Kevin and Shawna Walker knew rebuilding an 80-year-old historical landmark was going to be tough, but not this tough. They closed the Oak Bay Beach Hotel, an English country manor house-inspired boutique hotel on Vancouver Island overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca, which separates Canada from the United States, in 2006 with the goal of reopening it three years later. Now after six years and $52 million the hotel will finally be ready to receive guests. And the Walkers have managed to maintain plenty of buzz through the entire process.
That’s despite the many delays that resulted from rising construction costs and the global credit crunch. This year alone, the Walkers had planned to open in May but pushed it off until the fall when construction fell behind schedule. Then the rescheduled opening in early October was kyboshed after they weren’t able to get the final approvals and inspections required for fire safety systems done on time. The new target date is Nov. 15, and it looks like the team is on track to hit it.
The Walkers conceived the project as a modern version of the old Bay Beach Hotel, which was originally built in 1927. The property had been in the family since Kevin’s father, Bruce, purchased it in the early ’70s. In 2005, the Walkers learned that the old 50-room hotel required extensive structural work to meet a new Canadian seismic standard—work that was too costly for such a small hotel. Instead of retrofitting the building, they figured that they should build something bigger in the same spot.
“As we worked with our community we realized how important this historic building was to them,” says Kevin Walker. This was especially true of the bar, called Snug Pub, which was one of the most popular drinking spots in the area. “People told us that we could do whatever we wanted to the hotel as long as we didn’t touch the pub.”
So they decided to go the longer route to their goal, painstakingly dismantling the old hotel to save the historic elements and then apply them as finishing materials to a new concrete and steel structure. For instance, the Snug Pub has been rebuilt as a scale version of the original, yet “people can still reach up and touch the beams that were there from their university years,” Walker says. Taking this approach let them embrace the hotel’s history while incorporating modern technology in the building and environmental practices.
He estimates that doing it this way cost them five times as much as a straight structural upgrade. “But,” he says, “we would still have had a 50-room, archaically-built hotel with the retrofit.” Doing the project as a new build allowed the Walkers to create a modern resort with 100 hotel suites and 20 residences. The new Oak Bay Beach Hotel is loaded with high-tech and environmentally friendly features such as a geothermal heating unit for the pools and a water-filtration system that collects and purifies rain runoff. That’s not to mention the full-service spa and therapeutic mineral pools.
With the delays, the Walkers knew they had to enlist the support of everyone from lenders to community leaders to keep the development alive. “We actually brought many of them into the design process by making them part of our advisory group,” Walker says. “Now they feel like they have their fingerprints on this project and are as eager as we are to open it.” He believes that in the process they developed a very loyal fan base that can call this hotel their own.
Given that there was still some local resistance to the prospect of changing a cultural landmark, the Walkers invested a lot of time and effort in communicating exactly what they were doing. “We always spoke the truth,” Walker says. “Even when it hurt, and people appreciated that.” This built up a certain amount of trust. He says that there are groups in the area that still don’t want the project to happen, but the development team managed to establish a solid relationship with them.
To keep the buzz going through all the downtime the Walkers used every distribution channel imaginable, from old-fashioned newsletter mailers to social media, to announce what was going on so people in the community wouldn’t have to guess. From sponsoring the fireworks for the Oak Bay Tea Party to introducing a mascot, the Walkers worked hard to maintain a presence throughout the summer. They even went so far as to purchase three electric GEM vehicles, branded with the hotel’s logos and color scheme, as a way of allowing staff to complete errands throughout the local area.
Despite all this the Walkers are being careful to not oversaturate their audience. “Our marketing efforts go through all the same distribution channels,” Walker says. “But [once we open] it’ll be a different message. For the past year they’ve been talking to a lot of past clients, grooming them for opening day. That has resulted in a lot of pre-booked rooms. Room rates range from $180 to $1,200 per night.
The Walkers plan on a progressive opening, starting with the spa and pools, the 85-seat café, and the conservatory seating area on Oct. 4. Next they’ll open some food and beverage areas, and the David Foster Foundation Theatre, which is expected to open the second week of October. Finally the main building, the pub, and the rooms will open in mid-November.
This is the largest construction project in the area’s history. Walker recognizes that they will need to be careful during the launch because people will be comparing the new hotel to memories they have of the old place. “Memories are a funny thing. They’re always sweeter than the actual experience,” he says. He plans to have the marketing team address this potential perception gap with images and stories about what the new hotel will be like.
“I think the extra time, as frustrating as it’s been for us, has made sure we didn’t rush and cut any corners,” Walker says. “We did rack up additional costs in the process, but thankfully our business model will sustain us after we open.”