A Valentine for the big hotel on the hill


That big hotel on the hill can be a tourist town’s best friend. And so it’s been with the Algonquin Hotel in St. Andrews by-the-Sea. When the Fairmont chain pulled out last fall, a pall fell over the community. What would become of the town if its hotel failed to open?

This concern, of course, is predicated on whether you think tourism is a sustainable industry, which in a fossil fuel-scarce future it may not be. But for now tourism keeps many economies vibrant, from Jaipur to Jamaica*. Even so, depending on tourism as the only source of income makes for a fragile economy.

Fortunately for the tiny seaside community where I live, someone, make that several someones seem to be ready to rescue our grand old hotel. With a letter of intent in the hands of the current owner (the Province of New Brunswick), the potential new owners are Southwest Properties, New Castle Hotels & Resorts and the famous Marriott hotel chain. And we’ll know in 45 days whether the deal will move ahead.

What about the companies? The Marriott is easy; it’s a world-class brand. And coincidentally, the Marriott already brands a very famous Algonquin Hotel in the heart of Manhattan. I wrote “brands” rather than “owns”, because the Marriott chain, like many other large hotel chains, doesn’t own properties.

The actual owner of that other Algonquin is HEI Hotels & Resorts, a company based in Norwalk, Connecticut, which owns and operates over 30 luxury hotels for brands such as Hilton, Sheraton, Westin, Embassy Suites, and yes, Marriott. Did I just write that HEI “operates” these properties? Yes.

So what does the Marriott do? It manages the marketing and branding standards for hotels. The actual ownership and operating of the properties is done by companies such as HEI and others.

Two of these others are Southwest Properties and New Castle. Southwest is based in Halifax. New Castle is based in Shelton, Connecticut, coincidentally just 30 kilometers away from HEI’s headquarters. Together Southwest and New Castle have already built and now operate the Marriott hotel in Moncton, so they have a running start at hotel development in the province.

From what I can gather New Castle is the operations outfit, the one that hires staff and manages the day-to-day operations. Southwest is the property development company, the one that handles the renovations and maintenance of the physical plant.

If this seems to be a rather complicated business arrangement, it is. But there are benefits, at least to the companies. First, the hotel can be sold to new owners without affecting the main brand, in this case the Marriott. Second, each company can specialize and grow in its own area of expertise without having to invest in other, unrelated aspects of growth. Third, all companies can share the profits and reduce the liabilities by distributing the risks and responsibilities. Lawsuits, for example, might be more difficult with three companies involved rather than just one. Finally, the companies each have less exposure to the vagaries of local environments such as politics or public opinion.

Is this a good thing? On the local front I’d have to say that this seems to be a wonderful development for St. Andrews and its economy. With a renewed hotel and the power of the Marriott brand marketing it, the town’s tourism should be on an upswing. That means more visitors, more new businesses and a brighter local real estate market for years to come, barring an economic downturn.

There might even be some new development opportunities around the old hotel, a new indoor pool perhaps, or a portion of the hotel converted to condos, or even a waterfront townhouse development on the golf course. Time will tell.

But it’s the complexity thing that gives me pause. Not for the Algonquin development, but for the slightly disturbing notion of complexity as a growing feature of modern organizations. As it happens I just encountered a thinker exploring just such a thing. His name is Joseph Tainter, the author of The Collapse of Complex Societies written way back in 1988.

Tainter, an anthropologist and historian, theorizes that societies solve problems by developing complex solutions. As societies themselves become complex, they use more resources and energy to less effect, and reap diminishing returns. As everything becomes evermore complicated resources eventually become depleted, systems stagnate, decision-making becomes more cumbersome and even innovation slows to a trickle. Sound familiar?

Finally complex societies are faced with only three choices: a) successfully create even more complicated solutions, b) simplify or c) collapse. Of the three Tainter believes simplifying is the most difficult but ultimately the most successful approach.

I don’t exactly know how our old hotel on the hill could simplify its operations. The days of single individuals buying and operating hotels seem to be long gone. It will either collapse as a business or operate under a more complex system, hopefully successfully.

Today this is the best Valentine gift this town or this region is likely to get.

*Jamaica, almost entirely dependent on tourism for its economic health, has enduring poverty and one of the highest homicide rates in the world.


  1. In the absence of a crystal ball, I'm willing to go with your assessment.

  2. Thank you for a clear explanation of the Marriott's brand marketing operational structure. I have a better understanding of why there are Marriotts everywhere. I hope the deal comes through for your community.

    I am terribly intrigued the more you write about Tainter's complexity theory. I've added his book to my reading list. I think that the U.S. has definitely embraced complexity but I fear that we are not ready to simplify.

  3. Thanks Sheria. Tainter cites historical examples of complexity-building societies, and their collapse of course, hence the title. The US is just one of the more recent empires on that problem-solving trajectory. The UK went before it, and China and India are upcoming. No major civilization, it seems, has based its strength on simplicity.

    What's most interesting about Tainter, as you know, is his nuanced understanding of the energy input requirements for a complexity-based civilization—and the trade-offs required, up to and including complete energy resource depletion. So it's 'hello, Middle East, here we are.'

    The trick is, where do we go next?

  4. This is interesting, in that Bill McKibben just wrote an article in the March/April edition of Orion magazine on the corporation and how it is such a simplistic organism. Here's a brief excerpt: "Again, the problem with corporations is not wickedness, it's simplicity. They're simply not people; they're closer to single-celled flagellates twitching helplessly toward profit...the crucial job for our time--for our geologic era--is to somehow rein them in, before they do more damage on a planetary scale. They simply can't help themselves; that job will require actual people."

    What is so perplexing about the complexity you describe in your article is the difficulty that average people have comprehending it. If you can't understand the inner workings of something, you will tend to just accept it as a matter of course, since you are effectively powerless to alter its course or change it in any way. This in a perverse way gives the corporations more power over us. It becomes easy for frontline staff to say "that's not our job" or "we're not responsible for that," when actions are questioned by outsiders.

    Try infiltrating the forest management system in NB for example. The foresters have made it so absurdly complex that no one, even after years of trying, can understand the levers and pressure points--and this includes the politicians. And the DNR staff don't WANT you to be able to comprehend. They're the experts! How dare you question their judgment?!

    And yet in some other ways, the complexity of the forest is treated in simplistic ways. Industrial forestry reduces interconnected webs of life into mud fields,or mono-cultured plantations requiring chemical inputs and devoid of wild life. Profit is all about dead bodies; as Lierre Keith said in this taped 'conversation' with Orion Magazine staff and two other authors including Paul Kingsnorth and David Abrams(worth a listen) "capitalism is a pyramid scheme of death" and [to save the world] we can't "just redistribute wealth; we have to stop the death."

    Can't say I disagree. Check out or google 'occupy the machine.' This is '70s activism all over again, this time, with more backing, more support but less time to act.

  5. Anon, I missed this comment. Thanks for the tip toward the Orion and McKibben and company. I would also have to agree, I can't say I disagree either.


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