A couple of weeks before I check in at the Hazelton Hotel, Biebermania strikes. Justin Bieber has come to town for the night and every teenage girl within Twitter distance knows. Soon, the hotel's Yorkville Avenue entrance is teeming with shrieking girls, and a few rapt guys too. While Bieber is probably the celebrity who causes the greatest commotion on the planet at the moment, such encounters with fandom are hardly unusual for the Hazelton. Its staff knows what to do.
The hotel informs the fans standing outside that no one is allowed into the lobby or the floors without a reservation. You can guess what happens next.
"Our reservations line begins ringing with dozens of calls -- and these are not cheap rooms," general manager David Mounteer says, a touch of incredulity in his voice. "The next thing we know, one young man walks in and holds up a paper saying he has his confirmation number. But we could not honour the reservation, because we knew what his intentions were in regards to the guest."
To protect its celebrity visitor from fans who could become a nuisance (or worse), the hotel went into "lock down," refusing bookings even though it had rooms available.
"They're nice kids. They really are. Nice young women and young men, but when you have so many of them in a small space, it can become a difficult situation," Mounteer says of the fans who often line the hotel's entrance routinely seeking a moment, no matter how brief, with a star.
When I turn down Yorkville Avenue, in perhaps the most chic district in Canada, and head toward the Hazelton, without a doubt the nation's most celebrity-oriented property, a handful of young women and a couple of guys are milling about outside. It's 4 p.m. and I wonder which hotel guest has made them so curious. Turns out, Jennifer Lopez had spent the night with her kids and, as Mounteer notes, some of the fans didn't believe him when he said she had already checked out.
The hotel doesn't come by its status as celebrity magnet by accident. It opened in 2007 to cater to attendees of the Toronto International Film Festival, TIFF. Besides the luxury price point (room rates start at $495 per night) and large security team, the hotel's Hollywood vibe includes a terrific screening room that features a 16x9-foot projection screen and leather seats so comfortable you'll never think of Cineplex the same again. Mounteer says the Silver Screening Room is already booked out for TIFF 2012, with producers and directors wanting the space to showcase their new films to exclusive audiences.
The hotel also features a carport that can be opened or closed on either end, allowing celebrities to depart through the rear entrance or the front, or for decoy vehicles to go one way while the cars carrying the sought-after star eludes fans and paparazzi with a stealthy getaway in another direction.
During TIFF, the hotel beefs up its security staff so the perimeters of the hotel along Yorkville and Hazelton Avenues are blocked off. "It was made to accommodate the people who come here during the film festival and I think the guests who stay here appreciate the thought that has gone into their comfort," Mounteer says.
In recent years, the hotel has had to make interior changes to keep up with the changes in its guests' lifestyle.
"A lot of these celebrities who stay here are having kids now and we have had to become a family hotel in a lot of ways." Mounteer points out there is special bedding for babies and toddlers, and that the hotel's ability to turn several of its areas into vestibules that enclose two rooms is appreciated by its elite clientele who bring along family and friends.
To be honest, I've never been sure how to peg the Hazelton. On the one hand, I'm turned off by how it courts the most elite celebrities and caters so much to the exclusivity they demand. It's not only off-putting to a lot of people, it seems behind the times, because we live in a world of growing inclusiveness.
On the other hand, the Hazelton has shocked me more than once for its warmth and openness. It gives those pricey gift bags Hollywood types are accustomed to receiving during TIFF to all guests, not just the stars attending the fest. Last June, I enjoyed a showing of one of the Stanley Cup Finals games in the Silver Screening Room, which features 25 seats and on that night served up popcorn. The event was open to the public, if you knew about it. Those who attended raved about the experience.
Perhaps most of all, it's Mounteer who wins me over with the perspective he has managed to keep. He's an affable guy who knows exactly what his hotel is and how to react to the myriad out-of-the-ordinary possibilities that can come about. He also seems amused by the circus atmosphere that engulfs the property for two straight weeks each year.
"Some of the guests here truly value their privacy, but you would be surprised how many of them want to be seen. So we give them the option to have both experiences here," Mounteer says. "During TIFF, it's all hands on deck for the entire festival. It's challenging, it's intense, but it's also extremely rewarding and a lot of fun. Like I said, this hotel was built for TIFF and every year it is something we look forward to. In a lot of ways, it's what we're here for."