Martin Leclerc, General Manager of the Fairmont Empress

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Wherever Martin Leclerc has gone, success has been his shadow. That’s what he expects of himself, even in an industry rocked by every ripple of economic turbulence, from 9/11, SARS, mad cow disease, and a Canadian dollar with unexpected clout to collapsing markets and global recession.

From his start 21 years ago in the top eateries of Quebec City to appointments at the Jasper Park Lodge, with Delta Hotels, and at the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth in Montreal, he has balanced a roll-up-your-sleeves style with acumen and a perspicacity often lacking in the business of selling a good night’s sleep.

“People describe me as an astute business person,” he says. Indeed. When he was named general manager of the Fairmont Empress in the fall of 2008 at age 41, Leclerc became the youngest ever to hold the post. And after a succession of 21 GMs with British-sounding names like Williams, Powell, and Soane, he’s the first francophone.

“My line was, I was going to switch the tea and scones to espresso and croissants.”

Of course, he’d never mess with a century of tradition. With more than 500 employees, the $45-million operation is the city’s largest and highest-profile player in the local hospitality industry. And with profile comes 102 years of reputation to live up to. Victorians laid claim to their Empress long before ivy climbed the front of the grand railway hotel built on reclaimed mud flats.They nitpicked when the Coronet Room became the Bengal Lounge. They groused when Kipling’s lost its buffet, then shut down completely. Leclerc jokingly refers to having 6,000 “owners” contributing to the syndrome of the ill-appreciated giant.

“Everyone loves to bitch about their Empress,” he says. But when visitors come to town, those same people take them straight to the Empress lobby for a tour.

{advertisement} Leclerc has inherited 477 rooms, labour peace (unionized employees signed a new contract in 2007), and ownership that has deep pockets (Fairmont is a Canadian-based management company for owners that include investment trust firms, a Saudi Arabian prince, and the same conglomerate that owns the Four Seasons chain).

Leclerc didn’t arrive here as a stranger. In 2001, he spent 15 months as acting GM of the Delta Ocean Pointe Resort and Spa.
“It’s wonderful to be back in Victoria at the helm of the icon,” he says. This is where he wanted to be and where he and his wife Annie Pelletier, a professional artist whose modern abstracts decorate her husband’s office, are raising their three young boys.

So, how is business these days?  

We’re still in it, and yes, we’re doing OK. We’ve seen the storm coming and we’ve reacted very quickly towards the overall preparedness. Don’t get me wrong, 2009 was a terrible year. You can see the benchmark, but that’s when you can feel the magic of Victoria. People came. They forgot their wallets, but they did come.

Can you give us an idea of what it costs to run the Fairmont Empress?

We give back to the community over $20 million per year. That’s the total expenses to local suppliers, our payroll … and I’m not done. Empty or full we’re the highest contributor to municipal taxes. Whether we’re empty or full, we set aside thousands of dollars a day for that.
You eliminated some senior positions when you arrived. Did that come from the Fairmont corporate gods or was that your decision?
My decision. This is called accountability. In business, you have to come in, look at the business model, assess its efficiency, and make tough decisions. With the recession coming, we had to act very quickly and make some decisions to reinvent the business model. There is less management here than before, but we did not lose velocity in terms of guest satisfaction. In fact, just the opposite. Guest satisfaction is on the rise at the Empress.

The Empress underwent its last major retrofit in 1989 at a cost of $45 million. In 2008, another $1 million put a new floor in the tearoom and spruced up the Crystal Ballroom. What major capital projects are in the works?

We’ve just completed a $5-million renovation of the Fairmont Gold rooms, and we’ve put flat-screen TVs in every guest room in the hotel. We’re currently working on a renovation project of all the rooms. Most significant are all the bedrooms, but we’re adding meeting space as well. We’re converting the old Kipling’s restaurant into a ballroom.

How special is this property to Victorians?  

People don’t understand the magnitude of what the Fairmont Empress does in terms of supporting the community. It’s in the order of hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. It’s the 10th hotel I’ve worked at, and I’ve never seen that before.

You’re not a guy who believes in discounting room rates to achieve full occupancy. No walk-in managers specials for you, eh?

I see some hoteliers charging less than they were in 2009. For the first time in seven years, this hotel has not conducted a massive, global sale. If you have to discount so deeply, then you’re not confident in your product or your services.

Is there a sense of competition among hoteliers in Victoria?  

I’ve never been in a market with so much co-operation. It’s progressive and refreshing. The success of [Victoria] is everybody’s success, including the Fairmont Empress. I don’t compete against other hotels in this area. I compete with other hotels in the world.

How have you adapted to the trend of consumers booking holidays on the Internet?

We were one of the leaders in using social media like Twitter, Facebook, and Blogger. We’re actually selling bedrooms and services through that. It’s a great use of that viral marketing.

Do you have a sense of frustration at the way government is treating tourism?

It’s disheartening to see the lack of funding coming to the capital city for things like the airport runway extension, Inner Harbour, Belleville Terminal, and issues we have with panhandling — and I’m not referring to homelessness, that’s a different situation. If we’re really talking about tourism being a strong industry for Victoria and the Island, why don’t we address it in a more expeditive way? Now’s the time to invest, not roll back.

What steps is the Fairmont Empress taking towards sustainability?

We’ve always been a leader in Victoria and it’s more than recycling and using compact fluorescent light bulbs, which we do, of course. We’re one of the only hotels that actually composts, our hanging baskets use our own soil, we give away leftover soaps to a company that turns them into detergent, and our farm-to-fork program means we’re buying locally from a lot of different farms.

It doesn’t seem like hotel managers stay at one property for their whole career. How long do you expect to be at the Fairmont Empress?

I don’t know. It’s never about replacing John Williams or Ian Powell or Roger Soane. It’s always about carrying the torch. One has to be a fool to come into an organization and think he is or she is the organization.