The Fairmont Empress Hotel is truly the jewel in the crown of its Canadian properties. While all the hotels are excellent and engender repeat visits, none asserts the compelling loyalty displayed by customers of The Empress Hotel in Victoria, British Columbia. And yet, there was discussion in 1965 to tear it down. Instead, $4 million was put into the hotel to help regain its original glory. The Empress was then expanded and updated in 1991 with a six-month $45 million restoration. The Empress regained its original glory when it was first completed on the reclaimed tidal mudflats of James Bay in 1908 for about $1 million. Eighteen months of work were compressed into the six-month time period by working nearly around-the-clock.
The general manager at the time said that their biggest problem was finding enough skilled craftsmen. They had a tight schedule but refused to compromise on quality. Even though the building code did not require it, the Empress removed all asbestos in the building during the restoration. It was a costly expense the hotel voluntarily endured to protect its guests.
I took a tour of The Empress that started in the main lobby where the world famous High Tea is served each year to over 100,000 people, or to one person who has it 100,000 times. The original wood floors have been restored to a gleaming luster. Look close and you can see where the old rugs had been stapled to the floor. During summer, tea is also served in The Palm Court beneath a giant dome of stained glass where sunlight filters through to highlight the central planter. In 1969, the dome was covered after it was cracked during a heavy snow. It can now be rented for parties. The planter was originally a fountain but the reverberating noise caused the change to quiet, yet eye-pleasing plants.
The entire hotel except for the main dining room and the adjacent lounge is done in oak. The dining room is heavy and dark in mahogany. For years, people complained about the low light in the room. In 1952, it was discovered that the light fixtures were upside down. The limited but adequate wine list is heavy on Australian and Canadian wines.
During the 1991 renovation and expansion, The Empress put in a pool, Jacuzzi, children’s wading pool, saunas and changing rooms, and a fully equipped exercise room. Added to the “back” of the hotel is a convention center. You will notice that everything in the hotel is extremely clean.
Most hotels have a high turnover in staff. The Empress is different, and you quickly notice it in the quality of service. The place runs smoothly because everyone knows their job well. Over fifty percent of the staff has been with the hotel for at least five years. In 1989, the switchboard supervisor retired after 41 years with The Empress. Virtually all employees of The Empress were kept employed during restoration. Those who were not necessary in administration or clerical functions were transferred to the Hotel Vancouver or were used as laborers, cleaners, and security guards by the construction company. The hotel has a fluctuating staff of 300 to 500 depending on the season.
The Empress is memories. Bob Hope used to visit at least once a year while doing some golf and salmon fishing. He didn’t always get the same room but insisted on a particular configuration in his suite. He often wandered the hotel early in the morning and chatted with the night porter and auditor while having a cup of coffee before the rest of the hotel awoke.
Summer is a busy and crowded time in Victoria and at The Empress. Try to visit during the shoulder season. Rooms will cost approximately $250 to $1000 depending on season, room size, and view.
The locals consider The Empress their hotel. It may be owned by the Fairmont group but it actually belongs to everyone. The locals claim it as theirs; tourists view the building and grounds as public domain. It is more than a hotel. It is history. It is tradition. It is the heart of Victoria.
Former Chief Engineer, Howard Hemming, who maintained the hotel for 47 years, summed it up best, “The Empress is not a hotel, it is a way of life.”