Story by Adrian Brijbassi
Vacay.ca Managing Editor
TORONTO, ONTARIO — A couple of weeks before I check-in at the Hazelton Hotel, Biebermania strikes. Justin Bieber has come to town for the night and every teenage girl within Twitter distance knows. Soon, the hotel’s Yorkville Avenue entrance is teeming with shrieking girls, and a few rapt guys too. While Bieber is probably the celebrity who causes the greatest commotion on the planet at the moment, such encounters with fandom are hardly unusual for the Hazelton. Its staff knows what to do.
The hotel informs the fans standing outside that no one is allowed into the lobby or the floors without a reservation. You can guess what happens next.
“Our reservations line begins ringing with dozens of calls — and these are not cheap rooms,” general manager David Mounteer says, a touch of incredulity in his voice. “The next thing we know, one young man walks in and holds up a paper saying he has his confirmation number. But we could not honour the reservation, because we knew what his intentions were in regards to the guest.”
To protect its celebrity visitor from fans who could become a nuisance (or worse), the hotel went into “lock down,” refusing bookings even though it had rooms available.
“They’re nice kids. They really are. Nice young women and young men, but when you have so many of them in a small space, it can become a difficult situation,” Mounteer says of the fans who often line the hotel’s entrance routinely seeking a moment, no matter how brief, with a star.
When I turn down Yorkville Avenue, in perhaps the most chic district in Canada, and head toward the Hazelton, without a doubt the nation’s most celebrity-oriented property, a handful of young women and a couple of guys are milling about outside. It’s 4 pm and I wonder which hotel guest has made them so curious. Turns out, Jennifer Lopez had spent the night with her kids and, as Mounteer notes, some of the fans didn’t believe him when he said she had already checked out.
The hotel doesn’t come by its status as celebrity magnet by accident. It opened in 2007 to cater to attendees of the Toronto International Film Festival, TIFF. Besides the luxury price point (room rates start at $495 per night) and large security team, the hotel’s Hollywood vibe includes a terrific screening room that features a 16-by-9-foot projection screen and leather seats so comfortable you’ll never think of Cineplex the same again. Mounteer says the Silver Screening Room is already booked out for TIFF 2012, with producers and directors wanting the space to showcase their new films to hand-chosen audiences. The hotel also features a carport that can be opened or closed on either end, allowing celebrities to depart through the rear entrance or the front, or for decoy vehicles to go one way while the cars carrying the sought-after star eludes fans and paparazzi with a stealthy getaway in another direction.
During TIFF, the hotel beefs up its security staff to block off the perimeters of the hotel along Yorkville and Hazelton Avenues. “It was made to accommodate the people who come here during the film festival and I think the guests who stay here appreciate the thought that has gone into their comfort,” Mounteer says.
In recent years, the hotel has had to make interior alterations to keep up with changes in its guests’ lifestyle.
“A lot of these celebrities who stay here are having kids now and we have had to become a family hotel in a lot of ways.” Mounteer points out there is special bedding for babies and toddlers, and that the hotel’s ability to turn several of its areas into vestibules that enclose two rooms is appreciated by its elite clientele who bring along family and friends.
Despite the competition that has arrived in Toronto, the Hazelton isn’t concerned about losing its status as “The Place” during TIFF. The Ritz-Carlton, Thompson Hotel and the soon-to-open Shangri-la are high-end properties that will draw many celebrities, while the new Four Seasons in Yorkville, scheduled to open in October, will vie for TIFF business in 2013.
“The hotel scene in this city is very much community-oriented and supportive. I’m of the attitude if one does well, we all have a better chance of doing well,” Mounteer says. “It’s not the Yorkville film festival, it’s the Toronto film festival and it’s growing. It’s spreading throughout the city and that’s a good thing. This is a very exciting time to be in Toronto.”
Although when it opened five years ago it was billed as a hotel along the lines of the historic Savoy in London, the Hazelton will remind Canadian travellers mostly of Vancouver’s Opus Hotel, which has a similar boutique feel, lots of celebrity sightings, and rooms that are also large, open, and appointed with modern touches and decor. Opus has some kitschyness to it, however, and a funky bar scene that gives it added personality.
To be honest, I’ve never been sure how to peg the Hazelton. On the one hand, I’m turned off by how it courts the most elite celebrities and caters so much to the exclusivity they demand. It’s not only off-putting to a lot of people, it seems behind the times, because we live in a world of growing inclusiveness thanks to social media, globalization, and the emphasis on networking in the real and virtual worlds. The rooms are exceptional, as you’d expect. From deep soaker tubs to big, comfortable beds that can be decked out with your pillow of choice to room-darkening curtains that can be drawn with the touch of a button, it’s an uber-cool hotel that guests who frequent Vegas and South Beach will appreciate. Some of that stuff, though, also plays into the pretentiousness that turns so many of us off about the cultishness of Hollywood. Its on-premises restaurant, ONE, has disappointed me twice, both in its food and especially in its service.
On the other hand, the Hazelton has shocked me more than once for its warmth and openness. During TIFF, it gives those pricey gift bags Hollywood types are accustomed to receiving to all guests, not just the stars attending the fest. Last June, I enjoyed a showing of one of the Stanley Cup Finals games in the Silver Screening Room, which features 25 seats and on that night served up popcorn. The event was open to the public, if you knew about it. Those who attended raved about the experience (you can read more about it here). Two months ago, the hotel began an art concierge program, where a local art expert explains the unique and intriguing Canadian pieces on display in the hotel. You can chat online with her about the artwork in the hotel or surrounding area. The Hazelton offers gallery walking tours, where you can explore Yorkville, which features 40 galleries or dealers, most of them primarily focused on Canadian art.
Perhaps most of all, it’s Mounteer who wins me over with the perspective he has managed to keep. He’s an affable guy who knows exactly what his hotel is and how to react to the myriad out-of-the-ordinary possibilities that can come about when a high-profile celebrity is on site. He also seems amused by the circus atmosphere that engulfs the property for nearly two weeks each September.
“Some of the guests here truly value their privacy, but you would be surprised how many of them want to be seen. So we give them the option to have both experiences here,” Mounteer says. “During TIFF, it’s all hands on deck for the entire festival. It’s challenging, it’s intense, but it’s also extremely rewarding and a lot of fun. Like I said, this hotel was built for TIFF and every year it is something we look forward to. In a lot of ways, it’s what we’re here for.”
MORE ABOUT THE HAZELTON HOTEL
Location: 118 Yorkville Avenue, Toronto, ON (at the corner of Hazelton Avenue)
Contact: 416-963-6300 or 1-866-473-6301 (toll-free), or visit the Contact page on the hotel’s website.
Nightly Rates/Reservations: $495 is the advertised regular rate but like most hotels, prices can fluctuate depending on the season. View the Reservations page to make a booking. (Full disclosure: my room was covered by the hotel.)
Dates: The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 6-16, 2012
Tickets: Ticket packages are currently on sale. Visit the TIFF website for details.
Films: The full 2012 roster has yet to be announced. Keep checking TIFF.net for details.
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