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Canada's first boutique hotel designed with Aboriginal arts to open in Vancouver this May

BY KEVIN GRIFFIN, VANCOUVER SUN

Six aboriginal artists have teamed up with six interior design firms to turn 18 suites into the city newest boutique hotel, one designed for tourists looking for unique higher-end accommodation in downtown Vancouver.

Scheduled to open in May, Skwáchays Lodge is being billed as the country’s first aboriginal arts hotel.

Each room will have its own theme and indigenous art works. Room 505, for example, will be designed around a celestial theme and include a round bed under a round drop ceiling decorated to look like the moon.

Another room will have birchbark wallpaper and cut pieces of birch trees of to recall powwow dances from the Prairies.

In the water suite, sculptures of salmon made out of steel on found wood will be mounted above the headboard while the poem room will have handwritten lines of poetry on the walls alongside works of art.

Corrine Hunt, the artist working with BBA Design Consultants Inc. on the water suite, said her goal is create little surprises for guests staying in the room.

“The idea is to give people not just the mythology but a sense of who we are as a people,” Hunt said.

Like the other artists and designers, Hunt is volunteering her time for the project which amounts to a major transformation of the Vancouver Native Housing Society complex at 29 and 31 West Pender Street.

The $10.5-million building opened in 2012 with 24 social housing suites. It includes an art gallery and a healing lodge, designed as a place for aboriginal patients from out-of-town to stay while receiving medical treatment.

The gallery and lodge were designed to generate money to help support the housing society and pay off the building’s mortgage of about $2 million.

But demand for lodge accommodation was lower than expected. Some rooms will be kept for aboriginal patients, but the excess capacity in the lodge is being redeveloped for tourists, said David Eddy, the society’s executive director.

Last year, when the lodge started working with travel websites booking.com and expedia.com, its occupancy increased 65 per cent. Business was so good from cruise ship travellers that the lodge optimistically projected revenues of just under $200,000. Instead, it generated $250,000.

“We were totally surprised,” he said.

This year, with the suites renovated, Eddy thinks it’s reasonable to expect that Skwáchays Lodge could meet last year’s target.

“I feel pretty comfortable that we’ll achieve our goal or get pretty close,” he said. “We think we’ve taken the idea of social enterprise to the next level.”

The other five artists and designers creating the rooms in Skwáchays Lodge are Clifton Fred and B+H Chil Design, Lou-Anne Neel and Inside Design Studio Inc, Sabina Hill and Mark Preston and MCM Interiors Ltd, Richard Shorty and Porada Design Group, and Jerry Whitehead and Portico Design Group.

The idea of turning the lodge into a boutique hotel occurred after a chance visit by Jon Zwickel, a third generation hotelier.

He was showing around friends who were spending a week here after a conference. The visiting couple focuses on aboriginal art, so Zwickel planned an itinerary that included the Museum of Anthropology at the University of B.C., the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art, and other aboriginal art galleries.

When they stopped in at Urban Aboriginal Fair Trade Gallery, Eddy was busy. The society’s executive director was hard at working with a bucket and mop trying to clean up after a big leak.

“We came back the next day and that’s how I got to know Dave,” Zwickel said.

“As I got to know the mandate of the society and the things that he deals with and his vision for social enterprise within the society, it made imminent sense for me to become involved. Their challenge was making the hotel profitable.”

Zwickel is president of InnVentures, which specializes in advising developers and owners of resorts, hotels and recreational real estate around the world.

“I’ve spent my whole career in the hospitality industry,” he said. “Intuitively, I could walk in here and walk through the rooms and get a fairly good understanding of how to reposition it.”

But something was bothering him. He noticed that there was no connection between the generic rooms in the healing lodge and the vibrant aboriginal art in the store front gallery. One day he had a brainstorm: why not combine the two?

The result is Skwáchays Lodge, which is describing itself as a “unique aboriginal experience.” When it opens, rooms will average about $225 a night.

Zwickel said research shows that there is a place in the hospitality industry for big box generic hotel rooms, but there is also demand for accommodation that is unique to a city and delivers an experience to a guest.

“That is very, very popular and it’s not going away,” he said. “It’s the way I like to travel and the way more and more people enjoy travel.”

Guests at Skwáchays Lodge will also have the option of adding to their experience. Details are still being worked out but Zwickel said the added experience could include learning to carve, weave or paint with an aboriginal artist and then taking home whatever art work has been created.

“Whatever appeals to you in the aboriginal art world, we’ll be able to deliver it to you in a package program.”

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