OTTAWA — Mathieu Mault is something of a world expert on hotels since he and his wife took a sabbatical in 2011/12, visiting more than 30 countries and 130 cities, staying in hotels for a year. He has used this expertise to found Activar, which currently manages Casselman Microtel and is preparing to open Lac Mégantic Microtel later this fall.
Mault has been in real estate development, construction and finance sector since 2006. In 2011-2012 he took a sabbatical year with his wife to travel the world. “We travelled on five continents, stayed in 30+ countries, 130 cities and stayed in hotels full time for a year. I am passionate about travelling and having experienced so many types of hotels (from five stars to one star!), I decided to match my passion for travelling/lodging with real estate development, so I founded Activar Inc. This company built its first hotel as a developer in 2014 in a community where my wife grew up, Casselman, Ont. Then I built Val-d’Or Microtel in 2018, and now have hotels under construction — Lac Mégantic Microtel and Lachute Microtel.”
Mault and his wife have since settled down and had kids. “But we always thought we’d redo the one year trip with kids ten years later… that’s next year!” Mault said.
Activar now has about five other limited service hotels in their pipeline, all in Québec and Ontario. The company also has some new exciting boutique hotels it is working on in Canada and overseas. Some of these hotels will have condos integrated to diversify the project, Mault said.
There is a story behind the Activar name. “My wife and I have a decent command of Spanish, and we spent probably close to one third of our trip around the world in Spanish-speaking countries,” Mault told CLN. “So when we came back in 2012 and founded our new company, we wanted a name that could be easily said in French and English, so we settled on Activar which is Spanish for ‘activate,’ which is what we wanted to do, activate projects!”
Activar Inc. has managed other real estate projects in the food and beverage industry (a brewery), post secondary and more. The company has also provided general consulting services. “We decided in 2019 to consolidate the hotel business into a new and separate entity called Activar Hôtels Inc.”
Activar is currently managing Casselman Microtel and has started to manage the pre-opening of Lac Mégantic Microtel, which is under construction and will open in the next few months. Another hotel will break ground before year end and one more in spring 2021. Both are about 45 minutes from Montreal.
“We are a small team that is close to its projects,” said Mault, when asked what sets Activar apart from the competition. “Right now and for the foreseeable future, we can jump into a car and drive to all of our projects within a few hours. Because we are in small communities, this allows our team to be invested more than just financially. It allows us to be part of the community and it makes the hotels feel more local than those that are managed by third parties far away.
“I would say this level of proximity to our assets, staff and communities is even more important in Québec where more than 75 per cent of our assets are located for the foreseeable future. A Canadian one-size-fits-all approach does not work in that market. In my humble opinion, you have to not only talk their language but also adapt your management style to their culture. This is also true for our Casselman hotel. Although the hotel is Ontario, more than 80 per cent of that community has French as a first language, so all our communications and marketing efforts are in both languages.
“We also like to do firsts,” Mault added. “When we developed the Microtel Inn & Suites in Val-d’Or, we were the first to build a Microtel using modular construction. We were also the first to build a Microtel with a flat roof with a more urban look.
“We are now the first developer to build the new MODA Microtel, and have adapted it for the Canadian Market.”
Mault said he started with Microtel because it is a 100 per cent new construction brand. “I liked the chic, urban concept and the cost effectiveness of their prototype. Wyndham also offers flexibility, and because we are a repeat customer (now on our 4th Microtel) we can adapt the Microtel concept to a specific market while respecting brand standards.”
Mault is also passionate about independent, boutique hotels. “Although this may seem as contradictory to my limited service branded hotels, I believe both can co-exist,” he said. “The markets we typically choose for a limited service hotel are often near a highway, in a community that has a strong corporate base and with families looking for an affordable option. Microtel by Wyndham, for instance, is perfect for these communities and allows many communities to have hotels because of the affordability of that product. In other markets, we’ll be focusing on higher end, more boutique and independent style hotels like many of the ones I experienced during my travels. I believe I’ve seen so many hotels that I know what I like and I know what is missing right now in Canada.”
New design takes COVID into account
“Since COVID, I’ve spent time with my team and we’ll be soon unveiling our concept of the hotel room 2.0. This new room will take into account that COVID has changed many habits and just doing business as usual will not cut it. Humbly, we look forward to reinventing hospitality in our part of the world.”
Activar’s plan is to have 10 hotels by 2025. “We’ll be at five hotels by 2022 and 10 by 2025. Most will be new construction but we’re also aggressively looking at acquisitions, conversions and bringing existing hotels under our management umbrella,” Mault said.
Xavier Icardo has recently joined Activar as vice-president of hotel operations.
“I worked with Xavier when he was at MasterBUILT, as I was the developer on a hotel for which MasterBUILT was a minority shareholder and operator. We worked together on the pre-opening. I was impressed with Xavier’s professionalism, but also his rapport with every single hotel staff. He is very respectful — the number one value that is cherished at Activar Hotels is, ‘treat others as you wish to be treated’.”
He adds that Icardo has strong experience, not only with limited service hotels, but with higher end brands at Accor. “His international experience combined with his exposure to many brands makes him the ideal team member to help grow Activar Hotels into its new chapter of boutique hotels,” Mault said.
Other members of the Activar executive team are: Vincent Matte, vice-president business development, who oversees all of Activar’s developments and construction, and secures the best sites for their hotels; and Danny Purcell, CFO, who oversees all financial aspects including spearheading the internal underwriting of every new project.
“COVID has not slowed down Activar Hôtels,” said Mault. “We are pretty much on track with our development targets, but it has slowed down traditional financial institutions, which are a major piece of new hotel developments. It has forced us to be more creative and look at new funding partners.
“I am confident that the hotel sector will bounce back quicker than expected but I am not naïve and have pivoted our business model to include other types of asset classes in the wider range of lodging assets.”