A Family Legacy Lives On In Vancouver
It’s a rainy Tuesday morning in downtown Vancouver, and as I scramble out of my car and into the lobby of the Wedgewood Hotel I’m greeted by the doorman who smiles and jokes about the weather. He looks like he’s worked there for a long time. Not in a tired way that people in the service industry can look after years of dedication, but in a welcome-to-my-home way.
I pass through the lobby and into the restaurant to find the tables filling up for the lunch service. Men and women in business attire are seated randomly around the room between every-day Vancouverites and hotel guests. The restaurant has an elegant yet relaxed ambiance to it, not at all what I anticipated.
As I walk through the restaurant to the dining room where Gazette photographer Rob Gilbert is completing the photo shoot, I’m introduced to co-owner and managing director, Elpie Marinakis-Jackson, and the director of sales, marketing and public relations (and Elpie’s aunt), Joanna Tsaparas-Piché.
Joanna is fixing Elpie’s hair and directing her hand placement for the photo shoot. They’re family – and Greek – so Rob lets Joanna direct as she has undoubtedly done this numerous times before. They finish the shoot with a shot of both Elpie and Joanna together.
We then sit down over coffee and brownies to discuss the evolution of the Wedgewood Hotel and the legacy that Elpie’s mother, Eleni Skalbania, left behind.
Not having been to Wedgewood Hotel before, I began by asking what the Wedgewood experience means to both Elpie and Joanna.
“The Wedgewood experience is very much a Relais & Châteaux experience,” explained Elpie. “It’s like you’re coming home from a trip and you’re almost coming back home. So, it’s not necessarily a destination, but our clients feel so welcome. We know their names; we know what they like, what they enjoy… so it’s a very homey experience.”
Joanna continued, “They call it their ‘home away from home’. We have so many long-term guests…”
“… that have been coming here for thirty years! They come back. It’s really nice to see and we know all the familiar faces,” finished Elpie.
I instantly begin to see how close the two of them are. Being able to finish each other’s sentences must have taken years in each other’s company. The hotel is now co-owned by Elpie, and is still family run and owned, as she says it will always be.
“Her mother owned the Hotel Georgia prior to owning the Wedgewood,” said Joanna. “She (Eleni Skalbania) started with the Devonshire as an investor and she managed the hotel. When that one got torn down she bought the Hotel Georgia with her husband and several investors. They kept it for about four years.”
“Then the investors wanted to sell so she had to sell as well,” Joanna continued. “She said ‘Ok, we’re not going with partners anymore. We will find a small hotel that I will own by myself. No one will tell me when to sell or when not to sell.’ So that’s how we got into the hospitality industry.”
“But, being Greek, hospitality is in our blood,” said Joanna. “And Elpie carries that; she inherited that from her mother so strongly. I just love to see her fussing around the hotel like a mother hen. She fusses everywhere!”
Elpie elaborated: “The hotel was originally a long stay suite hotel. It was bought in 1984 and my mother basically gutted it. She made it the first luxury boutique hotel in Vancouver; there was nothing else like it at the time. There was the Four Seasons and the Hotel Georgia, but there were no small intimate hotels. So, people loved it.”
“When people would come from Toronto and Calgary, they really loved the concept. There were no female owners at the time so people wanted to work for her because it was breaking new ground in the industry. I think it was a really dynamic time. In the early 90s, women in hospitality worked in sales and as general managers mostly, so it was fabulous. We were the first.”
I couldn’t help but wonder if it was a challenging endeavour to take on the legacy of Eleni Skalbania since she had spent years building up Wedgewood until it was ranked as the fifth best hotel in the world.
Elpie described how she first started working along side her mother. “I never started out wanting to be in the hotel business. I actually went to UBC – I did a degree in history and I did two law degrees. I always wanted to do my own path. Then I had children and my mum said, ‘Why don’t you come work for me?’”
“We had to twist her arm, believe you me!” added Joanna.
Elpie continued, “But it was interesting because my mum said, ‘Come and work two or three days a week’ and I did, initially. But she knows me! I’m a complete perfectionist so slowly the days became two days, three days, four days, five days… and she got me! Then I just loved it.”
“We worked in the same office with desks facing each other for almost 20 years. It’s pretty amazing, isn’t it? You don’t really get that that often. We rarely fought, and if we did we would resolve it by the time we went home. We had the same vision – we wanted the same thing. It was such an easy transition; I was really lucky.”
“But she was tough. She was tough. She had big expectations of me. Absolutely. Good in a tough way though.”
Joanna agreed. “She didn’t baby you in the least. If anything she was tougher on you than any of the other staff.”
Elpie nodded her head and thought for a moment before continuing. “But I think it was good because then I learned right at the onset. Every Christmas day I’m going to be here, every Mother’s Day I’m going to be here, and I’m going to be on the floor. And we continued that legacy. I have no regrets. I love it.”
I looked around the room and commented on the elegance of the hotel. It’s contemporary but still classic, without an overwhelmingly modern feel.
There have been changes since Mrs. Skalbania’s passing, so I asked Elpie, “Do you ever worry that you’re changing the vision that your mother initially set out?”
“It’s always in the back of my mind, to keep her legacy.”
“It’s always in the back of my mind, to keep her legacy,” she replied. “I can’t help it, all I think is, ‘What would my mum think of that?’ It’s a part of her and I want to honour that. I don’t want to lose that because that is what makes this place really special.”
“You want to keep that but I want my own input and design,” she added. “I want to take it forward and go with the times too. It’s about finding the balance.”
“For example, when I did the restaurant, I used a very contemporary gold leather, one of the best leathers. Something that initially my mum would’ve been very hesitant to use, but when she saw the gold and the leather and some of the things I put in the rooms she was like, ‘Wow, this is beautiful!’”
“I’m now also using the work of a lot of local artists in the guest rooms and spa, which is really interesting too,” Elpie said. “I think it’s really great to promote local artists. Clients really love it. I send them to their showrooms and their galleries. We love to be able to help,”
The restaurant is beginning to become busy for the lunch service, and I realize that we only have a few minutes left to finish our discussion. I asked, “What is the most valuable skill you learnt from your mother?”
“It would have to be two; attention to detail and consistency. She always said, ‘Consistency is so important. You need to have consistently great service and consistently great quality of food’,” answered Elpie.
Joanna added, “She taught you instinctively to take care of your people and they will take care of your hotel. And you do it, Elpie.”
I discovered that I hadn’t asked about her father, so I asked the same question but in relation to his influence.
“My father was a lawyer, so originally I actually followed his path,” said Elpie. “I changed teams! From my dad I would say it was the skill of hard work. He emigrated from Greece, went to law school in Canada, and worked hard.”
Joanna explained, “You inherited one other thing – pride. He has a pride in who he is and what he does, and you have inherited that.”
I was also curious about Nelson Skalbania. I pressed on with the same question.
Joanna answered first, “Joie de vivre!”
“To grasp opportunities and to try new experiences,” finished Elpie.
Joanna continued, “I think the love of everything in life. He enjoys every minute and it doesn’t matter where he is; he enjoys it.”
Turning to Elpie, she added, “I think you’ve taken a little bit of that in yourself. You are an easy going person to begin with, but I think having had Nelson in your family during your growing years, that rubbed off even more.”
The dining room began to get noticeably busier and I didn’t want to keep them any longer. Elpie and Joanna both gracefully stood to thank me for my time, and insisted that I come back for a cocktail one evening. How could I possibly resist?
I walked away from our meeting feeling like I just had morning tea with my own family. I had forgotten how wet my feet were from the rain, and felt relaxed despite the rush of downtown traffic. Then I remembered Joanna’s words: “It’s all about recognition at the end of the day, that’s what our customers enjoy. The recognition and personal experience.”
And that’s exactly what it was. I had sat at a table in one of the best hotels in North America and had morning tea with members of one of Vancouver’s most well known families, yet it felt like they were family.
By Alice Ride
Photo by Rob Gilbert