Monday, September 24, 2007

Falling into fall in the Northumberland Hills

It seemed to happen overnight. Just in the last day or so I've once again been reminded that fall colours really are spectacular in Ontario. This morning, walking from my office, past Sentosa over the hill to the inn I was awestruck by the magnificent display. Last night the night sky was so clear, the moon so bright casting shadows into the woods as we walked up Clouston Road to our home. And the best part of fall - the great sleeps with a cool breeze wafting through an open window and over our bed. Of course the best way to take advantage of these Ontario fall days is (in my opinion) to take a walk, preferably somewhere on the grounds at Ste. Anne's, where you can also indulge your senses in the newly expanded forest trails. Failing that, there are no shortage of recommended driving trips offered around the province; (400Eleven, Ontario Tourism). All of this made the fact that a seemingly routine software upgrade crashed last night seem more or less manageable and not worth stressing over. Maybe I'm mellowing in my old age! I'll be travelling for the next ten days, but hopefully I'll be able to find an internet connection where I can update you on our adventures.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Its 6:17 and VIA train number 69 slowly winds its way out of the bowels of Montreal’s Central Station on its way to Toronto. As we emerge from the station, the sun is reflecting off of the glass office towers as it makes its way towards the horizon. The conductor is explaining to a passenger in a thick French accent how they will be responsible for breaking the window to create an exit in the event of an emergency. We pass a basketball court surrounded by low rise (and probably low-rent) apartments, where it appears as though a film crew is setting up large lights for an evening shoot. There are signs of a city in a state of decline, lots of unattended graffiti, dirty streets and buildings, not much in the way of new construction, There is an odd mix of architectural styles. While there are signs of increasing cultural diversity, French and white is still the predominant theme here. The people don’t look particularly happy, but then they don’t look particularly sad either. Most passing conversations are either in French or English, as are many of the signs. For the past 24 hours I have been in a Montreal hotel attending a board meeting of Leading Spas of Canada, one of a handful of associations trying to represent the interests of spa owners. Like Montreal, our industry is conflicted – we know we should be working together, and we know we have tremendous potential if we could, but we just can’t seem to get over ourselves and our petty differences. I belong to 3 of the 4 associations (at one point I belonged to all of them), always finding a few people who I enjoy spending time with as we share stories about our lives and the business of being a spa operator. I’ve always had an affinity for Montreal – a little exotic, but not too far from home, slightly foreign but comfortably familiar. When I visit Quebec my French slowly starts to come back, but I’m no longer confident enough to try to form a sentence in French, so like a bad American tourist, I speak English. Over dinner last night, one of my colleagues from Quebec explains that French Canadians speak the same dialect that was spoken in France when their ancestors left 300 years ago, setting them apart from modern day Parisians. Another tells us how frustrated he is with the separatists, as he feels they are responsible for creating the economic uncertainty that prevents the Quebecois from reaching their full potential. I’ve always looked forward to a visit to Montreal, with excited anticipation, usually choosing to extend my stay by a day or so to enjoy the city. Not this time though. I can’t decide whether its me, or Montreal, but our love affair is waning somewhat. Like my visits to Toronto, I find that I am planning my escape even before I arrive. Perhaps this trip got off to an ominous start. I hailed a taxi outside the train station and asked to be taken to my hotel, which was just a short trip up hill. Normally I would have walked, but I was tired and I had my suitcase, my laptop and my briefcase to attend to. And so, when the driver took a drive around the block I thought it was either an attempt to disorient me, or possibly to avoid one way streets and prohibited turns. However, as he managed to go just the right speed to catch every red light, and when he drove past the street that the hotel was on, I questioned him. He backed up into the intersection and made a big production out of making the turn. Not surprisingly, he was then pulled over by a police cruiser. Now I’m steps from the hotel, with the meter running and the cab driver trying to defend his driving techniques to the police. A fare that should have been $5 or $6 is now approaching $10. The police repeatedly tell the driver to turn off the meter and get out of the car, but he is too busy defending himself and blaming me. I got out, paid what was owing on the meter, and walked to my hotel while the police wrote up a ticket for the failed ambassador to this once promising city. I’m not sure when I’ll be back.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The evolution of technology (and service)

This past weekend I received a call from the front desk letting me know that "my lady friends" were here. You see, before I became a spa guy, I was a computer geek. My first real job was as a sales clerk at the ComputerLand store at York Mills and Don Mills. For eight years I rode the technology boom of the eighties; first with the Apple IIe, followed closely by the IBM PC. Those were heady days. My lady friends were three sisters, two of whom worked with me at Computerland, with whom I shared some great times, lots of laughs, and hundreds of chicken wings. I have lots of great memories of those years, mostly to do with the fun people I met and became life long friends with. Every once in a while one of those friends shows up at Ste. Anne's for some R&R and we invariably sit down and look back on those fun times of years gone by. It's hard for me to believe that almost a quarter century has passed! In around 1990, as I was making the transition from computer geek to spa guy, only the coolest guys were sporting these new "cell phone" gadgets. My brother John, who was managing Ste. Anne's Bed & Breakfast back then had one of the early Motorola phones (pictured above). I either took his over, or got one of my own, I can't remember. In any case, I carried (or should I say lugged) that thing with me everywhere. We must have looked so goofy with those monstrosities strapped to our waists; yes we did have holsters for them! It's no wonder that the "hip" kids of the day waited a little while before adopting this trend. From 1993 or so to about 3 months ago, I have carried a cell phone, and I've always used Bell Mobility as my service provider. You see, up until recently, Bell was the only carrier that provided a fairly good signal to our "back-woods" location (five minutes off the 401). Even today, Bell, through Rogers charges us an arm and a leg (about $2,000 a month) for our high speed connection because we're "off the main service corridor) - ridiculous. So, when things started to sour with Bell (very long story), I started looking for another cell phone supplier. Telus ads speak to me, so while wandering through the Oshawa centre one Saturday afternoon, I found myself being drawn into the Telus store. The first thing I noticed was that everyone seemed to be having fun, but in a "chillin" kind of way - and everyone looked cool. I approached a Telus representative who was playing with his HTC P4000 and asked him, "if I switch from my Bell phone to a Telus phone like the one you're using, will my love life improve?" "Ya man" he replied, "girls come up to me in the bar all the time and enter their numbers into my phone; they love it". Works for me; I was sold. Three months later, I'm still a huge Telus fan, so much so that this past weekend I took Dave back to the Oshawa Telus store to look at a new phone for him. Anna immediately recognized us and approached us with a big smile (pictured above). Again, it didn't take much to convince Dave to leave Bell for Telus and to opt for one of the new Blackberries to replace his aging Treo. This phone not only keeps you in touch anywhere in the world, it also guides you with a built in GPS! Amazing! And even more amazing is Telus technical support - a big change from Bell. So there's the short version of how I transitioned from a computer geek to a phone geek to a connected spa guy, and from conservative Bell to hip Telus all in the blink of 25 short years. Today, cell phones have become an essential business tool, providing instant access to email, and a variety of useful productivity tools. Hard to believe that we lived in a time where communication meant tying yourself to a wall or a desk with a strand of copper wire and an old phone. Those who know me well will know that as I write this last line, my tongue is planted firmly in my cheek. Have a good day.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Just how dumb do you think we are Dalton?

I may be taking a bit of a risk arguing against "Family Day" in February, but honestly, I can't be the only one who sees the desperation in this recent election promise from Dalton McGuinty. In a recent news clip Dalton scratches his head and says something like "It's a long time between New Years Day and, gee whiz, when is the next holiday - Easter?" What he doesn't mention is that Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Years Day, 3 of 8 existing winter statutory holidays for families all fall within a week of each other. He also doesn't mention the punitive cost of statutory holidays to businesses like mine, most of whom are expected to be open every day of the year. In our case, an additional statutory holiday in February will cost about $10,000 in a month that already has enough challenges just to break even. And he doesn't mention that this election promise won't cost his government a thing - it's just another day of the year that government offices and the legislature will be closed. In fact, the government will make money by adding another statutory holiday by collecting more income tax on the premium wages that will be paid out by business that are expected to be open. So who pays the cost of adding another statutory holiday? Taxpayers like you and I do. All of the premium wages paid out on another statutory holiday will ultimately be passed on to consumers, and our economy will suffer another blow from a productivity stand point as measured against our global competitors. I'm not adverse to holidays, but I am adverse to a politician who tries to give something away that doesn't belong to him in a desperate bid to hang on to power. And last time I checked, if an employee wants to take a holiday in February, there isn't much standing in their way.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Can you see me now?

At 2:35 in the morning of January, 1981 a fire broke out in the Inn on the Park Hotel in Toronto. Six lives were lost. On Christmas day in 1992 the Oban Inn in Niagara on the Lake burned to the ground - no lives were lost. A hotel fire is probably the biggest worry a hotel owner has to live with. You have a building full of people who aren't really familiar with the building. You also have staff engaging in activities (i.e. cooking) and charged with operating and maintaining equipment that can sometimes increase the risk of fire if the proper procedures are not in place. As such, I can honestly say that among my colleagues in the hotel business, I don't know anyone who takes the responsibility of fire safety lightly. Having said that, dealing with the government officials who hold us accountable for our actions vis a vis fire safety can sometimes be a little stressful. The Inn on the Park fire is often sighted as the single most significant event in terms of formulating the thinking behind the current legislation and regulation around hotel fire safety. People charged with public safety don't like to be blamed when human lives are lost. The Oban Inn, a very old stucture with no record or drawings of it's original construction has since been rebuilt from pictures that previous guests submitted to help the owners reconstruct this treasure true to it's original form. When Ste. Anne's added 14,000 square feet of new building to our existing 24,000 square feet of old building in 2003 we were required to bring the old building up to today's standards. This was a reasonable, but very expensive proposition, but we managed to get through it. I should note that in my view, the most important part of fire safety is an early warning system (working smoke detection). Secondly, containment and easy egress out of the building is key. This is the main difference between the fire in a high rise building, and older low rise structures. In our case, one of the less onerous requirements of our upgrades was that we provide a source of water sufficient for fighting a fire, as the local municipality did not have such a source, given our rural location. To meet this requirement, we put in a large pond, and to make it easy to get the water out of the pond year round, we installed a hydrant close to the spa. This year, we found out that the hydrant needed to pass an inspection. I got a call that the hydrant inspection people were on property and that they thought I might want to participate in their inspection of my hydrant. I like my hydrant - it's kind of a little boy/man's ultimate toy. As such, I regularly (once or twice a year), open my hydrant and watch the water run out of it. I really didn't think there would be much to an inspection. Boy was I wrong! The inspection entailed hooking up a pump to the hydrant and pumping water backwards into the hydrant, then letting water flow out, to make sure there were no blockages in the 6 inch pipe that feeds the hydrant. It also involved making sure there was a screen on the pipe. I also got a lecture on the fancy wrench that is to be used to open the hydrant, to avoid over tightening, which can damage the seal. Finally, the hydrant needs to be painted so that it can be distinguished from the municipal hydrants (the closest municipal hydrant is 5 miles away), and so that the fire department would have no trouble finding it. I told the inspector that I didn't think ours needed painting (at a rate of $125 an hour) and I didn't like the idea of installing a screen, as I thought this was more likely to get blocked than an open ended 6 inch pipe. Well, guess what; even though water flowed freely and plentifully and our hydrant was municipal yellow, we failed the inspection! I'm such a naughty boy. To inflict punishment on myself, I took on the task of painting the hydrant red (not to be confused with painting the town red). I think I did a pretty nice job. Next I'm going to swim to the bottom of the pond and install a screen on the pipe. I'll probably have to hold my breath for a long time. Wish me luck.

Monday, September 3, 2007

An update, and thanks for the encouragement

To all of you who called or wrote to me with words of encouragement for my little building project; thank you. After a week of avoidance, yesterday I made my way back to my shack and made some significant progress with the roof. It's funny, for several days the prospect of getting a 4X8 sheet of plywood up on the roof and nailing it in place by myself kept me from trying, so to get started, I cut a sheet of plywood in half. I applied this first sheet vertically instead of horizontally, which made it much easier to align with the trusses. I did have to pull out a few nails to straighten out a couple of the trusses and set my standards just a little lower, but in the end, it all came together. The image shown above is reality, as opposed to the last photo, which is how I imagine my shack will look someday (the top one is the view from the shack, the second the shack itself). I thought it was time to let "reality" out of the closet. Lesson learned: take your time to think your problems through, and don't be afraid to break big problems into little challenges.