By Colleen Isherwood, Editor
ORILLIA, Ont. — Soft, boutique brands like to talk about how they're aimed at travellers who value the local experience. Here's how a small-town Ontario hotel makes that concept come to life.
My friend, Janine, and I had a great weekend in Orillia, a town of just over 30,000, located an hour and a half north of Toronto. At the centre of our experience was the Champlain Waterfront, an Ascend Collection Hotel.
The hotel is well located in an almost-century-old building with a modern interior at Mississauga and Front Street in historic, downtown Orillia. It has a walkscore of 87, meaning that almost all activities can be done on foot.
I started the weekend by talking to Jacquie Jibb, hotel general manager, who has been with the owners, Sunray Group for many years, coming up through the ranks on the gas station side of the business. She provided me with background on the hotel, which underwent extensive renovations, had a soft reopening in July 2017, and Grand Reopening celebration on May 15.
I also had a great chat with Sandra McGregor, who has researched the property extensively, providing historical anecdotes and showing me old photos and videos on her computer. More on that later.
On Friday night, Janine and I went next door for dinner at the Fionn McCools pub, also owned by Sunray Group, and recommended by hotel staff.
After talking to the front desk staff the next morning, we cruised the shops on Mississaga Street and netted some clothes, almost bought a wall planter made of old silverware, and had lunch at Cosmo's Italian Ristorante.
Meanwhile, we'd seen signs at the hotel and all over town advertising the Roots North Music Festival. We walked a few blocks to St. Paul's Church, which was hosting the Saturday night grand finale. Neither of us had ever heard of the three artists who were performing, but we were wowed by them all, especially Irish Mythen, a diminutive powerhouse of a woman who played guitar, belted out protest songs and touched hearts when she sang about her late aunt.
The Champlain Hotel story
No one would have ever thought the building would become a boutique hotel, said McGregor, who worked in a business on Mississaga Street in years gone by. The hotel went though some bad times, and at one point was an called an eyesore.
“We bought the hotel in 2015 as a Rodeway Inn, and if you walked in, you might well have walked right out again. Now, it's stunningly beautiful,” said Sandeep Gupta, vice-president of Sunray Group. “There was old paperwork including letters from guests and client lists from the 1930s where guests were billed $3 per night.
“We thought, this has to be a boutique hotel under Choice, who has been a great partner for us, and we decided the Ascend Collection could use its potential to the fullest.”
The design of the hotel was by Corinne Ritsick of Ritsick Design Associates. She has designed several hotels for Sunray including the Oshawa TownePlace Suites, the Four Points by Sheraton and the Fairfield in Montreal, which was a custom project.
Design of the project began as soon as Sunray bought it. “It was a challenging building because of its age, and because the rooms were all different sizes,” said Gupta. “The renovations took two years.”
The building used to have a nightclub, but that became a Fionn McCools. The building has a Japanese restaurant, which will at some point become a small spa.
Each room now has custom mural showing a map of Ontario and a sketch of the hotel. The washrooms are designed to feel open — compared to the original washrooms where if you sat on the toilet, your knees were touching the tub. There's etching on the mirrors and a shelf on each mirror. And those letters and bills from the past were combined into a collage that was printed and framed and put in each washroom.
“It's been a favourite project of the younger generation of Guptas — [cousins] Sandeep, Gaurav and Shaun,” said Jibb.
The hotel has 53 rooms, mostly kings, with a few queens and some rooms with two double beds. “It's not a hotel that's good for hockey teams, though we have hosted girls' volleyball,” she added. “We have mostly leisure guests, though we are getting more and more corporate guests.”
Community links are not just to the businesses in downtown Orillia. “Now some of our biggest business comes from concerts at the Casino [Rama], and Opera House shows. There's a lot happening. It's an artsy community,” said Jibb, noting that the hotel will provide a shuttle on weekends for performances by artists such as Bryan Adams and Sarah McLachlan.
“It's a very welcoming town.”