Moving on Up

Cam Watt’s improbable dream to 
bring high-end hotel guests to 
the Downtown Eastside

by David JordanThe four-storey brick building 
on Keefer Street, a block west of Main, doesn’t look remarkable from the outside. Apart from a fresh coat of paint suggesting a recent reno, there’s not much to distinguish it from the neighbouring retail-and-office blocks typical of Chinatown.

A man approaching the entrance wearing jeans and scuffed boots, and sporting several days of dark stubble, blends in easily with the locals. Except for the fact that he pulls out a key and lets himself in, there’s nothing to suggest that he is, in fact, the owner. Or that he has invested more than $10 million in converting the 100-year-old warehouse into Vancouver’s most exclusive boutique hotel.

Cam Watt hardly looks the part of Vancouver’s latest hotel baron. And in fact, when he bought the property 3½ years ago, he had no intention of being one.

Watt holds the door open to let me in to the Keefer’s ground-floor cocktail lounge. “When a friend introduced me to the property, I immediately saw it as a building with a lot of possibilities, and I really wanted to live here,” he explains, after we settle into a dark booth at the back of the narrow bar. “So I decided to renovate the place, keep one floor for myself and then sell off three of the other floors and rent out the commercial space on the ground floor.”

However, timing wasn’t on his side: no sooner had Watt printed up sales brochures, advertising suites ranging from $1.69 million to $3.9 million, than the economic downturn hit. “Pre-sales were dead in the water,” he muses. So it was time for plan B: furnish the suites and rent them out on a short-term basis.

The result is an upscale boutique hotel the likes of which Vancouver has never seen before. Not only does the monthly rental fee of $7,000 to $10,000 put it in the upper reaches of exclusive crash pads, but its design and features put it in a class of its own.

Giant Warhol-esque portraits by Watt’s childhood friend and Generation X author Douglas Coupland set the tone in the lobby, establishing an edgy, modern theme that continues throughout the suites. A glass-bottomed rooftop swimming pool reserved for the use of penthouse residents makes pool parties all the more entertaining. (The engineering marvel – a first in Vancouver, Watt believes – involved suspending the 12-metre pool from I-beams traversing the length of the building.) And indoor parking isn’t a problem, despite the building’s meagre 10.5-metre width, thanks to an elevator that spits out cars like a vending machine.

A graduate of Sentinel Secondary School in West Vancouver, Watt was always an entrepreneur. “Since I was a kid, I’ve always done my own little businesses,” he explains. “I’ve always enjoyed doing my own thing.”

He made his mark in business shortly after completing his arts degree at UBC. Watt was about two days into law school when he got a call from his buddy Glenn Bailey, telling him about a bottled-water company that had gone belly up. Leaving law school behind, Watt teamed up with Bailey to buy the company’s assets: 50 water coolers, a broken-down delivery van and a small-scale water purification plant. Ten years later, the two would sell Canadian Springs Water Co. Ltd. to Sparkling Spring Water Group Ltd. of Nova Scotia for US$15.6 million.

Since then Watt has been involved in a number of ventures, including backing former wife Wendy Williams Watt’s Liberty furniture stores, and real estate developments that include a strip mall in Calgary and the Langley Power Centre. Today he owns the Guinness Business Centre, a suite of furnished rental offices on West Hastings Street, which he launched with Bailey, whose interest Watt subsequently bought out.

But between dealing with contractors, inspectors and permits, the Keefer reno has been Watt’s full-time job for the past 3½ years. When the initial target date of summer 2009 slipped by, he had to shift into overdrive to ensure completion in time for the Winter Olympics. The Games got the business off to a roaring start, with the Kuwaiti royal family renting the entire building for five days and Burton Snowboards renting the site as its corporate hospitality centre for another stretch.

With the opening behind him, the 48-year-old Watt welcomes the opportunity for a little down time. That’s not to say, however, that he envisions a life of leisure: “I’ll always have a little project on the go.” n