Located on Bay Street and Adelaide, the 65-storey Trump International Hotel and Residences by Talon International Development Inc. rises majestically over Toronto’s vibrant financial district. The uber luxury hotel and residence tower opened its doors in 2012 and houses 261 hotel rooms, a luxury salon and spa, elegant fine dining restaurant, and 118 residential units including a three-storey, 13,846 square foot Super Penthouse.
At the helm of this ambitious project is Neil Labatte, who became President and CEO of Talon International Inc. and Talon Luxury Collection in 2013. BuzzBuzzHome News recently toured the model suite at Trump Residences Toronto, and sat down with Neil to talk about his experiences in real estate, and to learn more about the impressive luxury hotel and residences.
Neil Labatte: I played with the St. Louis Blues in the NHL for two years and then Salt Lake in the Central Hockey League. I played both spots, going back and forth between leagues. I then went back to school and got my degree in Finance in both undergraduate and graduate.
BBH: When did you make the transition into real estate?
NL: I went to Brown University for two years, but I left to play professional hockey so I had ‘unfinished’ business. I left hockey after negotiating an amount of money to settle up my contract in the NHL and used that money to go back to school. I was always interested in real estate, but one of the professors at the University of Utah, where I was studying, had a real estate company. They hired me part time while in school and after graduating, offered me a job. In 1989, I went to Dallas to start my own real estate investment management firm and have been working in real estate ever since.
NL: After working in Dallas from 1989 to 1997 I came to Canada to work at Fairmont Hotels and Resorts and ran a public company called Legacy. After selling that company in 2007, I went back out on my own again and started an investment advisory company where I advise ultra high net worth clients in investments and business strategies in the real estate and hotel industries. As part of that business, I got to know the owners of Trump Residences Toronto. In 2013, they were looking at a transition for CEO as the fellow who was here before had expressed a desire to move on. They asked me to join and I’ve been here since June 2013.
BBH: Could you tell us a bit more about the background of the project?
NL: Construction started in 2008 and opened in January of 2012 so it was a four year construction cycle, which is typical for a building of this complexity. The hotel opened first and the residences opened approximately six months later. It’s the tallest hotel/residential project in the country with 118 residential units, 261 hotel rooms, and has a luxury spa called Pure Beauty Salon. It’s run by an experienced Canadian company with spas all over Canada, including the Holt Renfrew Salon and Spa. We also brought in America by INK Entertainment and Oliver & Bonacini to take over the operation of the food and beverage which we are very excited about.
BBH: You have over 30 years of experience in the real estate sector, how does your current position as President and Chief Executive Officer of Talon International and the Trump International Hotel and Residences differ from your previous positions?
NL: Everything that I have been doing here, I’ve done before, and that’s one of the reasons why they brought me in. However, I wasn’t involved from the beginning and anytime you come into a project that has already started, it’s a different sort of environment. You’re getting up to speed on the issues, who the people are and what needs to be solved. So it takes a little bit of time to get adjusted to the current situation. But I’ve been involved in hotel operations and hotel ownership, as well as residential development and sales before in the US and Mexico.
BBH: You became the President and CEO of Talon International just a couple years ago in 2013. What were your initial goals for the Trump Hotel and Residences Toronto when you took the reins?
NL: The first was to change the cash flow performance of the property on the operating side. We reduced expenses significantly, worked on the revenue side, and then focused on outsourcing. The outsourcing was very important since spas and restaurants are tougher inside a hotel because you can’t rely solely on the hotel customer to make those businesses viable. You need customers from the community so getting local operators with good track records, a large following of customers, and the ability to attract the best people to work in those fields was extremely important. In terms of the hotel, there were four luxury hotels opening at once so the market was hyper competitive for a while. There weren’t luxury hotels in Toronto at the time so we had to work on introducing this whole new price point into the mindset of customers.
NL: This year our main focus is on residential sales. We re-energized the model suites, re-staffed the sales organization, and hired a new series of external members to the team on the public relations and marketing sides. We’ve also got a very aggressive program to establish partnerships with like-kind luxury brands so that people will see us in the same light as those companies.
BBH: Trump Residences Toronto has partnered with Toronto Men’s Fashion Week (TOM*) as a platinum sponsor. What does this entail and what was the inspiration behind this unique partnership?
NL: When you’re selling residences, the principle objective is to get people to come in and visit the property. There’s a lot of PR associated with it so that people hear about it, read about it, and start thinking about it. Partnering with TOM provides that opportunity to build awareness. The other aspect is that they are taking six residences and they are going to have their designers here showing their various products so all the people that want to see what these designers are doing will come here into the residences. We believe that a lot of the people that are interested in fashion would be people who have the financial means and would be interested in living downtown at the Trump Residences. So we think there might be some opportunity to make some sales. Additionally, if someone comes in through TOM and buys a unit, we’ll give a wardrobe of clothes from one of the designers as an added benefit for buying through the event.
NL: The Super Penthouse is three storeys and consists of approximately 11,000 square feet of indoor living space. It is unfinished because, in our view, someone would want to finish it the way that they want, both in terms of quality of finishes and layout. As you walk through the space, you can come up with lots of different ideas about where you might put the bedrooms, where you might put the public spaces, living room, the kitchen, what you might do with the big atrium at the top etc., so we thought best to leave it to the buyer’s imagination and vision.
BBH: Trump Toronto recently relaunched the 31st floor restaurant, America. Can you tell us about your partnership with INK Entertainment and Oliver & Bonacini Restaurants?
NL: INK Entertainment and Oliver and Bonacini are well established in the industry and bring with them the experience, track record, and customer following needed to be successful. The idea with INK Entertainment is to have more later hour capabilities than we had before. They specialize in both restaurant and nightlife activities and saw a need in the downtown core for a space that caters to a sophisticated, potentially more mature clientele, as opposed to a younger, more night club type of crowd. INK has been able to generate significantly more customers in the restaurant all day, and then into the evenings, particularly Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights so its been a great transition. I can now focus on the residential sales, and they can focus on entertainment, food and drinks.
Thanks for buzzing with us, Neil!