the wickaninnish inn - a family dream come true
Charles McDiarmid was born and raised in Tofino, although he wasn’t technically born there. His father was the only doctor in Tofino at the time, and since doctors cannot deliver their own children, Charles’ mother went to Winnipeg to give birth. But it’s safe to say that the McDiarmid family has long and deep roots in Tofino as well as roots in the hospitality industry. Charles’ father was a bellhop at the Banff Springs Hotel while putting himself through medical school.
Prior to attending Cornell University in upstate New York, Charles was given a number of aptitude tests that indicated he would make a good lawyer or hotelier. Luckily, he chose hospitality. After graduating from hotel administration in 1979, Charles went to work for the Four Seasons chain at their Calgary property. He remained with the chain for 13 years, working in Washington DC, Dallas, Newport Beach, and finally in Seattle. Starting in purchasing and operations, he quickly moved to food and beverage, and finally over to sales becoming the director of sales in Seattle. While in Seattle, Charles took the opportunity to write a detailed marketing and operations plan for his dream in Tofino. Once the business plan was written, he moved to Vancouver and was approached by a headhunter to become the director of sales for the Vancouver Convention and Visitors Bureau.
In the meantime, Charles took his marketing plan to various banks and investors. He received interest from BDC (then the Federal Business Development Bank of Canada). A prerequisite to obtaining financing from that institution was to be turned down by at least 3 major, class A banks. Charles laughs remembering how extremely easy it was to be turned down by the banks for wanting to develop a first-class hotel and meeting facility in Tofino!
With the help of BDC, the financing was put together, the family sub-divided out 8 acres of its property, and then they proceeded to attract private venture capital. Before construction could begin however, they had to provide services to the site including, hydro, cable, water, and sewer covering over 1½ miles to get to the site. With that complete, they began construction of the property in 1996. That wasn’t before some major opposition appeared from wealthy landowners on Chesterman Beach. While the area was always zoned for tourist/commercial, a legal challenge ensued, but with the help of long-term residents of the community, the municipality gave final clearance for the development of the Wickaninnish Inn.
The hotel opened in August 1996, almost 6 months behind schedule. As with any property, the opening wasn’t without its complications. On opening night, they realized that the rooms did not have lamps, as they had not arrived from the supplier yet. Everyone ran home to grab any desk lights they could find to furnish the guestrooms with lightening.
Charles encouraged roughly half the staff to go on vacation for the coming slow winter months, but the winter was not to be as quiet as he had imagined. Travel writer Alan Daniels wrote a piece in the Vancouver Sun praising BC’s newest hospitality jewel, and the phone started ringing off the hook. By mid-January of that year they were 70% occupancy. Charles quickly called the parents of staff members traveling abroad and somehow managed to staff the hotel for the rush of guests.
1998 saw the addition of the Ancient Cedars Spa and an expansion of the restaurant. In 2001, the original investors had been with the McDiarmids for 5 years and with the help of the Royal Bank they were bought out. In 2003, they expanded to include Wickaninnish on the Beach, adding additional rooms and suites that guests were asking for. The property now has 45 rooms in the original building and a total of 75 rooms and suites onsite.
With 160 full-time employees, one of the key management issues is staffing and training. Offering world-class standards in a remote location on Vancouver Island can pose its own set of challenges. With 70% of staff coming from out-of-town, housing employees is a challenge in itself. The hotel has 18 staff beds and there are additional rooming arrangements in Tofino. With its good reputation, the Wickaninnish Inn has been able to attract its share of quality hospitality employees. The surfing craze that hit Tofino several years ago has also added to the supply of young, energetic people looking to make a living and live their dream in one of the most rugged, picturesque places in all of Canada.
The McDiarmids are very serious about training and retaining high quality employees to deliver the type of service guests expect. Guest services staff, for instance, spends 6 weeks shadowing an existing staff member to learn the ropes. Service standards are set very high and every employee is expected to provide a unique and “magical” experience for each guest. The moment guests arrive, the guest reception person who checks the guests in is the same person that takes them to their rooms and shows them around. In this way, the guests have an immediate contact with the hotel, and that same person is available for them throughout their stay.
This level of service is what led to a 2002 Reader’s Choice Award in the prestigious, international Travel + Leisure Magazine as the Best Resort Property in North America and #3 in the world! With these kinds of accolades, it would be easy for the hotel to develop all the surrounding adventure services that naturally go with a property like this. Not so. In fact, Charles made it a mandate of the hotel to utilize high quality, outside services in the local community to provide guests with a real west coast experience. Everything from fishing charters and whale watching to ecotours, flight-seeing and First Nations canoe adventures is available in the community, and the hotel engages local partners to provide these services. According to Charles, it’s a great way to boost the local economy and provide guests with a very real and exciting local experience.
One of the key benefits to the Wickaninnish Inn is that it is remote, yet accessible. One of their slogans is “Rustic Elegance on Nature’s Edge”. The location includes direct and easy access to a national park, featuring an old-growth rainforest, and is situated directly overlooking the open ocean. While more and more people are looking for an educational, soft adventure in their travels, the Wickaninnish Inn provides all the creature comforts of a 4-star resort hotel surrounded by the most spectacular, natural beauty found anywhere on BC’s west coast. Big picture windows in the hotel offer unmatched views of the ocean scenery. Each room features a view of the ocean, a fireplace, and soaker tub. Textures within the hotel mirror the natural surroundings from driftwood chairs in the guestrooms to the subtle waves in the deep blue carpet of the Inn’s Pointe Restaurant. The post and beam architecture of the hotel utilizes local and natural wood adzed finishing, a technique drawn from First Nations traditions.
While travel from the US is off roughly 30% and expected to decrease another 10%, Charles McDiarmid is bullish on the future. The Asian and European markets are showing signs of substantial increases, and with the Olympics just a few years away, there is every hope that the hospitality market will continue to grow and prosper in this remote area of the province. Future plans include additional guest cottages and perhaps full rental houses on the 3 acres of property yet to be developed.
The key to the resort’s success is to provide guests with a totally unique and magical experience from the moment they arrive to the moment they leave. It has been a family dream for years and it is now a reality. The Wickaninnish Inn is a unique, west coast experience that will never be forgotten by anyone who stays there. The McDiarmids will see to that!