Indu Brar is getting to know the city of Victoria, British Columbia, the waterfront capital on Canada’s scenic west coast, quite well. Unlike most, Brar was able to launch her Victoria explorations from a special vantage point: the Fairmont Empress Hotel. In fact, she’s the first female general manager of the property, a landmark address that has dominated the city’s harborfront for more than 100 years.
We recently talked with the Calgary, Alberta, native about the hospitality career that has taken her across North America, what it’s like to manage an iconic hotel, and what she recommends to travelers visiting B.C.’s seaside capital.
Enjoying Victoria’s views
“My favorite way to start the day is with a run along the beautiful waterfront in Victoria,” Brar says. “The views are spectacular.
“If you haven’t been whale watching, Victoria is definitely the place to go. This season we have seven baby orcas in the Victoria area, the largest amount we’ve had in many years.”
Fairmont Empress’ general manager also likes to take in the sights from above, so she travels by helicopter between Vancouver and Victoria. “Helijet has regularly scheduled flights that give you a wonderful bird’s-eye view of the Salish Sea, the Gulf and San Juan Islands, as well as Victoria Harbor.”
A scenic career
Brar is no stranger to dramatic scenery. During her 27 years with Fairmont Hotels and Resorts, she’s held management positions in some pretty special locations. She served as director of operations at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, an elegant lodge on the shores of the bluer-than-blue lake in the Canadian Rockies.
She was hotel manager at Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star The Plaza, A Fairmont Managed Hotel on the border of New York City’s Central Park. She also held the general manager position at the former Fairmont Battery Wharf, which overlooks Boston Harbor. Most recently, she served as GM at the Fairmont Waterfront Hotel in Vancouver.
Six months ago, Brar relocated to Victoria, where she’s joined the Fairmont Empress at an especially busy time. Not only was Victoria all abuzz with a royal visit — Will and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, made several stops in the city during their late-September Canadian tour — but the historic 464-room Empress was in the midst of a multi-year renovation project.
It’s tough to tinker with tradition
In June, the hotel completed updates on 235 of its guest rooms, revamped the lobby lounge where generations of Victorians and visitors have assembled for afternoon tea, and opened a new restaurant and bar, Q at the Empress, that has an emphasis on Pacific Northwest cuisine.
“Victoria has a pretty incredible food scene,” Brar says. “While ‘farm to table’ is popular in many cities, Victoria’s proximity to farmers and producers is unique.” There are farms, distilleries and wineries as close as 15 minutes from downtown.
The next phase of the Empress’ $40-million renovation begins in October, with plans to transform the main lobby, the health club and spa, and the remaining 229 guest rooms by June 2017.
Even with all the physical changes, though, Brar acknowledges that it can be tough to tinker with tradition. “The Empress has really grown up with Victoria,” she explains. “We are the backdrop of so many photos in Victoria, and I think Victorians really have a sense of pride in the hotel.
“I love the architecture, history and all the unique nooks and crannies of this beautiful property. And there are so many unique Empress stories, from decades of royal visits, to the dowagers who resided here for years.”
In embarking on this renovation, Brar maintains, “It is important that people feel we have honored our history while bringing this magnificent landmark into a modern era.”
Follow your passion
Brar downplays the significance of her position as the hotel’s first female general manager, noting that throughout her career “the challenges I have experienced are the same as any leader.”
“I have been fortunate to have had so many wonderful mentors along the way,” the Empress GM says. When asked what advice she has for young women in the hotel industry today, she suggests, “When confronted by a challenge, find the opportunity within. Always learn from the experience and be open to feedback.”
And wherever your career takes you, Brar concludes, speaking as a hotel executive whose own journey has brought her from one scenic destination to the next, “know that you can do anything when you follow your passion and your dreams.”