I’m sitting next to a window with views of Victoria’s Inner Harbour and the stately provincial Parliament Buildings, where a statue of Queen Victoria gazes dourly through the mist and rain. Inside the Empress Hotel’s Tea Room, however, it is warm and pleasant. A piano tinkles in the background. Crystal chandeliers hang from above. And flames dance in the fireplace.
Marlene Watson, my server, brings a tiered platter of attractive sandwiches, scones and pastries – I’m indulging in the renowned Empress Afternoon Tea – and explains that this month the dishes are custom designed to reflect the favourites of the British Royals. The atmosphere is elegant and comfortable. What really sets it apart, though, is the service provided by Marlene, who is knowledgeable, attentive and friendly. And little wonder, she has been at the Empress for 48 years.
I’m astonished, for most companies in Victoria haven’t even been in existence that long. “I’ve continued working here because I love the ambiance,” says Marlene. “It’s so relaxing. We don’t have enough of this kind of atmosphere in North America.”
As I savour an Empress cake, which features a unique chocolate developed by the executive pastry chef in a French chocolate laboratory, Leonard Lim, who works at the Tea Room counter, approaches. “Marlene mentioned that you’re interested in Victoria’s history,” he said, pulling out his phone and showing me a video of the city in 1907. Although grainy and in black and white, it is fascinating to see old trams and buildings. “I’ve been here 47 years,” he says proudly, “I’m No. 2 after Marlene.”
Leaving, I’m thankful for the service, something I don’t usually think about. It was of impeccable quality and provided in a friendly, yet confident manner. It was like an old, comfortable sweater that fit absolutely perfectly.
Great service is based on experience and, astonishingly, the Empress has 153 staff – over a quarter of the total – who have worked there for more than two decades. And 16 of them have more than four decades at the hotel!
Later I meet Cathy Spencer, a server in the Tea Room, who gives an impish smile and says, “I’ve worked at the Empress for 33 years because I enjoy the job, there are good benefits – while most restaurants have none – and I like the people. The Empress has been a joy, and my home for all this time.”
She continues, “I’ve seen famous people including the Queen and President Bill Clinton. I served Jerry Seinfeld, who was full of smiles. When I first started, the steamship *Princess Mary* would unload 1,000 passengers from Seattle in the Inner Harbour and they would rush to the Empress. I worked in the Garden Café then and remember crowds straining at the gate to get in. My, we worked!”
Leaving the Tea Room, I notice a man making delicate adjustments to the grand piano. Keith Allison quickly establishes his credentials. “I’m 66 years old and have been tuning here as a contractor for 41 years,” he says. “The Empress is one of the few places that cares about music, something live is playing here every day.” He describes how in times past big bands used to play here. “I have fond memories of meeting famous musicians such as Buddy Rich, Oscar Peterson and Duke Ellington.” Allison smiles and concludes, “The Empress is a good hotel to work for.”
An old iconic hotel, a national historic site, staffed by mature experienced people. How appropriate, I think.
Christine Willow, a human resources specialist and owner/partner at the firm of Chemistry Consulting says, “The number of long-term staff at the Empress is unusual. It’s caused not only by a healthy working environment, but also because of the age of the Empress and that Victoria is a great place to live.” She feels that other established hotels like the Ocean Point Resort and Chateau Victoria also have good employee retention.
“Long-term staff is a huge positive for companies,” says Christine. Retaining employees is important. It reflects a stable work environment, which improves morale. Employee turnover costs a company money. Long-term employees have considerable knowledge of the company’s culture, and have developed excellent people skills.
“Furthermore, older people are perfectly capable of working, and to a high standard,” she says. “My mother, who is 78, just began a part-time position with a major grocery store. They were delighted to have her because of her dependability and knowledge.”
Back at the Empress, I meet Pam Sundher, who looks so young it’s hard to believe she’s worked here for 44 years. She’s No. 3 after Marlene and Leonard. “Everyone is like a family; we support one another in every way.” She explains why she loves her job, “There are lots of opportunities here, and the staff committee organizes great events almost every month. We’ve been kayaking, whale watching and there is a super Christmas party.” That Pam enjoys and is very good at interacting with people is shown by the several employee awards she’s won.
Pam recalls some of the big names she’s met. A while ago, Pernell Robert, who played Adam in *Bonanza* and *Trapper John, MD*, came to the front desk and told Pam, who is of Indian descent, that she had a nice tan. Pam handled the situation with aplomb, answering, “Yes, my mother baked me in the oven too long.” Robert apologized, and they shared a good laugh. Another time, Pam met Angela Lansbury (of *Murder She Wrote* fame), who was very friendly and down to earth.
As Pam and her colleagues at the Empress Hotel demonstrate, seniors can continue to work into their later years, making a significant contribution to society. Perhaps the fear that an aging demographic will cripple the economy needs re-evaluation.