After 23 male managers, 24th at Empress is a woman

Indu Brar is the first woman appointed as general manager of the 108-year-old Fairmont Empress Hotel, currently under a major renovation slated to be completed in spring 2017.

Brar started her new job two weeks ago, moving from the Fairmont Waterfront Hotel in Vancouver where she served as general manager for 2 1/2 years and oversaw its renovation.

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As far as being the first woman to manage the Empress — after 23 male managers over more than a century, it’s just business as usual to Brar. “I have been a GM in various hotels since 2007,” she said Thursday.

Ian Powell, general manager at the nearby Inn at Laurel Point, spent six years of his career running the Empress. When he heard that Brar was taking the job “my first reaction was, ‘About time it’s a woman.’ ”

Men outnumber women in senior management positions in the hotel sector, Powell said. “It’s not 50-50, but there are a lot more [women] than there used to be.”

Brar jumped at the chance to manage the historic Empress, calling it “a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

Born and raised in Calgary, Brar, 47, is completing a masters of business administration through Queen’s University.

She has been with Fairmont for 27 years.

“As soon as I started, I absolutely fell in love with hospitality.”

She joined the hotel business after high school, beginning by answering phones at the Chateau Airport hotel, then a CP property, in her hometown.

“You have an opportunity to impact everyone’s experience, just with either a kind word or gesture. Also, I was fascinated by what it takes to run a hotel.”

Guests see it as a seamless service. “When you get an opportunity to look behind the scenes, it is a beautiful orchestration of a lot of dedicated people and process to be able to turn it into something very special and genuine.”

After Calgary, Brar moved to the Fairmont Hotel Macdonald in Edmonton, and then to the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise.

Brar served for just under two years as hotel manager at The Plaza in New York. “You’re on the world stage there. Your clientele is very international,” she said.

New York was followed by the job of general manager at the Fairmont Winnipeg. She moved to Boston to become the general manager of the Fairmont Battery Wharf, prior to relocating to Vancouver.

Brar points to the repointed brick work on the exterior of the Empress. “It is really spectacular.”

New owner Nat Bosa is funding a massive renovation of the hotel. It’s too soon to say what the eventual cost will be, said Brar, estimating it will come in at between $30 million and $50 million.

Once complete, the hotel, which has about 500 staff, will have 465 rooms, Brar said.

The renovation is expected to reposition the hotel, ushering in its most elegant era, Brar said. The goal is “to be the best luxury resort in the Pacific Northwest. I think you have to think big.”

Brar said the new restaurant, lobby lounge and bar will be sophisticated, but welcoming. About half the hotel rooms are also being completely updated. This first phase will be finished by June.

Along with the traditional afternoon tea, the hotel is developing recipes to support the vibrant local cocktail culture, Brar said. A garden above the lobby will provide herbs to garnish drinks, and be part of food prepared by Empress chefs, who will also have homegrown vegetables.

The hotel will be fully open in the summer and the final stage of renovation begins in the fall. This includes improvements to the lobby, the remaining rooms and the spa.

Brar looks around the Bengal Lounge, which will be closing, saying it is a romantic location. She’s keen to tap the potential of destination weddings at the hotel. “I don’t think we have scratched the service yet.”

Along with other tourism officials, Brar is optimistic about the upcoming season, saying, “we are seeing a nice positive uptick.” American travellers are returning, attracted by the exchange rate between the Canadian and U.S. dollars, Canada’s beauty and overall safety.

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