How the Magnolia Became One of Canada's Top 10 Luxury Hotels

As general manager of the Magnolia Hotel & Spa for the last four years, Bill Lewis has tackled many big changes. Some have been particular to his hotel — like overseeing the new restaurant and room refresh. Others were more global — like navigating the economic downturn and managing the boom in consumer reviews on the Internet. Under his leadership, the 64-room boutique hotel has been awarded “Top 10 Luxury Hotels in Canada” by Trip Advisor, as well as being nominated for a Social Media Award.

Douglas: Other than the recent renovation, what have been the biggest changes during your four years at the hotel?

Lewis: The economy has changed… for the most part the tourism market in Victoria has been pretty flat for four years. That means we just have to do a better job at competing for business: differentiating ourselves; excelling at what we do; and proving to the customer we do it a little bit better than the next guy. I think that burden exists in every hotel because there is such a competitive market out there. People are a little more conscious of money and I think that makes us all compete a little harder.

The other big change is the Internet. Certainly, the customers’ voice on the Internet has exploded in the last four years. It existed four years ago (as you know, Facebook and TripAdvisor and things like that are older than that) but consumer-generated content, whether that’s on Facebook, social media, TripAdvisor, or review sites, continues to explode. Really, the consumers are as big a voice in the marketing process as the business themselves. I think we’ve had to be conscious of that and that’s changed pretty rapidly.

Douglas: Does the Magnolia Hotel & Spa have a strategy to deal with all the online reviews?

Lewis: We monitor practically everything that’s said about us on the Internet and that is the key. That includes blogs, reviews, and social media. We’re really cautious in that we want to know what’s being said about us — and we want to respond to what’s being said about us in a positive and proactive manner. If something is great, we want to thank them for saying something great. If something’s not so great, which doesn’t happen that often, we also want to get in touch with them and find out what went wrong and fix it: to put our best foot forward and make up with the customer.

We’re don’t actively solicit reviews or feedback. We would rather get it organically by participating in discussions. That’s been one of my strategies for the whole time I’ve been involved with the social media of the hotel. I think you need to make it organic. The discussion has to happen naturally rather than be forced. So we don’t ask for reviews.

Douglas: Tell us about the refresh of the hotel. Was the timing important?

Lewis: We started the discussion about two years ago when the hotel was 13 years old. There were elements to the rooms that were growing a little tired — the carpets needed to be redone and the drapes were near the end of their useful life. It still looked great and was in great condition but it’s a mandate of the owners of the hotel to have the hotel stay in pristine condition at all times.

The decision we had to make was whether we changed out the existing color schemes completely or changed out elements each year and continue to have a slow evolution where the product continues to look relatively the same as it always has.

We made the decision with the owners that the hotel…that we were better off bringing in a new style to the hotel, one that was equally as elegant and suitable to the brand and that will carry us for another 10 to 15 years.

Douglas: Did you have a wish list for the new restaurant after Prime Steakhouse closed and before the deal with Tom Ferris (of Ferris’ Oyster Bar& Grill)?

Lewis: We did. We wanted something suitable to the level of service found in the hotel. The second wish was for something original and innovative that we could sell to our guest — rather than have something that already exists in town. We were pretty flexible on types of food. And the third, and most important, one was to have a good business partner.

The key is the customer. It should be a seamless experience. So when they go to the spa or to the hotel or to the restaurant, you don’t want them to see any difference in level of service to make them think it’s a different operation. The Spa Magnolia has been a great business partner of the hotel for years. Most customers would never even know that they were different operators. That’s the goal of the restaurant — to work seamlessly together as partners.

Douglas: So the concept for the Catalano Restaurant & Cicchetti must have appealed to that wish list?
Lewis:The fact that [Tom Ferris] has the reputation he has in this city was a huge selling feature. He was also exceptionally respectful of the level of guests we have — he explained to me before meeting the owners of the hotel that he saw how his restaurant idea needed to fit with the guests and image of the hotel — it wasn’t as if we were just leasing the space. We need to work with his people every day. There’s so many areas where our guests are the same, our teams need to work together… it’s really fit well from the start.