British Columbia

Renowned Empress Hotel on Victoria's waterfront to close for 3 months to complete major renovations

Victoria’s renowned 112-year-old Fairmont Empress Hotel will be out of commission this winter.

Slow season expected in early 2021 is the best time to renovate, says hotel

Fairmont Hotels says the Empress is expected to re-open on April 1, 2021. (Deddeda Stemler/Canadian Press)

Victoria's renowned 112-year-old Empress Hotel will be out of commission this winter.

Fairmont Hotels and Resorts announced late Monday that the hotel will close completely for 87 days, starting Jan. 3, to complete a necessary $3-million renovation to its heating system. 

A release from Fairmont Hotels and Resorts says there'll be "periods of time where the building will be without heat ... or hot water," as the project involves replacing the building's steam heating system with a high-efficiency hot water heating system, along with replacing two 1960's-era steam boilers and hot water tanks.

The hotel's automation system, which controls things like heating, lighting and security features, will also be upgraded. The building is expected to reopen on April 1.

The hotel's general manager Indu Brar said in a press release that "being able to leverage the slower season and reduced tourism due to COVID-19 travel restrictions gives us the opportunity to complete these necessary upgrades."

Empress Hotel manager Indu Brar says the company wants to 'leverage the slower season and reduced tourism due to COVID-19 travel restrictions' in order to complete $3-million renovations to the hotel. (Fairmont Hotels)

Union 'disappointed,' as workers laid off yet again

Public Relations director Tracey Drake said employees will be laid off during the three-month closure, and the hotel is extending its recall time period from 12 months to 24 months, so 90 per cent of employees can return. 

 "[These] are always our quietest months of the year, so many of our colleagues do not work during these months anyways," added Drake.

She couldn't say how many employees will be out of work, as many remain laid off from when the hotel closed in March due to COVID-19.

Stu Shields, a national representative of Unifor, the union representing the hotel workers, said he's upset that around 75 employees who'd returned to work when the hotel reopened will be out of work yet again. The workers are voting on whether to approve the one-year recall extension that would allow them to reclaim their jobs until March 2022. Results will be known next week. 

"They are understandably disappointed. They were really hoping that business would open up. It's back onto [Employment Insurance] for the vast majority of the workers there," he said, adding the union is skeptical that the hotel has to close entirely to complete its upgrades.

Previous changes to the Fairmont Empress include modern artwork featuring Queen Victoria. (Fairmont Empress)

A prudent time to renovate, say tourism advocates

Paul Nursey, CEO of Destination Greater Victoria, said it's a "prudent time" for the Empress Hotel to renovate, given the slow season expected.

"They're making a strategic investment ... and it shows a commitment to improve the guest experience," Nursey said.

Anthony Everett, CEO of Tourism Vancouver Island said he's surprised the Empress will be closing completely, but expects tourism numbers to drop significantly in Victoria and across Vancouver Island this winter. 

"Successful businesses … have been using this time to do those things that they otherwise might not be doing, [such as] improvements," he explained. 

Nursey said he's sympathetic to those businesses who cannot afford to make improvements for the long-term this winter.

"There's a lot of anxiety as we're heading into the fall," Everett said, adding that "there are going to be some tough decisions this winter" as many businesses decide whether to keep their doors open.


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