Don Fennerty was a teenager when he was ushered into the general manager’s office in the stately Empress Hotel to learn about careers in the hospitality industry.
Today, Fennerty is back in Victoria, this time as general manager of what he calls “my hotel.”
He said that early meeting convinced him “this was the right industry for me.”
Fennerty looked out a window of the 477-room Fairmont Empress on Thursday to see sun shining on tourists in front of the Legislature and boats moored in the city’s picturesque harbour. He spread his arms, saying, “Victoria is drop-dead gorgeous.”
Fennerty moved his family here last winter from Edmonton, where he was manager of the Fairmont Hotel Macdonald. When Fairmont offered him the manager’s position at the Empress, “I said, ‘Absolutely.’ ”
Fennerty understands the Empress has a special place in the hearts of locals. “Victorians love this property. They want to know what is going on,” he said. Everyone he meets has a story about the hotel.
He is the latest in a long line of general managers of the 105-year-old hotel. The first was Stewart Gordon. Some individual managers, working under the Canadian Pacific Hotels banner, served for more than 20 years.
The hotel bug bit Fennerty as a youngster. His father was a civil engineer and the family travelled around the world. In summers, they would go to places such as Malaysia, Greece, Nepal and India — whereever his father was working. “We spent the time in hotels,” said Fennerty, adding it was fascinating to see frontend operations and wonder what was happening behind the scenes.
“I’ve always had a passion for people. I loved the service industry, so it was a good fit for me,” he said.
Fennerty considers the job a “calling.”
“If you don’t have a passion for this industry, then it quickly overwhelms you, and you don’t enjoy coming to work. It’s fun. Every day is different.”
Hospitality has been a life-long love, with satisfaction coming from a full hotel, letters from guests and when a special event is successful, he said.
Fennerty, 50, was born in Toronto and moved to Victoria at age 14 with his family.
When his father relocated for work, Fennerty stayed as a boarding student at St. Michaels University School. The school encouraged the Grade 11 student’s interest in hotels by arranging the meeting with the Empress manager, Ted Balderson.
After high school, Fennerty attended the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology to study hospitality and restaurant management. He was then hired to work as night auditor at the Calgary Airport Hotel, a CP property. He has remained with the same employer throughout his career. CP Hotels added the Fairmont name in 1999. Fairmont Hotels and Resorts has a portfolio of more than 60 luxury properties around the globe.
From Calgary, Fennerty worked at the Hotel Vancouver, Chateau Whistler, Chateau Lake Louise, the Monarch Hotel (now the Fairmont Washington D.C.) and then back to Canada to Edmonton’s Hotel Macdonald, starting in 2007 as director of operations. The Edmonton move put the family, with wife Cindy and two children, close to relatives in Alberta. Fennerty became general manager of the Hotel Macdonald in 2009. He worked in food and beverage management and human resources prior to operations.
Fennerty is anticipating a healthy tourism season this year, saying there is more buoyancy in the market right now. He’s expecting 90 per cent of rooms to be filled in June.
“We are in a much better position this year than last,” he said. That is largely due to strong bookings by groups.
“U.S. business has been fairly flat year-over-year. Most of our wins are group business from across Canada at this stage,” said Fennerty. “In terms of the Pacific Northwest Region in the U.S., our focus has been in partnering with the Clipper and Coho on promotions selling the destination.”
Tourism Victoria will be promoting “Victoria Calling” in Seattle, he said.
Among the Empress’s 500 staff, some have worked there more than 40 years. “There is a huge pride of place here,” said Fennerty. When guests write to stay how much they enjoyed the Empress, their letters are not so much about the building, but about the people who work there, he said.
In the future, Fennerty would like to see some of the rooms renovated to further showcase the building’s grandeur, and continue to emphasize guest services. He said it’s important to ensure colleagues are engaged in their work, love working at the hotel and are passionate about it.
Fennerty is also aiming to work with the community in a variety of ways.