Shawna and Kevin Walker

Shawna and Kevin Walker

Soul of a community

Oak Bay Beach Hotel re-development shows what it takes to rebuild a brand

It was the best – and worst – of situations a hotelier who loved the business could find himself in.

It was the early 2000s and Kevin Walker had the considerable satisfaction of being the third generation owner of the historic Oak Bay Beach Hotel, a living landmark in the picturesque seaside community.

But the building itself was on life support, and, in his words, “deemed to be in a state beyond repair.”

Not that he didn’t have attractive options. The hotel’s location was perfectly positioned on some of the most attractive waterfront property in Greater Victoria. A high-end and highly profitable real estate development was very feasible. Even recommended.

But Walker and his wife and business partner Shawna, had a vision they were determined to make reality: to continue and improve on the high levels of hospitality the inn had offered for years, and to preserve and respect the community memories woven into the site.

The couple has successfully reopened the original hotel doors to an eager public response.

They knew from the beginning they faced a challenging and costly project – $52 million was their hard cash outlay. But nothing could have prepared them for the gauntlet they had to run.

The first hurdle was the procedurals, including exhaustive meetings with Oak Bay council as well as their neighbours.

Frank Bourree, president and CEO of Chemistry Consulting and long-experienced tourism sector expert, worked with Walker on the original feasibility study.

“The community wanted to be involved in every detail, from the design of the fireplace to the redesign of The Snug (pub),” Bourree said. “Kevin was put through the ringer to the point where it became a case study on why a lot of developers don’t want to build in Victoria.”

There is a certain preponderance of CAVE people here, he contends: Citizens Against Virtually Everything. But the Walkers remained gracious and very professional.

There were daunting construction details. Reclaimed bricks from the old hotel, cleaned by hand, were reused in the wine tasting room, Kate’s Café and the new Snug and lobby fireplaces. Wooden beams, The Snug’s original bay window, front door, light fixtures and mantle were reclaimed, as were  various antiques and even mature plants from the original gardens: all heirlooms with soul.

The plan called for 20 unique private residences and 100 hotel investment condominiums. Rather than sell them as fractional ownership or time-shares, the latter were sold with 16 weeks of owner use per year and a contracted net return on investment on a lease-back program.

By 2010, the global economic crisis was wreaking havoc on the Greater Victoria luxury real estate development market.

Undaunted, the Walkers clung to the view they had something truly special on their hands. And in doggedly pursuing their dream, they’ve added considerably to Victoria’s tourism offering.

“The Oak Bay Beach Hotel is one of the very few properties that can carry that niche in Victoria,” said Tourism Victoria president and CEO Rob Gialoretto.

“It’s a reborn property, very much of the luxury variety. And that class of traveller coming here will only look to so many places; the Empress, of course, the Grand Pacific and Delta too; but the list isn’t long.”

Already ranked No. 8 out of 67 hotels in Victoria on TripAdvisor.com, they’ve started with a bang in the minds of consumers, Gialoretto says.

 

“In the end it’s a testament to Kevin and Shawna’s determination to stick to their vision. Frankly, we need more people like them.”