This plot line involves four Edmonton characters – Mike Mrdjenovich, Richard Wong and the Chateau Lacombe.

As for the last, I can barely bring myself to type his name – or his variety of fake names – because he has caused so much misfortune to so many people. But Kevyn Frederick is pivotal to this story.

There’s no need to add “hotel” to the Chateau Lacombe.

It’s an Edmonton landmark, the iconic, 24-floor circular – some would say tin can – building overlooking the river valley from the downtown, with its signature La Ronde revolving restaurant at the top.

Richard Wong needs no introduction. He’s the last of the “old-school” hoteliers in Edmonton, deeply entrenched in the community, a leader, unable to say no to any cause. Richard is a hospitality guy to his core with the best network in town.

Other than as the dad of boxing champ Jelena Mrdjenovich, Mike Mrdjenovich is not so visible. A classic entrepreneur, Mrdjenovich boot-strapped himself up the business world, arriving penniless as a Serbian teenager in 1968, to electrician, to builder, to developer. Mostly under the Nova brand, he builds or renovates, then operates, hotels in smaller cities through Alberta and the Arctic. Two of Nova’s 11 hotels are in Edmonton.

Actually, the story starts well before the infamous Mr. Frederick.

In 1968, the one-year-old Chateau Lacombe was THE hotel in town. It’d been built by famous doctor/real estate developer Dr. Charles Allard, whose offspring continue to make Edmonton a better place. The Chateau Lacombe opened in 1967 with, for heaven’s sake, a revolving restaurant from which diners could take in a 360-degree panoramic view of the city.

In 1968, the teen-aged Mrdjenovich would travel by bus past the glittery Chateau Lacombe. He never, ever went in, not when he couldn’t even afford a cup of Chateau Lacombe coffee.

In 2002, Wong arrived in town as general manager of the downtown Sutton Place, with a mandate from new ownership to build that hotel back to its Four Seasons days. The “California Crackerjack” (his previous posting was in southern California) began a love affair with Edmonton lasting to this day.

For Wong at the time, the Crowne Plaza Chateau Lacombe hardly counted as competition. Absentee ownership was not re-investing in the hotel. Other than La Ronde, awareness of the Chateau Lacombe was slipping with every passing year.

Then the coup de grace. Frederick – or whatever name he was using at the time – bought the fading dowager for $47 million, selling a vision of a second condo tower on top of the hotel ballroom.

Not two years later, he’d bankrupted the hotel.

May 1, 2013: Mrdjenovich buys the hotel from the receivers for a deeply discounted $27 million.

The price, $90,000 a room for 307 rooms, was right. To build a new downtown hotel today would cost at least $200,000 a room. However the hotel needed lots and lots of remedial work. Pronto.

Mrdjenovich immediately lured Wong away from Tourism Alberta, where he’d been working since Sutton Place changed hands. Wong is vice-president and general manager of the property.

Richard hit the ground running. Already, renovations are in full force. The tired, damp and dismal parkade is being gutted, ground floor restrooms renovated. Meetings are non-stop with contractors, designers and corporate focus groups. A three-year capital investment plan is already in place. A three-year business plan will be complete right after extensive consultation with staff, clientele, and the corporate community.

But ask Richard his top priority, and it’s not about swanky rooms or fancy ballrooms.

“It’s the staff. They’ve been in survival mode for years. We have history and a corporate culture. Assistant hotel manager Jim Jackson is a 36 year veteran, Hans Voegeli has been La Ronde’s manager for 20 years. My job is to give hope, instill pride, provide leadership and direction. In any hotel, it’s about the people.”


Chateau Lacombe: the challenge

Average occupancy rate of downtown competitors (Westin, Delta Centre, Coast, Sutton Place) last four years, 64% to 68%.

Average occupancy rate of Chateau Lacombe in 2012, 45%.

Current market share 70%.

Goal: To be at 100% market share – i.e. equal or better than the average occupancy rate of downtown competition – by 2016.

Strategies: Improve product and services for discerning customers; full renovation; rebuild corporate market – possible introduction of VIP floors; re-establish dining establishments – café, lounge, La Ronde – as top-of-mind downtown gathering places; possible chain affiliation depending on reservation system opportunities; marketing synergies with Nova hotel group.

Immediate outcome: Since change of ownership on May 1, occupancy is already up 25%.

Graham Hicks

780 707 6379