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Lunch with Charles McDiarmid

“It’s Darwin in action. Those who aren’t strong enough will not survive, and we need that because it allows those who can weather these storms to be there at the end," McDiarmid says of the volatile hospitality industry.

Charles McDiarmid keeps the Wickaninnish Inn at the top of its game by weathering the storms.

The forces of nature never seem to stray far from Charles McDiarmid’s mind. He built his business, after all, around the storm-watching phenomenon on Vancouver Island’s west coast, luring folk to the Wickaninnish Inn, which juts out into the Pacific in his native Tofino. And today the elements abound as we talk about the vagaries of the hospitality industry.

“The tide comes in and the tide goes out, and right now it’s a good time for clam digging,” the inn’s managing director says philosophically, as we watch surfers slice waves below The Pointe, the hotel’s restaurant.

When it opened in 1996, the Wick – as it is known – scored success quickly. Cornell University-educated McDiarmid’s dogged courting of Relais & Châteaux resulted in the hotel being accepted in the upscale association within 18 months (normally a three-year wait). Among myriad accolades, in 2002 the 75-room/suite establishment scooped Travel + Leisure’s top resort in North America designation, and starred on the magazine’s World’s Best Awards for a decade.

Canadian and British guests have remained strong over the past few recessionary years, but the decline in its key U.S. market is only now rebounding. “We knew we were going to run reduced occupancies, but that was the price we had to pay not to compromise who we are,” the 56-year-old explains. Slashing rates was not part of the “clam-digging” game plan, he adds; revamping rooms (to the tune of $2.7 million) and being more efficient with budgets, were.

“It helps not being the new kid on the block,” opines McDiarmid, citing his previous 13-year career in operational and sales management roles for the Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts across North America. “It’s Darwin in action. Those who aren’t strong enough will not survive, and we need that because it allows those who can weather these storms to be there at the end. And, as things pick up, the survivors will benefit.”

The overall strategy appears to be paying off. Seeing the re-emergence of a “general level of optimism” with an uptick in advance corporate group bookings, he surmises, “We’re getting the feeling that while things may not be great, the worst of it is over. In today’s economy, flat is the new up.”

Downturn or not, his enthusiasm for the Wick is undented. Over a modern-looking fresh tuna melt (“not my mother’s version,” he says with a laugh), McDiarmid talks animatedly about his desire to build a viewing area looking into the ocean underneath the restaurant. He’s also excited about burgeoning tourism in Tofino, which has jumped in population from a few hundred residents to a couple of thousand since his family moved from Winnipeg in the 1950s. His late father, Howard, was the region’s doctor, and the family owned most of the inn’s neighbouring Chesterman Beach (it was later sold off, partly to fund property taxes, before the hotel was built). “I’m proud that the Wick has been a pioneer in making [Tofino] such an international destination,” McDiarmid says. “By being part of the global Relais family, we certainly introduced people to the region who might otherwise not have heard about it.”

For him, the ocean and forest is a “magical Huckleberry Finn/Tom Sawyer playground.” McDiarmid may no longer be “a short-board maverick,” but the long-time surfer sponsors local long-boarder Emily Ballard, and teaches the sport to Kennedy, his eight-year-old daughter with wife Kari-Anne. He has two sons, Ryan, 23, and Kevin, 21, from a previous marriage: “I would encourage them into the Wick, but I’m happy to let them make their own decisions,” he says.

While he loves fishing, McDiarmid finds it less time-consuming to squeeze in nine holes on nearby Long Beach Golf Course. The links are right beside the local airport, which is currently seeing a multi-million-dollar resurfacing of its 5,000-foot runway. “We’re hoping this will be a catalyst to get air direct access from Seattle and perhaps Calgary,” he says.

To truly switch off, his wife, who works at the hotel as an administrator, believes in family breaks outside of Tofino. “She insists we get away,” admits McDiarmid, who is rosy from one such trip to the Baja Desert. “Otherwise, I could be hooked in here 24/7.” Whatever the economic climate, he might add.

Lucy Hyslop for BC Business Magazine

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