I first heard about Kingsbrae Arms through my relationship with Relais & Chateaux. Located in St. Andrews By-the-Sea in New Brunswick, Canada, just north of the border with Maine, I was perhaps most intrigued to visit because I spent much of my childhood in Saint John, less than a half hour’s drive north.
Revisiting the land of my youth last summer, my wife and I made an effort to stay here and experience this quaint, eight-room inn firsthand. Almost immediately we were captivated with its charm and exceptional service. Now over a year later, I have kept in touch with owner Harry Chancey and was given an opportunity to talk with him about how they’ve developed their standard of excellence.
Tell me a little bit about Kingsbrae Arms, one of Canada's incredible gems.
In 1897, a prominent Nova Scotia businessman built Kingsbrae Arms as a summer “cottage” for his family, high on the ridge overlooking the town and harbor. By the mid-1990s the house had fallen into disrepair. The current owners saw its potential, renovated and opened to the public in 1996. Two years later, Kingsbrae Arms became one of only 14 members of Relais & Chateaux in Canada, one of 11 Mobil (Now Forbes) four-star properties in Canada, and the first five-star inn awarded by the Canada Grading Authority.
Through the years, our house has hosted a number of prominent guests from around the world including all the premiers of Canada. Kingsbrae Garden, one of Canada’s finest horticultural gardens, lies just next door. Currently, our guests experience the very fine cuisine of Provence-native Chef Guillaume Delaune who has created a fusion between his Mediterranean training and the products of the Bay of Fundy. The calm and picturesque setting of Kingsbrae Arms transports guests to less hurried times without the anxiety of present global concerns.
When you enter Kingsbrae Arms, you feel as if you're entering someone's home, rather than a hotel. How do you maintain this feeling?
The key is in the unobtrusive yet high-quality service, the personal attention paid by staff to each guest (just as staff in one of the country houses of older days might have done), and the perfect mixture of friendliness and respect. Our staff open the door to guests when they arrive and greet them by name throughout their stay. No matter who or where you are, a personalized service becomes an intrinsic part of a memorable experience.
The physical plant and the food and wine alone do not necessarily qualify as memorable without the personal component. We remember individual tastes. Guests are free to wander in and out of the garden, borrow a book or CD from the library, ask for travel planning assistance, or just be left alone. We train our staff in how to read body language. This is a big factor for every tiny interaction, even the customary, “How is everything?” that so many establishments, particularly restaurants, employ with zero, if not negative results, especially when table conversation is interrupted by this plea from a server.
I have seen the TripAdvisor recounts. You seem to make guests create new levels of excellence in their descriptions. What's the secret?
We have been delighted with the TripAdvisor submissions this year. The secret to it: the dedicated work of our professional service and kitchen staff, as well as the goals expressed in the previous question.
You ensure that food and wine is part of the guest experience. Yet, many hoteliers have moved away from this art. Your thoughts?
There are certainly challenges to maintaining excellence in food and wine. Nonetheless, we believe that it forms an integral part of the experience we wish our guests to have. As M.F.K. Fisher said, “There is communion of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine is drunk.” The Bay of Fundy is rich in produce from land and sea, and Chef Guillaume Delaune is an expert at crafting local foods into his superb menus. Fine wines just naturally go with them. We move toward our food and wine program, not retreat from it, because we are so confident in our product created by the kitchen and presented by our service staff.
Recently, a New York Times article saw an individual travel from New York to Kingsbrae for one her ‘last wish’ food experiences. Tell us about that.
We have all read Anna Stoessinger’s article. We were so touched, it’s hard to know what to say. It is a rare privilege to be part of a story of such courage and zest for life. When she told us her intention at the end of her visit, we felt incredibly honored that she had chosen us. It was incredibly gratifying.
“It had been a long time since I had experienced such satisfying fullness. There was comfort and exuberance, a familiar feeling like a long embrace, a coming in from the cold....It's about love and memory and the capacity to conquer even the worst hours with something warm and wonderful,” says Stoessinger. This description of hers confirmed our hopes that our tiny operation might just be making a difference in people’s lives. We think of Anna often, and wish her all the best.
How do you stay innovative in F&B given the inherent costs of doing so?
You find, hire, and keep a fantastic chef and give him the tools needed to exceed everyone’s expectations.
What is your greatest staffing challenge?
Finding, hiring, and keeping fantastic service staff! The greatest challenges in doing so are the ridiculous and unreasonable expectations of many young people who intern here or are graduates of so-called hospitality schools. Their work ethic is often marred by a sense of entitlement and incredulity when they find out that the performance of excellent service means everything from the sublime to the disgusting. Guest interaction is of course a top priority, but a plugged toilet has to be plunged from time to time.
With new staff each year, how do you imbue your spirit of guest service excellence?
It comes primarily from the example and ongoing training provided by owners and returning staff, including familiarization with Relais & Chateaux standards. Many incoming staff have fine dining or hotel experience, of course. We try to pass along the Relais & Chateaux concept of “l’âme et l’esprit,” our own particular identity, and the challenge to exceed guest expectations.
What lessons can you give other hoteliers in striving for improvement?
As to striving for improvement (not to teach anyone else their business!), first have a clear picture of just what kind of hotel you wish to be, then be that to the utmost possible. Our ideal was to be a small, seasonal inn, with five-star hospitality and cuisine. So that defined to some extent the amenities and markets suitable for us. After that, the devil’s in the details, so to speak. We constantly seek feedback from guests, watch new trends and products in the trade, and look for the best marketing strategies and partners. But most of all, we put great care into even the smallest details of house, service and kitchen.
What has been your greatest achievement?
The greatest achievement, I think, has been to create a bridge between the remote, rustic and unspoiled beauty of Atlantic Canada, and the exquisite comfort and cuisine of Relais & Chateaux. Admittedly, our region is not top of mind for luxury travelers, but through the years we have built both reputation and clientele. We think the remote and the exquisite elements of our property are a wonderful combination!