Hotel Zed CEO Defines the Hospitality Groove

Mandy Farmer will tell you she’s a bit of a hotel connoisseur. Given that she’s a huge travel enthusiast and the president and CEO of Accent Inns and the creator of Victoria’s new 62-room tourist time warp, Hotel Zed, this is surely the understatement of the year.
What Farmer won’t tell you right away is that passion for the hospitality industry runs so deep in her blood that she shelved her degree in neuropsychology to climb on board the family business. Now, thanks to her fresh outlook, Victoria is attracting tourists to its funky side.
How she knows what she wants in a hotel: When Farmer travels, she spends hours selecting the most interesting hotels to experience. It’s a habit — and it’s also research. She recalls one distinct experience when she had the chance to stay in a vintage hotel. The colours were bold, the art was amazing, the atmosphere was retro-hipster and Farmer was thrilled.
When she reached the front desk, however, she found the moustache-twirling host staring at her as though she were a shamefully uncool, middle-aged woman who didn’t belong. “He was almost embarrassed to be serving me,” says Farmer, 40. “I knew we had to build a culture with Hotel Zed where everyone felt welcome and at home.”
She also learned that, at many hotels, once you got over the beautiful surroundings, there was precious little to do but spend the evening in front of a TV. Farmer was committed to turning that mindset upside down. That’s why Hotel Zed has a pool with a bright pink waterside and “Star-lit” hot tub, a beanbag video game room, vinyl listening stations, typewriters for drafting postcards, ping pong tables, rentable bikes and, of course, the 1967 VW Zed Shuttle Bus. With these unique amenities, the hotel has become as much of a tourist attraction as Victoria itself. It’s all part of Farmer’s dream.
When you can’t beat homemade: Farmer was 14 when she got a summer job in housekeeping at a local B&B. Each summer after that, she worked in hospitality in everything from small hotels to the Empress. At the same time, her father, Terry Farmer, was growing his Accent Inns business along with Farmer Construction. Farmer set her sights on a degree in medicine, but after completing her undergrad in neuropsychology, more years of school seemed daunting. She decided to temporarily work for her dad. “I had no idea what I was doing, but I found out I loved working with my dad,” she says. “We were a great team. He had all the experience while I would bring in these wild ideas about building better websites and trying different things.”
How she knew she wanted a career in hotels: In 2001, Farmer did return to school, this time to earn her Executive MBA from Royal Roads University. It was then she knew hotels could be her life. She and her father started talking about succession. He handed her the Accent Inns CEO hat in 2008, just before the economy did a nosedive. Even so, the timing couldn’t have been better. With her fresh vision and time to focus on improvements, Accent Inns began winning awards, including Best Companies to Work For from BC Business and Employer of the Year from the Victoria Chamber of Commerce. Not that Terry Farmer was ready to retire, yet.
“My dad still comes in to work, and he isn’t planning on retiring any time soon — and I don’t want him to,” says Farmer, checking the time. “It’s 9:26 a.m. and there’s no sign of him this morning, so he’s starting to relax,” she says with a laugh. “But our desks have always been across from each other, and I hope they stay that way.”
What happens when you look at things from a different angle: It was an ugly and outdated awning on the Blue Ridge Inn, an independent and nondescript Douglas Street hotel owned by the Farmers, that gave Mandy Farmer the idea for Hotel Zed. One day in 2003, she was standing outside the hotel and noticed the awning actually covered up some interesting diamond-shaped patterns in the roof structure. “[When we removed the awnings] I thought, ‘I can transform this property,’ and that’s exactly what we did.”
It took a decade for Farmer’s dream to come to fruition, with construction starting last year and finishing just this summer. Though the investment was “significant,” her two favourite tasks — brainstorming and creating business plans — merged together like blocks of a Rubik’s Cube as Hotel Zed took shape.
As the rebellious last letter in the alphabet, with its symbolically Canadian pronunciation, the name Zed was a point of artistic expression for Farmer, sparking the slogan “Rebels Against the Ordinary.” That slogan would carry her through each element of her planning process, from choosing the hotel’s bold colours to selecting contemporary vintage pieces, including rotary phones, for guest rooms.
When the rewards are in the risks: If there’s one mistake Farmer sees many hospitality businesses making, it’s that they don’t take enough risks. Within the Farmer business group, which includes Mandy, her father, her uncle and her father’s cousin, risk is celebrated — but you have to prove yourself and your idea.
Getting the Farmer business group to see that an old motel bought in the 1990s would make a great modern-retro remake took convincing — but it was a niche Victoria hadn’t yet capitalized on, and Farmer wouldn’t give up. Finally, her partners agreed.
“I see so many businesses avoiding risks and not having enough confidence in their products,” she says. “We have amazing hotels here in Victoria, but nothing is funky, and many are striving to fit into the mainstream. It’s not so important to not conform. It’s important to be original.”