Parmar retires feeling thankful

Brockville hotelier Bhagwant Parmar speaks to city council's planning committee on Tuesday, March 6, 2018 during the hotel tax debate (FILE PHOTO) SunMedia

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It’s hard to imagine the Brockville hotel industry without Bhagwant Parmar, but here we are.

Parmar, 65, for decades a prominent member of the city’s hospitality industry, is now getting used to being retired, having sold his last property, the Travelodge, to a group of partners from Kingston and Perth. The deal was done Oct. 8.

At one point, Parmar was the biggest hotelier in Brockville, owning the Travelodge, Royal Brock and Days Inn simultaneously. He was the go-to guy for journalistic questions (many emanating from yours truly) about occupancy rates and the destination marketing fee, also called the “hotel tax.”

But, alas, all good things must come to an end.

“I was thinking (about) five more years at least,” he said in an interview Thursday.

However, his wife encouraged him to retire, and he decided now is the time. The Parmars will continue to live in Brockville, where they are close to their children in Ottawa.

A native of India’s state of Punjab, Parmar first came to Canada in the early 1980s, moving in with his sister in Nanaimo, BC. He recalled how his initial plan was to remain in India with his parents, but his father foresaw the coming troubles in Punjab and told him he should move to Canada.

That was more than prescient. Parmar, a Sikh, noted the Indian government’s raid on the Golden Temple happened in 1984, followed later that year by the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Ghandi, in turn followed by deadly anti-Sikh riots.

In Canada, by contrast, he found a land of fairness, equality, law and order and accessible health care.

His story is one not only of successful integration, but also hard work.

Parmar was a schoolteacher for eight years in India, returning to work at the high school where he studied.

When he joined his sister in Nanaimo, she was an accountant for a company that ran a group of hotels, and she suggested he help out. He soon earned a business administration degree from Ryerson University.

From Nanaimo, his business interests took him to Toronto and, eventually, Brockville. He bought the Days Inn in 1988 and the Queen’s Grant in 1995, a property he subsequently sold to the Loblaw corporation; it has since been demolished.

He became the owner of the Royal Brock in 2001 and the Travelodge in 2004.

He has owned those properties in partnership with Kanti Raja.

That timeline saw Parmar run his hotels during Brockville’s days as a manufacturing powerhouse and that era’s abrupt end.

“Weekdays were always very well because of the corporate business in town,” he recalled.

“When Nortel (by then SCI) closed … I think we lost a lot of business, 10 per cent or more.”

However, even at the height of the local economy, and amid the current mini-surge of the tourism industry, there has always been a ceiling to the demand for hotel rooms in Brockville, notes Parmar.

In recent history, he pointed out, the arrival, or revitalization, of one hotel or motel has led to the closure of another. Hence the disappearance of the Queen’s Grant and Flying Dutchman and, ultimately, the Royal Brock, which Parmar sold in 2015 before its current incarnation as a retirement residence.

The emergence of the Holiday Inn, he added, would likely not have succeeded without the market room created by the conversion of the Royal Brock.

Parmar said he has tried to stay out of local politics during his time as a businessman, with the debate over the hotel tax the only real exception.

Before the current Municipal Accommodation Tax (MAT) became a reality, a years-long local debate raged over the possibility of a voluntary charge by city hotels to fund a common tourism marketing pot. The argument was that such funds existed in competing tourism destinations.

Parmar opposed it from the start, and said his stance was one of principle.

“I always felt, if it’s my business, it’s my duty to promote it,” he said.

“I feel the guest has no responsibility to pay for marketing.”

Parmar recalled a conversation with former mayor David Henderson, early in the latter’s tenure at city hall, in which Parmar suggested the hotel tax would only work if the city mandated it through a bylaw.

He noted this is how the MAT eventually came to be.

Looking back on his hotel career, Parmar said customer service is the determining factor in a hotelier’s success.

The product, he noted, is basically the same from one local accommodation to another.

“Service can make a difference, then,” he said, adding that includes not shying away from customers’ criticism.

Parmar sold the Days Inn in 2016; he now reflects proudly on his career.

His father back in India, who survived a harrowing brush with death during the partition of India and Pakistan, always stressed the importance of giving back to the community, and Parmar said he carried that conviction to his new home.

Parmar’s awards include the Hotel Association of Canada’s Humanitarian Award, the Butler Award from the Ontario Accommodation Association, the 2004 Brockville and District Chamber of Commerce

Award for Businessperson of the Year and that year’s Immigration Contribution Award from Kingston and Area Immigration Services.

His many years as a soccer coach earned him a Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012. He also has a Canada 150 Medal for Exceptional Community Service.

He remains thankful to Brockville and to Canada for the many opportunities he has had over his career.

“I’m a proud Brockvillian … and a proud Canadian,” he said.

(An earlier version of this column incorrectly referred to the current Royal Brock as a long-term care facility.)

City hall reporter Ronald Zajac can be reached at Rzajac@postmedia. com.

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