Story by Karen Burshtein
A recent layover of several hours at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport left me with time and a stomach to fill. I needed something more stimulating to do than flip through magazines, or crawl around looking for an outlet for my computer. Something more interesting to eat than an overpriced and wilting Greek salad from an airport food counter would be nice, too.
I found all in a place that was traditionally as staid and soulless as airports themselves: an airport hotel lobby. The ALT Hotel, connected to the airport via the LINK train, is one of several airport hotels that are becoming destinations much like their hip sister properties downtown, loaded with the kind of gizmos you crave on the road, talented chefs in the kitchen and design conceits to spare.
At the ALT, I entered a lobby full of playful, colourful furniture, including a swinging hammock chair. There’s also a large board that displays flight arrival and departure schedules. Making myself comfortable on an overstuffed couch in front of the fireplace, I ate the meal I purchased from the hotel’s self-serve restaurant — gourmet carrot salad, crusted tilapia on couscous, and a treat from artisinal Quebec chocolate-maker Genevieve Grandbois — then logged onto my computer, feeling great in the spot that would be my home for the next hour.
The sleek ALT is one of a new generation of airport hotels that are a far cry from the brown-on-brown places George Clooney’s tragic road warrior stayed at in “Up in the Air.”
With plans to turn the recently shuttered Eero Saarinen-designed TWA terminal at JFK in New York to an airport hotel, industry onlookers are keen to see how these accommodations will be transformed. In Canada, we’ve been ahead of the curve, so far. Montreal was the first city to launch Starwood’s cheap-chic Aloft brand, which is now represented across North American airports. And from Halifax to Vancouver there are other new generation airport hotels available to ever-growing numbers of air travellers.
The ALT also has a sister airport hotel in Halifax. It’s lobby, like the one in Toronto (and like its equally cool property in Montreal’s Griffintown neighbourhood), is a mix of cool furniture and design features, such as a colourful mural made from guests’ Instagram photos.
Get Comfortable at These Stylish Airport Hotels
While I haven’t stayed in rooms at the Halifax property, I have slept over at ALT’s Perason property and can attest to its yummy beds with 100-per-cent Egyptian cotton and goose-down bedding, the great shower power in the light-filled spa bathrooms, and work stations with multi-connectivity and ergonomic chairs. The ALT does not offer room service but food is available 24 hours from the lobby grab-and-go eatery, one way it pares what it sees as customers’ desire to have a stylish stay without a high price for a room. The nightly room rate is $149.
The Hilton Toronto Airport Hotel, recently renovated from top to bottom, now features beds with back-to-back headboards, a “destination” lobby that includes a full-service restaurant and a well-equipped business centre, and large outdoor swimming pool that I and my muscles welcomed after a long and cramped overseas flight.
Like other airport hotels, this one is upping its food services. Travellers get a reprieve from room-service club sandwiches here with a locavore-led menu. The well-received Bliss restaurant focuses on Italian cuisine, with choices such as zucchini caponada and Osso Bucco. You can also order a great thin-crust pizza that’s made with organic flour.
Lynda Gilroy, director of sales and marketing for the hotel, said the revamp “elevates the guest experience to a whole new level.”
While one certainly appreciates all these design bells and gustatory whistles, one wonders why companies are now investing in properties whose clientele have traditionally only sought a warm and clean bed, and easy access to their departure gates.
For Steven Ross, a spokesperson for Groupe Germain, which owns the ALT properties, even airport hotels espouse today’s travel preferences.
“Of course customers want to stay and then want to go but we want them to have more then that, starting with a friendly staff, comfortable bed, eco-friendliness and modern design,” Ross says. “We’ve found there’s definitely a market for a smart traveller, one who wants an authentic experience even in an airport hotel.”
Airport hotels are also focusing on business crowds. Often the halfway point between two destinations, and a way to avoid traffic into town, airport hotels are bumping up meeting space in order to attract more conferences and business meetings. For example, the Toronto Hilton’s airport location has more than 23,000 square feet of meeting space.
Christine Lessard, director of sales and marketing, general manager of the Montreal Airport Marriott, told me the property’s new marketing concept focuses on “the best place to meet.” The hotel is repositioning itself in the marketplace, taking advantage of its airport location and promoting the idea that “we’ll help you get to what’s most important faster.”
The Montreal Airport Marriott also has a “five-, 10- or 20-minute ” feature on its menu designed for time-sensitive diners (but also serves local specialities like Bromard Duck for those who can linger longer). It also has a lap pool with a resort-like pool deck, and an inviting lobby to hang out in with an Illy coffee bar that gives out codes for WiFi access with the purchase of a coffee.
Some travellers are drawn to airport hotels because of packages that allow you to park, sleep and fly. If you’re going to leave the car and stay at a hotel the night before flying off, maybe it should be somewhere nice. That let’s you get into vacation mode early. (Now if only these hotels would offer a “parka and fly” storage so you don’t have to lug your heavy winter coat to your sun destination.)
For others, waking up for a 5 am charter or business meeting flight is easier when all you have to do is roll out of bed and walk a few minutes to the check-in counter.
I did that recently on the notorious 5:30 am flight from Winnipeg to Toronto. The night before I checked into the Grand Winnipeg Airport Hotel by Lakeview before an early morning flight and enjoyed a great dinner at the hotel’s Blue Marble restaurant, which won a top spot on the city’s best new restaurants of the year list by the Winnipeg Free Press, followed by an evening of Netflix catchup via the hotel’s free Netflix feature.
But the Fairmont Vancouver Airport tops not just my list of best airport hotels but that of industry bigwigs, too. It’s made Conde Nast Traveler’s Gold List, where you don’t find a lot of airport hotels.
The property seems to be trying to attract a leisure crowd as if a stay here is a vacation in itself. The hotel offers novelties like a bird-watching package, taking advantage of the waterfowl and shorebirds who stop to refuel minutes from the airport at the Pacific Coast flyaway, Fraser River estuary, and a fish valet who will check your catch into an on-site fish freezer. On one visit, I checked in, and watched, fascinated through picture windows (thankfully, sound-proofed) as planes took off and landed on the tarmac right under my nose. Another time, while waiting for a flight, a friend and I walked over to the hotel’s restaurant, Globe@YVR, and enjoyed a lunch of local seafood, and following the waiter’s suggestion, a West Coat banana split with avocado ice cream. This is not your uncle’s airport food counter. The restaurant also serves afternoon tea, as lovely an idea for killing two hours at an airport as I can think of.