“’It was 20 years ago today’ … That should be the headline,” offers Reg Jackson, with a nod to the Beatles classic “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Jackson’s business partner in the ownership of the Westover Inn, Stephen McCotter, shrugs and smiles.
“There always has to be a music reference with you.”
“Well, I’m the music guy,” Jackson responds.
“No, you’re the TV guy,” is McCotter’s lightning-quick comeback, in reference to a discussion the pair had been engaged in a few minutes earlier — about a new television in the Inn’s meeting room, and whether or not they should get another TV in the lounge off the entranceway.
After two decades riding the ups and downs of a business that’s highly dependent on American tourists — a time during which the likes of the 2008 recession, the 9-11 terror attacks, the SARS disease scare and other factors have played havoc with cross-border travel — it seems surprising that the two home-town innkeepers can still engage in off-the-cuff banter.
“It’s been a great 20 years,” McCotter points out during an interview with the Journal Argus last week (in that so-far-TV-less entranceway lounge). “Even though there have some ups and downs, it has been a great 20 years.”
With the Westover, though, it’s not just that the ownership team (which also currently includes former Toronto resident and now Calgary-based Paul Little) remains intact and talking to each other that’s surprising. Indeed, given a modern hospitality sector business environment that can be harshly competitive, it’s surprising enough just that things remain largely unchanged after two decades at the stately one-time convent and another-time commune on Thomas Street.
Add to that the fact the duo — who had both worked at the Inn under the previous, multi-shareholder ownership group — weren’t very far out of their teens (Jackson was 24, McCotter just 22) at the time, and it’s surprising even that subsequent decisions regarding their away-from-Westover careers (McCotter practices law in St. Marys, and will be the Liberal candidate in the next federal election; Jackson co-owns a financial advisory company in London that’s associated with the National Bank) haven’t forced them into a decision to step away from the ownership group.
That’s exactly what happened in 2006 to the fourth member of the 1995 purchasing group. Julie Docker, who like Jackson and McCotter moved from being a Westover employee to an owner, had her shares bought out so she could start her own business in downtown St. Marys, The Flower Shop and More.
And, in celebrating their 20th year co-owning the Inn, Jackson and McCotter readily acknowledge the importance Docker played.
“Much of what we see here are the fruits of her labour while she was the innkeeper,” McCotter notes. He says she built up a regimen and team atmosphere that put service first — something they now believe the Westover successfully utilizes as a top-notch selling point.
“I remember when I first started working here, it could be pretty chaotic,” Jackson recalled, referring to a pre-1995 era when Westover’s previous management strove to build a reputation as a destination for people who had been attracted to the region for the Stratford Festival or other reasons. Even as a young man, Jackson saw that the successes were often counterbalanced by mis-steps.
When McCotter, Jackson and Docker agreed to join Little — who had been a part of the previous ownership group — as owners, they wanted to bring an end to that up-and-down pattern. And in the years since, despite the fact that they’re influenced heavily by up-and-down forces like the fluctuating value of the Canadian dollar and the relative attractiveness of each theatrical season’s Stratford Festival playbill, that’s exactly what they’ve accomplished.
Looking back, most likely that’s because there was one characteristic brought to the table in spades by the three new co-owners on that mid-1990s March day: youthful enthusiasm. McCotter readily agrees.
“Once Julie and Reg and I had an interest in the place, word started to get around that we were all here (in St. Marys). And word of mouth spread about these young, energetic people running the Westover.”
Things have certainly changed over the years. In what has become an increasingly hectic world, it’s no longer the norm for people to plan ahead by several months or even a year to book hotel rooms. Instead, they expect to plan their vacations only a few weeks in advance.
And not surprisingly, given today’s ubiquitousness of handheld computing devices, a huge percentage of those reservations are now made online. Westover is working to do all it can to accommodate this change in the way hospitality-sector business is conducted, through development of a social media platform that, last week, saw Innkeeper Deanna McCotter (Stephen’s wife, whom he met while they worked together at Westover) post a photo of a microbrewed beer on Facebook to promote the bar’s weekly Brasserie Night, and half an hour later had a five-person table booking in response.
“Twenty-five years ago, you would have the ruler and pencil out, working your way through the log book to see when we had a reservation for which room,” Jackson smiles as he adjusts his eyeglasses. “I think that’s why my vision is getting worse now.”
Both McCotter and Jackson say the thing they’re most proud of is the number of employees — almost always from St. Marys and area; often several people from the same family — who have gone on to bigger and better things, either in the hospitality sector or in other fields.
After 20 years, and still quite young, will McCotter and Jackson follow in those employees’ footsteps, and move on?
Not a chance. In the immediate term, they’ve “very excited” about this year’s Stratford Festival playbill.
And in the long term, “we love this place.”
“We’re not getting rich from owning it, but it is just very satisfying to know that we’re a part of the St. Marys heritage, and that we’re supported by the community here,” McCotter said.