It’s been a long time coming! What was once an idea tossed around between CREECO’s major players – Jack Blacksmith, Rodney Hester and the late Albert W. Diamond – has now become a reality. The Crees finally have their own hotel in Val-d’Or and business is already booming.

The Crees of CREECO, in partnership with Trahan Holdings, as in Val d’Or Mayor Fernand Trahan, held a grand opening ceremony and party on March 17 to celebrate the momentous event and many a toast was made to celebrate this expansion of Cree economic interests.

“There was a real excitement leading up to the event, and a real buzz going around the room. People were getting anxious for it to start. As people began congregating, many were given tours of the hotel and shown the different styles of rooms that are available,” said Rodney Hester, CREECO’s Business Development Coordinator.

Hester and CREECO’s Tanya Pash have been the ones working alongside Trahan Holdings, learning the hospitality industry on the fly while ironing out all of the intricate dealings involved in opening up a hotel.

The new Comfort Suites Hotel is a 50/50 joint venture partnership between CREECO and Trahan, whose family has been in the hotel business in Val-d’Or for generations. Trahan is not only the Mayor of Val-d’Or, but his company also owns L’Escale Hotel right across the street from the new project.

While the two hotels are in competition with each other, the L’Escale features a bar and restaurant along with event reception halls ideal for weddings and celebrations.

The Comfort Suites is geared more toward a business clientele, offering only breakfast services but also conference rooms and state-of-the-art facilities geared towards the business tourism industry that is booming in Val-d’Or.

“The grand opening was very well attended by the Crees and the non-Native business population of Val-d’Or so we really had the best of both worlds at the event,” said Jonathan Saganash, CREECO’s communications officer.

“It was great to see everyone come together in harmony to celebrate the opening of this project that is certain to be a success for many years to come. We will maximize the returns of this project for the benefit of the Cree people.”

Hester, who acted as emcee for the evening, along with CREECO President Jack Blacksmith and Mayor Trahan, all spoke about their moment of pride and what it meant to them.

Hester said what struck him the most was acknowledging the fact that the project had finally become reality.

“I like the fact that this hotel is a cut above the rest; it really is the nicest hotel in Val-d’Or. Marc St-Gelais, the Development Director Choice Hotel’s Eastern Division, was saying that it could be the nicest hotel of its class in Quebec, being a Quality Inn Suites,” said Hester.

Blacksmith’s address focused on the history of Crees in Val-d’Or’s business sector over the past 30 years with companies like Petronord, Kepa Transport, the Board of Compensation and Air Creebec.

“We’ve had a lot of experience doing business in Val-d’Or and we looked at a hotel project way back when, but it wasn’t the right time. But, now here we are today,” said Blacksmith.

While there was skepticism about Crees opening up a hotel years ago when the idea was first being bounced around, business pioneers like Blacksmith and Albert Diamond, who first championed the idea, had the intuition that this would one day work.

Blacksmith is proud of the project because of what the hotel has become and the potential it possesses. He describes the suites as “absolutely beautiful.” And with non-smoking rooms and a business atmosphere, the hope is that those looking to host conferences and meetings will take advantage of a hotel that is a cut above the rest.

“We have one large conference room that can seat 20-25, maybe 30 people, and then we have the Albert W. Diamond Executive Conference room which seats about 15-20. We also have a series of larger suites with tables and chairs that are geared towards those who want to hold their own personal meetings and those can accommodate four to six people,” said Blacksmith.

The fact that the facility doesn’t have a bar and restaurant is ideal for the new hotel, Blacksmith explained, because these kinds of amenities can eat up a lot of revenue when they’re not in use. And since a restaurant is only as good as its chef, not having one means that funds won’t be wasted when business is slow. Instead, patrons can head across the street for dinner and a nightcap.

Since CREECO’s revenues are reinvested in the Cree nation for the benefit of all Crees, this almost guarantees that the new hotel may become the destination of choice for business or pleasure when Crees are in the vicinity. With this kind of customer loyalty, Blacksmith and company may meet their goals of maintaining the low vacancy rate that will assure them a successful year.

“The first year is important and we have been doing very well to date. I hope that we hover around the 80% capacity level. If we get that 80% in the first year, we will be a very successful business,” said Blacksmith.

He admits the project would never have seen the light of day, if it hadn’t had the perfect combination of team players all working together.

Had Trahan Holdings not approached CREECO with the desire to go ahead with this project, Blacksmith admits the hotel may not have come together as smoothly as it did.

“Trahan has been in the hotel business for years and he knows all of the ins and outs. Just having him as a partner is a real plus for us because we’ve been learning as we go. Both Tanya and Rodney are very much learning from the master when it comes to hotel ownership,” said Blacksmith.

On the administrative side of things, Michael Prince, the hotel’s newly appointed manager, feels he’s also getting in on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Prince held a similar position at Val-d’Or’s Native Friendship Centre for several years and though he gave up a labour of love for the new hotel, his heart is mending quickly.

“When I had the opportunity to work here, I knew it was going to be a new challenge where I had just sold them my soul for the minimum of the next three to six months. At that, for the first year or two, this job is going to take up an enormous amount of my personal time too. But, how many times in a lifetime does anyone get the chance to open up a new hotel and be its director?” asked Prince.

Having worked with the Crees in Mistissini for 11 years prior to his tenure at the Friendship Centre, Prince said he jumped at the new opportunity because it was with the Crees.

He saw it as an opportunity to challenge himself and learn from so many great minds when it came to running not just a hotel but seeing the Crees venture into the hospitality industry.

“If this goes well, the Crees may, if they enjoy the experience, have found another means for self-sufficiency. Especially with having businesses like Air Creebec, entering into the hotel business is the next logical step,” said Prince.

Looking at the hotel from an administrative perspective, while Prince is proud of the hotel’s aesthetics, it doesn’t compare to the pride and glory he feels for the team he manages and works with.

While he can look around any room and acknowledge that he may have been part of the hotel’s history, hanging a particular frame or helping set up one item or another, he says the teamwork among his employees was crucial to its successful opening.

“It took a lot to get this place opened. I had housekeeping ladies putting chairs together next to electricians and plumbers finishing off their work. With the maintenance guys we were pulling 16-hour days and everyone just kept looking at it as the kind of thing where we knew the opening was looming and we had to get it open.

“But, everybody just pulled it together and it was a really good thing today because now everybody has that team spirit.”

With the opening celebrated, the carpets rolled out for new guests and an executive conference room named after Albert W. Diamond, the new Comfort Suites is a symbol of Cree pride and success.

While those within it may still be refining their skills and fine-tuning their operations, Prince said the biggest problem he is facing is the kind of problem that every hotel wants – everybody wants to stay or do business there. During its first week, the hotel was actually overbooked.

In time, Val-d’Or’s newest hotel may just be the best place for you to lay your head.