Entrepreneurial Spirit

Ben Sparrow

Ben Sparrow builds on a strong history in the community

By Geoff Kirbyson

Ben Sparrow

Most hoteliers spend their days trying to figure out how to squeeze every last dime of profit out of their properties.

Ben Sparrow is not most hoteliers.

Sure, the Winnipeg-based CEO of Sparrow Hotels wants to see black ink on the bottom line, but he figures if he does the right things for his city, his employees and his suppliers, karma will have a way of finding him.

The family-owned company manages Norwood Hotel, Inn at the Forks, and Mere Hotel as well as the new ERA Bistro at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

All of the properties are in the hospitality sector but they also share one other unmistakable characteristic – they’re all located within a couple of kilometres of Portage and Main.

Sparrow believes his responsibilities, and those of his fellow downtown entrepreneurs, extend well beyond their front doors because the sum of their parts is greater than the whole.

SMITH-31-w1200-h1200That’s a big part of the reason why he’s on a committee that wants to make Winnipeg a Fair Trade city by next year.

Fair Trade is an international movement that aims to change the terms for many products we buy by ensuring the farmers growing them – almost exclusively in underdeveloped countries – earn a fair price. Fair Trade products include coffee, tea, sugar, spices, bananas, wine, beer, cocoa, clothing, children’s toys and soap.

“One of the core values of our business is to treat our customers, our co-workers and our community, as we wish to be treated. As an extension of that, we want to ensure the people who produce the products we purchase are treated fairly, too,”
Sparrow says.

“We have to encourage local consumers to buy into this and make ethical and sustainable choices and we have to create awareness of Fair Trade with educational institutions, businesses, non-profits and government.”

That logic goes for closer to home, too, as Sparrow is also committed to using local suppliers wherever possible. Perhaps the best example of this is how he sources vegetables for Inn at the Forks. Sure, he could have them unloaded by the crate from a semi-trailer every couple of days, but instead he decided to work with CitiGrow, a local company that builds urban gardens at businesses and other properties around town. CitiGrow sells the produce to restaurants and private buyers and pays out a royalty to the real estate owner.

So, now when the chef needs vegetables for the day’s menu, they’re just a few steps away. Worst case, they were picked from a nearby garden.

“It looks really good for a restaurant to be growing its own organic vegetables outside its front door. Our customers are asking for information about where their food comes from, whether it’s a produced item or vegetables, and now we can say to them, ‘we care about this so much we’re willing to grow our vegetables outside our front door.’ That means a lot to them,” he says.

Those customers aren’t looking for a typical hotel experience. Instead, they’re after an adventure. That’s also why you’ll never find a major national or international banner above the door of a Sparrow hotel. Rather than paying licensing fees to large branding companies, Sparrow says his company is able to pour that money back into its boutique properties to provide a superior guest experience instead.

“We’re essentially a lifestyle hotel company. We provide hospitality experiences for people who are looking to learn something about our city, have a cultural experience downtown, a fine dining experience or a luxury spa experience,” he says.

They’re also interested in attending sporting events, concerts, the theatre, symphony and ballet and taking in the city’s unique architecture.

He believes the company is growing because it has found a burgeoning niche that most hoteliers aren’t interested in serving or don’t have the expertise for.

“We’re providing the right product at the right time. We have experience operating independent hotels, restaurants and conference centres. The city is growing and the downtown is growing,” he says.

He believes Mere is uniquely positioned to help in that regard.

The year-old boutique hotel on Waterfront Drive features 67 rooms with king-size beds, geothermal heating and cooling and some leading-edge design courtesy of David Penner Architect.

“We wanted to have the first major tourist business to promote the Exchange District as a destination. We feel that hadn’t been done before,” he says.

“It seems like a simple thing when you think about how hospitality is provided. We have 10 hotels that opened up in the airport district and when people stay there, they do their jobs and go to their hotel rooms. They’re not necessarily living their lifestyles, which might be taking kids to hockey or taking care of elderly parents.

We’re taking people who like to eat out at fine restaurants, have cultural experiences and want to learn something about the city they’re in. That’s the lifestyle brand we’re trying to create downtown or close to downtown in St. Boniface, the Forks, downtown and in the Exchange District.”

Growing up in an entrepreneurial household – the company has been in his family since 1937 – Sparrow knows the importance of role models. He’s following in the footsteps of both his dad, Bob, and his grandfather, Merle. That’s why in his capacity as president of Entrepreneurs’ Organization he helped organize the Global Student Entrepreneur Awards, which will be presented Nov. 20.

“We have a strong history of entrepreneurship in Winnipeg. We’re a close-knit community. We want to inspire students to start and grow entrepreneurial ventures. We recognize the value that entrepreneurs provide to our community,” he says.

“This is particular true in a city like Winnipeg, which is not blessed with an abundance of corporate head offices but is driven by a large group of strong family-owned and operated companies.”

That entrepreneurial spirit was behind Sparrow’s successful bid to provide the food services at the newly-opened Canadian Museum for Human Rights with the 77-seat ERA Bistro. Despite numerous personnel issues and a sputtering grand opening, the CMHR is expected to attract about 250,000 visitors annually.

“It’s one of the most important developments in a generation for our city and province. The interest in it is immense. We’ve built a food services facility within one of the (building’s) massive stone roots,” he says.

“The way our business works is people shop in clusters. The more hotels you have in one area, the more people associate that area with staying (in hotels). New hotels are popping up downtown and the downtown is a stronger and more popular place for people to come and stay. The museum (will be) an anchor of that.”

Within a few days of the CMHR’s opening, Inn at the Forks christened SMITH, a new eatery to replace the Current Restaurant & Lounge, which shut down in June.

“We wanted to put our best foot forward for the opening of the museum, that’s why we timed our opening the way we did,” he says.

“Every square inch has been completely redone. It’s a brand new restaurant in every single aspect. It’s a massive undertaking,” he says.

As dedicated as he is to Winnipeg, Sparrow believes the time is right to expand outside the Perimeter Highway. He is currently evaluating opportunities in major Canadian cities, but he’s focusing primarily on the three provinces to the West.

But it’s the family’s efforts since 1937 that have made lasting impressions in their home province.

“The Sparrow group of hotels has shown tremendous initiative and taken on terrific risk in expanding. It’s a terrific case of Manitobans investing in Manitoba,” says Jim Baker, president and CEO of the Manitoba Hotel Association.

While building something at The Forks seems like a no-brainer today, that wasn’t always the case. Baker says starting up Inn at the Forks a decade ago was a major undertaking that came with significant risks.

“Ben has been the entrepreneurial spirit of the Sparrow Hotels group,” Baker says.

The work on the food services side of things hasn’t gone unnoticed, either. Scott Jocelyn, executive director of the Manitoba Restaurant & Foodservices Association, applauds their commitment to the downtown area.

“They are players on the restaurant scene. Anytime Ben does anything, it comes with integrity. Anything that he’s involved with is always top notch. They support the local marketplace and they don’t do anything without giving it a lot of thought,” he says.

Even Sparrow, who goes out of his way to share his company’s success, would agree with that. www.sparrowhotels.com