Empress seeks more customers with makeover; Bengal fate draws fire

News that the Bengal Lounge at the Fairmont Empress Hotel will close in April as part of a $30 million renovation and re-imagining of the hotel is drawing fire from locals who want to see the 61-year-old bar stay open.

Dozens of comments have been posted at timescolonist.com and emailed to the Times Colonist; social media lit up with debates over the need to preserve the room and one resident even started a petition at Change.org to save the Bengal.

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Suzanne Johnston started the online petition, noting “the new owners of the Fairmont Empress are destroying its history and everything that this heritage landmark stands for. We stood by and watched as they ripped out the weeping sequoias, and removed the ivy. Now they have plans to renovate into a modern contemporary hotel … this includes getting rid of the iconic Bengal Lounge.”

By late Thursday, she had gathered nearly 1,500 signatures.

It’s unlikely to stop changes at the 108-year-old hotel, bought in 2014 by Vancouver developer Nat Bosa and his wife, Flora. Renovations on 245 rooms in its south wing have been underway since October. This month, work began on overhauling the Empress Dining Room, harbourside dining area, Veranda bar and tea lobby.

“The Empress is a special place, and we love that people are passionately in love with the Empress,” said Angela Rafuse-Tahir, director of sales and marketing. “That’s special. Not a lot of hotels have that, and we have to be sensitive to that. And we understand that not everybody will understand why we are making the changes, but, hopefully, they can understand that it’s for the best of the hotel and for all the stakeholders.”

The idea is to consolidate food and beverage service in the centre of the hotel with a completely refurbished Empress Dining Room, a new bar in what was the harbourside dining area, and a cocktail lounge component added to the tea lobby in order to attract more customers. What the owners will do with the Bengal Lounge space is still undecided.

Rafuse-Tahir said it’s about improving financial numbers and making better use of the hotel’s space. The tea lobby is open only between noon and 5 p.m., and the dining room tends to be a special-occasion destination rather than an everyday restaurant.

“We make these decisions to sustain the hotel via attracting more guests.” The goals are to continue to be big a employer, become more vibrant and perhaps hire more staff, she said.

“It makes total sense to go to a central core and reduce costs,” said Ian Powell, who was general manager of the Empress for six years. “Food and beverage can be problematic. Guests now want to go out and explore [for] variety, so what do you do if they’re not staying [in the hotel to eat] as much — you rationalize it down.”

Powell, now managing director at the Inn at Laurel Point, said this kind of move is not new in the hotel business where food and beverage service doesn’t make a lot of money and can be the cause problems.

The Empress’s new centralized food and beverage offerings are being designed to be more open and approachable. For one thing, the iron gates that enclosed the dining room and harbourside dining area are not part of the overhaul being put together by the Puccini Group. It has designed restaurants and bars for the Four Seasons chain and designed Lure at the Ocean Pointe Resort in Victoria.

The Empress’s new dining area will feature an 88-seat dining room, a 65-seat bar with live music and a 58-seat patio.

Gone are carpets and upholstered walls. Intricate woodwork on the ceiling and walls will be preserved, but be brighter with modern touches.

The harbourside bar, which will lead to a renovated patio, will feature a large white marble bar with 14 seats, modern cocktails and a view of the Inner Harbour. It will have live music in the evenings.

The tea room will be updated and its chandelier lighting softened by shades. Original tables remain, though some modern chairs will be added. It will have a new cocktail lounge that comes to life in the evening with classic cocktails, local and imported wines and food. There will also be a patisserie where customers can buy pastry and cakes.

“What I love about this is you have this historic icon with great bones and you can treasure and preserve them, but bring in some modern appeal,” said Rafuse-Tahir. “We’ve worked hard to cherish and respect the heritage and architectural detail of the hotel while bringing a modern elegance and luxury to it.”

The tea room is expected to be complete in mid-April, and the new restaurant and bar finished by the end of June. The rooms currently being renovated are expected to start coming back into use in April through to June.

Phase two of the renovation — the north wing including the lobby, fitness centre, spa and another 230 rooms — will start in October.

Hospitality industry consultant Frank Bourree, principal of Chemistry Consulting, said the changes coming to the hotel are exciting.

“The Bosa family are investing significant dollars into upgrading this hotel and Fairmont is really an industry leader in innovation and design and they will do a fantastic job,” he said. “What will come out of this will be a real showpiece for the hotel and Victoria. Many spaces in the hotel have been poorly utilized.”

Tourism Victoria CEO Paul Nursey said it’s important to realize it’s a broad renovation, and not just about the restaurants.

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