when we wrap up one project, we seem to start work on another,” Abbott says. “I’m always worried about buying new shoes because I’m worried they’ll be permanently covered in drywall dust from our latest project.”
Finished in 2006, the first round of renovations entailed a $5 million overhaul of the property’s 185 guest rooms and its lobby. The former were updated with condo-quality décor, 1,000-thread-count sheets, and plasma TVs—at that time an unusual amenity—and the latter was updated with an eclectic mix of Canadian art, including abstract paintings, one-of-a-kind sculptures, and a blown-glass light fixture by local glass blower Barry Fairbairn.
“Coming through the lobby, you’ll see that our public spaces are adorned with a great contemporary art collection,” Abbott says. “It provides a completely unique aesthetic for the guest experience. It’s really interesting to watch the reactions of people as they walk into our space and see it; it helps them find their creative muse.”
Completed in 2009, the second round of renovations included a 9,500-square-foot ballroom, a 220-car underground parking garage, and a three-storey office and retail complex adjacent to the hotel, which now includes a Starbucks, a yoga studio, a hair salon, a gym, and a restaurant.
“It’s a good hub that provides some really nice offerings for our employees and guests,” Abbott says.
Hotel Arts’ third renovation phase—construction of a new on-site restaurant, Yellow Door Bistro—was significant for its role in emphasizing the property’s culinary offerings, according to Abbott, who notes that the hotel now has two on-site restaurants. (The other is Raw Bar by Duncan Ly, which was opened in 2006 as part of the hotel’s original renovation then rebranded by executive chef Duncan Ly in October 2013.) Yellow Door Bistro was named Calgary’s Best New Restaurant of 2013 by Where Calgary magazine, and Ly himself won a silver medal at the 2014 Canadian Culinary Championships.
“We wanted to showcase the culinary arts as part of our long-standing vision to support the arts scene, and that has really helped us differentiate ourselves from our competitors,” Abbott says.
Chef-led hotel restaurants have been popular for years in destinations such as Las Vegas, Toronto, and New York. For Calgary, however—and for Hotel Arts especially—they’re game changers, with the accolades they receive and the appetites they satisfy attracting the attention and traffic necessary to realize Hotel Arts Group’s vision of a thriving Beltline arts district.
“It’s not enough to attract just hotel guests; we’ve got to stand out for locals, too,” Abbott says. “With all the events we host—fund-raisers for prostate cancer, heart disease, you name it—our facility has really become a hub for the community.”
It’s this hub status that has paved the way for Hotel Arts’ most recent update: a $6 million refresh of the guest rooms—the second in less than a decade. It’s scheduled for completion this year, and it will likely be followed in three to five years by construction of a second tower on the site that will contain hotel rooms, offices, and a banquet kitchen dedicated to off-site catering.
Torode’s vision for 12th Avenue is finally coming to fruition, and Hotel Arts is at its front and centre.
“John Torode envisioned taking over the whole city block and using that as a cornerstone for development in the neighbourhood,” Abbott says. “Sure enough, eight years later, we’ve got a multiplicity of restaurants, galleries, boutiques, taverns, and nightclubs, all of which have flourished. [The Beltline] is now a thriving area to work, live, and play.”