Stephen Darling has been a fixture in Vancouver’s hotel industry for 32 years, most recently as GM of the Westin Grand Hotel. Now, his lengthy experience and well-placed connections have landed him what is arguably the sweetest job the local industry has to offer, regional VP of Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts.
Stephen Darling has been a fixture in Vancouver’s hotel industry for 32 years, most recently as GM of the Westin Grand Hotel. Now, his lengthy experience and well-placed connections have landed him what is arguably the sweetest job the local industry has to offer, regional VP of Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts, an ultra-high-end Asian hotel chain making its North American debut in Vancouver. The offering here will be the tallest residential building in Canada and, some speculate, Vancouver’s most stunning hotel.
Darling’s job will be to run it, but until the 60-storey hotel-condo-retail complex dominating Georgia and Thurlow opens its doors in 2008, Darling is responsible for stick-handling Shangri-La’s rollout across North America. The man who spent his career dealing with guests and hotel staff is now brokering business deals between developers, architects and engineers across North America and his bosses in Hong Kong.
What is it like working for a hotel that won’t exist for another three years?
I’m working in three time zones right now to expand the brand. My morning starts with a load of emails that have come overnight from Asia, then I start my calls to the East Coast. Often I’m on the phone well into the evenings as it’s the next business day in Hong Kong. The cities we want to be in are Toronto, Boston, New York, Washington, Chicago, Miami, San Francisco, L.A., Las Vegas, Honolulu and Mexico City. After getting up for 32 years and going to work in a hotel, working from home is different. The other day I rushed from the shower to answer the phone at 6 a.m. and then worked on a deal until 8:30 a.m. and I still had a towel around my waist.
Did they headhunt you?
No. I was simply helping [Westbank Projects Corp. president] Ian Gillespie. We met when his company developed the Palisades Condominiums when I worked at the Pacific Palisades. I ran into him in the Toronto airport; I was at the Westin at the time. He said he wanted my guidance on a project. We had lunch in September 2003 and he outlined his idea: take a location with a very high cost of land and spread the expenses out over three different components: high-end commercial and retail on the ground floor, 15 floors of hotel rooms, live/work condos and the top-floor residential suites. I helped him conceptualize what the hotel could be, how many rooms, restaurants, bars, down to the bedding and then outlined the options: should they own it, sell it, franchise it, set up a management contract and if so, who it should be…
You did this consulting for free?
I did it as a favour. Then we went through the options, and of course Bob Rennie was involved because Gillespie wanted to make sure whatever we did gave lift to condo sales because that’s what it was really about. I asked Bob for all the market segments he envisioned selling to, geographically, economically, the nationalities. Then we ranked the perception of each hotel brand against the targeted groups and came up with Shangri-La. I called the CEO of Shangri-La [Giovanni Angelini], whom I knew from when they managed Pacific Palisades. He said we’ll do it if you join us, if the developer guarantees it will be the best hotel in Vancouver and if we get the room count up over 100.
Okay, this was about landing a job?
No, I never expected it. It was like a manna from heaven and it took me five seconds to know it was right and say yes. The opportunity to take on a leadership role and expand the brand into North America gives me a personal challenge I’ve never been offered before.
How do you go from looking after guests to brokering development deals?
I thrive off the deal-making. When my Asian colleagues and the North American developers start getting excited, that’s the reward, that’s the recognition.
Yes, but how do you know what you’re doing?
I had been chairman of Tourism Vancouver, taking over seven months after Sept. 11, and I had been co-chair of the Yes 2010 campaign and worked my guts out. I never wanted to be in politics but knew from the first day I was in it whether I liked it or not. It forced me to step up a level and look at the industry as a whole, as opposed to just my sector.
Post-9/11 was hard but I came away knowing I needed to push myself to take that next step. I turned 50 this year and when I was in Hawaii in January, I made a decision that it was a year to change. Then this opportunity came along.
Why did it take Shangri-La so long to come to North America?
We have saturated the market in Asia Pacific in a substantial way; we’ve expanded into India, Australia and the Middle East and have one going into London. So it’s prime time for North America.
Three words: Approved Destination Status
There are approximately 10 million passport holders in China. By 2010 there will be 200 million passport holders who are going to travel out of China. You do the math.