This week UrbanToronto sat down with Steve Gupta, president and CEO of Easton’s Group of Hotels. Treated to a breakfast buffet at the Hilton Garden Inn at Peter and Adelaide, we had the opportunity to discuss Gupta’s history in the hospitality industry, and his latest joint venture with Remington Homes, King Blue Condos.
Your personal history can be read as the classic rags to riches story. Do you see it that way? Tell us about coming to Canada.
When I came to Canada I didn’t know that I would be where I am, but I had the conviction that some day if I had the opportunity to succeed, I would take it. I feel that if you put in hard work and have passion and willpower you can make anything happen.
Did you know when you arrived that you wanted to enter the hotel and restaurant business, or was it a natural progression?
When I was going to school back home I was fascinated with hotels – those huge buildings with flashy cars – and knew that one day I would own one. When I arrived in Canada I realized that you have to go through steps, and I really started from scratch. I began investing in diverse real estate before entering the hospitality industry. When you have something in the back of your head and the opportunity comes along, something just clicks, and that’s when you can make it happen.
You started by buying and then upgrading a truck stop in Port Hope, and you have since grown quite significantly within the hospitality industry. What do you attribute your success to?
I believe in excellence, having always tried to do something better than everyone else. I never wanted to be an average student; I wanted to be top of the class. To get to that position you have to put in the effort, the knowledge, the time and plenty of hard work. A lot of people say I’ve been lucky; I believe that nobody’s lucky. It is just hard work, and the harder you work the better you will do. Sometimes you don’t get the value for all the work you’ve put in, but if in the end you get what you want, does it really matter how many hours you’ve invested?
Easton’s Group now runs 15 hotels under several banners across Southern Ontario and over the border into Montreal. How did your growth unfold? What do you look for in a new site?
I look for a niche in all my new sites. We own most of our projects with only a few joint ventures, and always choose sites where there is a niche to be filled. This site on Peter was formerly a parking lot, and I bought it knowing that the area needed a hotel. I believed in Toronto and noticed that it lacked four-star hotels, reasonably priced and held to international standards. This hotel, along with the Marriott on Wellington and Hilton Garden Inn on Jarvis are the best in their class, not only in Toronto but in North America. We break barriers when it comes to brand standards [set by Hilton and Marriott], and my name is consistently ahead of my American counterparts. I take pride in providing much more than expected. I follow excellence, and success follows me.
While most of your locations are in suburban areas, you have three prominent downtown Toronto hotels. What spurred your decision to invest in the core, and has it required a different approach at Easton’s?
There was a niche, a gap in upper mid-range hotels in Downtown Toronto. I felt that business travelers that were coming to Toronto should have a better choice than one between full service five-star hotels or limited service ones. We provide much better suites, meeting rooms, and services than our competition, and when combined with the advantage of being in the middle of the core we offer an unparalleled experience. Our hotels cover the Financial District and Yonge Street, in addition to our properties around the Airport, Brampton and Vaughan. We’ve recently bought properties in Thunder Bay and at Yorkdale Mall, both providing services to areas that were previously lacking.
The past decade has seen a number of new condominium developers come to prominence in Toronto. While a few have expanded into the hospitality industry with condo-hotel projects, you’re expanding from the hospitality industry into residential. Does this reversal mean that your upcoming King Blue project will have some special features that condominium purchasers won’t find elsewhere?
Residential is no stranger to me; in the 80s and 90s I owned several thousand-apartment units. I think we at Easton’s, having been in the hospitality business for 25 years and me personally in business for 35, actually have an edge over others in knowing customer service. We make sure we provide the best service otherwise they won’t come back. 60% of our business is repeat business. People look for an Easton’s Hotel; they know our hotels are better than others in the same brand. We were in residential before, and we are now coming back, bringing our extensive experience in construction having built in a three year period over $300 million worth of projects. We have a team composed of the best of the best in terms of interior designers, architects, structural engineers, as well as our marketing and sales teams – everybody is one of the best in the city. Any president of a company is as good as his team; if the team is no good, the president can be the best and still never perform, and vice versa.
We’re seeing an increase in the number of condominium-hotel combinations in Toronto’s core. So far the market has been dominated by high-end brands such as the Four Seasons, Ritz, Trump and Shangri-La. Where would King Blue fit within this market?
The market may now be saturated by the five-star brands, only one of which [The Ritz] serves the Entertainment District. At King Blue we want to cater to a similar clientele as them, serving the Entertainment District and King West. People these days are busy, with young professionals eating out on average up to 4 or 5 times a week. Lifestyles have changed dramatically – when I came to this country everyone wanted to go north into the suburbs, while now there is a strong movement back downtown. The King Blue project will be a resort setting in the city, providing unparalleled quality and services to its residents. We will have 807 condominium units, a central courtyard which will be connected to both King and Mercer by pedestrian walkways, which will be accessible from Blue Jays Way as well. Residents will be close to work but also to restaurants, to bars and clubs, to the Rogers Centre and ACC, and to large-scale event venues such as the Convention Centre. We are putting in a rooftop garden as well which will be the best the city has seen, complete with fire pits, various lounge areas, arches and gardens. Our focus on excellence means we pay attention to the smallest detail, whether it is the baseboards in our hotels or the various design features and services in this new project. It will truly be a one of a kind resort style condominium right on King Street in the Entertainment District.
Stay tuned next week for Part 2 of The Interview with Steve Gupta, where we delve into the King Blue project, and get a sneak peak at another major downtown development Easton’s has planned.