URBAN GUIDES: QUÉBEC CITY GUIDEBOOK SNEAK PEEK: The following interview with Clarah Germain of Le Germain Hotels appears in our newly published digital guidebook to Québec City, which features local artisans, producers and businesses.
Within a few minutes of meeting Clarah Germain, I want to be her best friend. Clarah has a light, fun, and slightly mischievous personality, with a bubbly laugh that is highly contagious. We’re sitting in the lobby of Le Germain Hotel Québec in Vieux-Port, talking about the hotel, the Germain family, what it’s like to work in the family business and what she loves about Québec City.
I fell in love with Le Germain hotel brand in 2012, during an icy trip to Montréal for Igloofest (an outdoor music festival held every February). The glass shower in my room had a rain showerhead, which was divine as I stood under near scalding water in an effort to warm up my body after a frigid night at the festival. An hour later, I passed out into the warmest and biggest bear hug a bed could possibly give. I wanted to marry that bed.
The next day I met the hotel’s concierge, André, who helped me plan my day in the city. I instantly connected with André, confessing my love for crème brûlée and a desire to see what was new and unique in the city. André is a shining example of the type of staff employed by the Germain family.
“We don’t hire hotel people. We hire good personalities and train them in the hotel stuff. I think it makes a big difference because they genuinely want to please”, says Clarah
Hotel employees are treated like members of the Germain family, and in turn, the employees treat guests like members of the family. Whether it is your first time staying with Le Germain or Alt Hotels (their sister brand), or you’re a returning guest, you will feel as though you are being welcomed home after a long trip.
How did a family from Québec City create two of the best boutique hotel brands in Canada?
The family empire (although, Clarah is not likely to use that term, which makes me like her even more), began when her grandparents, Victor and Huguette Germain, moved from Trois-Riviérés. It was the 1950s, and they opened a tabagie (convenience store) with a lunch counter in Ste-Foy, with Huguette cooking in the back.
A few years later, Clarah’s grandparents ventured into the restaurant business, opening a steakhouse, Le Fiacre.
“It was beautiful. Redwood everywhere. It was the first steakhouse Québec City had known, so it became very popular at the time”, explains Clarah.
Victor Germain was an industrious man. He invested in real estate, and the family opened several more restaurants in the city. Clarah’s aunt and father (Christiane and Jean-Yves) had grown up working the counter at the tabagie, and then worked in the family restaurants with their parents.
Travelling to New York for a restaurant convention, Christiane and Jean-Yves stayed at Morgans New York, the first boutique hotel in North America. The hotel’s design blew them away, and they returned to Québec City determined to open a hotel.
Purchasing a building from their father, Christiane and Jean-Yves Germain opened Le Germain des Prés in 1988, replacing Le Fiacre, the family’s well-known steakhouse, with Le Bistango as the hotel’s restaurant. The hotel was a huge success.
“It was a very difficult thing to sell to bankers and investors because we wanted to do things differently. We wanted to have no bathtubs, we wanted glass showers, and people would say ‘this is never going to work’, we were considered completely nuts for doing it”, says Clarah.
Nine years later, in 1997, they opened Le Germain Hotel Québec in Vieux-Port and their younger brother, Richard Germain, took the helm as General Manager. The hotel, not surprisingly, was a success and over the next nine years, the family opened Le Germain hotels in Montréal and Toronto.
“We all worked here [Le Germain Hotel Québec], all the kids, including my brother, my sister and myself. The three of us worked here when we were younger, when we were at school. We just loved it. I was so jealous. I used to do the mornings and people would have their breakfast on the couches, and those couches are extremely comfortable, and I would look at them and [think] ‘What would I not give to be able to be sitting there instead of working?’”, recalls Clarah. Laughingly adding, “You want to spoon the couches forever, they are so comfortable”.
Joining the family business is a decision that Clarah, her older brother Hugo and cousin, Marie Pier, made in their own time. Hugo and Marie Pier joined the business in 2006, and with Jean-Yves, they opened the first Alt Hotel in 2007 (Alt Hotel Quartier DIX30).
A modern boutique hotel brand, Alt Hotels are more financially accessible and attract travellers young and old. The public spaces are vibrant and fun and entice guests to mingle with each other.
“I needed to wait a bit longer to have the maturity to work with the family, it is something you are choosing to do for the rest of your life. You don’t want it to not work. It is really something we are prepared to do, and it is not something that we take lightly”, explains Clarah when I ask her about joining the family business.
While Clarah has moved to Montréal and shares a genuine excitement and love for all of the Germain family hotels, Québec City and Le Germain Hotel Québec continues to hold a special place in her heart, and I love that about her.
“What I love about Québec City is that is has been really good at renewing itself and bringing really amazing urban landscaping, like what they did with Promenade de Champlain, and the parks they built and Saint-Roch. I think Québec is doing a really good job with putting itself forward and not just being the old city that people go see… Now I feel like there is more of a boutique-y feel to the city. The young entrepreneurs are starting their businesses and it is great to see”.
Aside from spending quality time with her family, Clarah loves walking through the Plains of Abraham and hanging out on Avenue Cartier and in Saint-Jean-Baptiste. She also has a deep love for restaurants new and old, spending time with favourites like Bistango (of course!), Patente et Machin and Le Pied Bleu.
“This place, [Québec City] is my cocoon. I feel very good here”, states Clarah. A sentiment I share.
Today, the Germain family continues to expand their hotel empire across Canada, changing Hôtel Le Germain des Prés to Alt Québec, and opening hotels in Calgary, Toronto, Ottawa, Winnipeg and Halifax. Adding an Alt Hotel in St. John’s, Newfoundland this year, as well as three hotels in 2018: Alt Saskatoon, Alt Calgary and Le Germain Ottawa.