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Sydney Loney, National Post
“You’ve got sports, culture, entertainment, nightlife,” says Charles Khabouth, making sweeping gestures with both arms to encompass the attractions of the neighbourhood over which Bisha, a 41-storey luxury hotel and condominium, will preside when it opens for business in 2014. “When it comes to location, this is a 12 out of 10.”
An address on Blue Jays Way in the midst of Toronto’s Entertainment District is just one of the things Bisha will have going for it. Mr. Khabouth himself is another, or so says his business partner Mel Pearl, principal of Lifetime Developments. “Charles is the insurance factor,” Mr. Pearl says. “His name is on it — literally.”
Bisha was Mr. Khabouth’s nickname growing up in Lebanon, before he became a renowned restaurateur and bar-scene baron in Toronto. (Mr. Khabouth is largely responsible for the late-night lineups of scantily clad club goers parked outside hotspots like Kool Haus, the Guvernment and This is London, which are owned and operated by his company, INK Entertainment.)
Now he stands with Mr. Pearl on the floor of Bisha’s opulent presentation centre, explaining why the timing of Bisha is right for him — and for the city. “First of all, to carry a project like this you need to have experience and maturity, but still be young enough to run with it,” he says.
When Mr. Khabouth first came to Toronto in the ’70s, it was the grand hotels that housed the city’s nightlife. If you wanted to see a show or go to a club, you went to the Royal York or the King Eddie. “That all went away,” he says. “We’re going to bring it back.”
In addition to 332 condo suites and 100 hotel rooms, Bisha will boast a fitness centre, salon, private residents’ lounge, two restaurants and a 7,000-square-foot rooftop patio, bar and infinity pool overlooking the city. “It’s a lifestyle space,” Mr. Pearl says. “It’s more than just the four walls of a condo unit. I imagine people coming home, tossing their keys on the table, then going to socialize in the bar or rooftop lounge.”
In keeping with Mr. Khabouth’s roots in club culture, there will also be two themed floors: a rock-and-roll floor trimmed in leather and lace, and a Hollywood floor where lush flora and luxurious finishes will lend an airy, L.A. vibe to the space. To create the over-the-top aesthetic, Mr. Pearl and Mr. Khabouth enlisted the design services of Alessandro Munge, principal of Munge Leung.
“There is nothing like this in the city,” Mr. Munge says. “It’s eye candy everywhere —your brain will spin when you come in.” And it’s true. From the glossy marble floors and immense columns corseted in black velvet to walls that shimmer in burnished silver foil, there’s a lot to take in as you wander through the lobby and presentation centre enroute to the model suite.
Then there are the furnishings, treasures hand-picked from around the globe, including an original French art deco console, a free-standing vintage Murano glass light fixture, and art and sculpture from the likes of Uno Hoffman, Paul Evans and Jeff Goodman.
“I like that the space has layers and that the pieces have stories,” Mr. Munge says. Mr. Khabouth even shopped for Bisha at a flea market in Paris — one that featured priceless castle artifacts. “We picked up a few things there,” he says nonchalantly.
So who will buy into Bisha? We tried to identify the person and realized we couldn’t, Mr. Pearl says. “It’s everybody. Our market is not confined to age or career. Just to people with a certain sensibility and taste.”
People will want to say “I live at Bisha,” Mr. Munge says. “Everyone will want to be a part of it.” It may well be the place where paparazzi camp out during the film festival and where people come to capture a taste of celebrity lifestyle. The guest list for Bisha’s premiere event included models, actors and politicians, Gucci launched its new perfume (Gucci Guilty) in the space, and Bisha has already been the site of several star-studded charity fundraisers.
But not everyone wants to face a phalanx of photographers when they step out for their morning coffee, which is why Bisha is designed so residents can either embrace, or escape, the scene as their mood dictates. “You can have as little or as much of it as you want,” Mr. Pearl says. “It was important to us that there be separate access to the condominiums, so you can drive into your parking spot and take a separate elevator.”
Mr. Khabouth and Mr. Pearl envision the Toronto flagship as the beginning of a brand that will expand globally. “We have enough arrogance to believe we can succeed on the world stage,” Mr. Khabouth says.
That success hinges on how things go in Toronto — Bisha isn’t exactly debuting in an empty condo market. Yes, other major hotels are doing condos, Mr. Pearl says. “Are there too many?” he asks, promptly answering with, “I’ve been in the business for 30 years and there are always too many. But if you do your job right, it doesn’t matter how many there are.”
Mr. Pearl and Mr. Khabouth plan to do the job right by being hands on (Mr. Khabouth will be moving in himself) and attentive to every detail. For instance, even the door leading to the model suite is ornate. “It’s all custom,” Mr. Khabouth says. “You get a rich feel from the moment you step out of the elevator.” Once inside, Mr. Khabouth pulls open a drawer in the elegantly appointed bathroom of the model suite. “They’re all self-closing and finished on the inside — they’re not just those clunk, clunk things,” he says. “It’s the difference between a $5 hinge and a $140 hinge. It matters in the long run.”
Hinges aside, suites will also feature nine-foot ceilings, spacious balconies, floor-to-ceiling windows and Mr. Leung-designed custom cabinetry. But what may ultimately set Bisha apart is its relative affordability, making a celebrity lifestyle accessible to the not-so-rich-and-famous. “We wanted to make it beautiful, but also of value,” Mr. Khabouth says.
Units are priced from about $350,000 to more than $1.5– million and range in size from a cozy 379 square feet to more than 1,600 square feet. “It was really important that we had something to fit people’s different requirements, whether they’re looking for a beautiful home for entertaining, or an elegant pied-à-terre for weekend getaways,” Mr. Pearl says.
It’s great value for a level of sophistication that’s well over the price, Mr. Khabouth says. “And whether it’s entertainment, art, service or design, there really is something for everybody. I can’t see myself living anywhere else.”
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By Tony Wong – Toronto Star
Charles Khabouth is no stranger to rolling the dice when it comes to churning out new ventures aimed at fickle consumers.
As Canada’s largest nightclub operator he is an established brand, the most powerful man in Toronto’s entertainment district. A pope to the city’s night denizens hopped up on lychee martinis and techno.
But his latest project is his biggest gamble yet. And this time he’s put his name on it.
Khabouth is building a $150-million hotel and condominium named Bisha. That’s short for Bechara, Khabouth’s childhood name.
You can hardly miss it. A giant billboard emblazoned with his logo is already planted at 56 Blue Jays Way, the former home of the Second City comedy troupe in downtown Toronto.
The size of the venture begs the question: Khabouth has conquered the club world, but can he succeed in North America’s toughest condo market?
Torontonians are spoiled for choice when it comes to boxes in the sky. In the second quarter of the year the city had 272 condominium projects on the market — the most of any metropolitan area on the continent. Another condo? Yawn. Another boutique hotel? Take a number.
“We want to be able to have the hip factor of a boutique hotel, but with the attention to detail of a Four Seasons,” says Khabouth.
There is sawdust in the air, and earlier in the week his sales office was covered in plastic sheets, but Khabouth’s vision is taking shape.
“It all starts with the doors,” says Khabouth, pointing to oversized, ornate dark wood doors with elaborate gold handles. “That’s the first thing people see. Impressions count.”
Khabouth’s style is Prince of Persia meets Philippe Starck. In his restaurants, velvet and gold accents and dangling beaded curtains clash with angular granite and glass, recreating the Persian lounge for the 21st century.
Not surprisingly, the new project will be opulent, with a distinctly nightclub vibe.
Bisha’s hotel will have two themed floors: a black and red themed Rock and Roll floor, and a Hollywood Floor with a Beverley Hills vibe. Like his clubs, there will be a huge amount of space — 30,000 square feet devoted to amenities including food and beverage and a fitness centre.
On top of the 41-storey development, Khabouth’s INK Entertainment, along with Lifetime Developments principals Mel Pearl and Sam Herzog, plan to build 332 condos.
“We want to create a hotel brand from scratch,” says Pearl. “This hasn’t been done in Toronto since Issy Sharp built the Four Seasons.”
The partners hope that the Bisha concept can be expanded to other cities to take a place among other hip hotel brands, such as W and Thompson Hotels.
The concept might sound silly. Who would care about a Johnny-come-lately Canadian brand when the world is filled with boutique wannabees?
That was the question Pearl asked himself when he set to build a hotel in Toronto. Lifetime started out as a low-rise developer before branching into downtown condos. The company currently has eight projects on the market, with a C.V. that includes partnerships in Liberty Market Lofts and the Four Seasons Hotel and Residences, the highest-profile condo project in the city.
But developing a new brand is a lot riskier than simply hiring a management company such as a Ritz Carlton or Trump. The partners know that getting a customer to commit to an overpriced Red Bull or two is one thing. Selling condos that will go from more than $300,000 to over $1.5 million will prove more difficult.
Pearl hooked up with Khabouth through Bisha designer Alessandro Munge, who had worked for both men. Pearl, a youthful looking 55-year-old with a penchant for jeans, already knew Khabouth by reputation.
Khabouth, 49, grew up in Lebanon. Even though he has couture tastes — he owned his own Hugo Boss boutique, drove a Ferrari and his wife is a former model — Khabouth wears a signature dark urban safari jacket and could easily be mistaken for a bike courier.
He worked three jobs in high school; his first was at a McDonald’s. When he was 22, he started his first nightclub with a $30,000 loan. He hit it big when he used the proceeds from his first venture to rent a decrepit space at Richmond and Duncan in 1986, creating what would become the city’s entertainment district.
The privately owned INK generates now more than $30 million in revenues annually, according to Khabouth. It owns and operates the massive Guvernment and Kool Haus nightclub complex on the city’s waterfront, the largest such venue in Canada with more than 50,000 square feet on the main floor, and the This Is London nightclub in the entertainment district. It also owns the Dragonfly Nightclub in Casino Niagara and a string of restaurants, including Ultra Supper Club on Queen Street and Spice Route, an Asian-influenced bistro bar on King Street West.
This year, Khabouth is finally being recognized by the mainstream business community. He is on the short list of nominees for an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award.
Khabouth has been likened to Canada’s Ian Schrager, the former Studio 54 owner credited for creating the widely copied boutique hotel concept in Manhattan.
He was the Toronto original, here before the über-hip Drake and Gladstone hotels. Before Peter Freed developed the city’s west end and brought in a newly opened Thompson Hotel with its rooftop pool parties. But it took him a lot longer to get in the business.
Khabouth understands the irony. The man who originated the lifestyle club looks like he’s coming late to the all-night party he started.
And besides, Canada already has a boutique chain. Khabouth was beaten to the punch by Quebec City’s Christiane Germain. In the ’90s she stayed at Schrager’s first hotel, Morgans in New York, and was inspired to do something north of the border. (A Hotel Le Germain in Toronto opened in 2002; a second is planned to open this fall beside the Air Canada Centre.)
“Being late is one thing, but it doesn’t matter how late you are if you’re incompetent,” argues Pearl. “I think people who buy into Bisha will see that they are getting value, they will see it in the execution.”
The developers understand that just because you build it, patrons won’t necessarily appear. You need buzz.
This is, perhaps, the entrepreneur’s competitive advantage in the hotel game.
Under INK, Khabouth books dozens of musical acts every year and plays host to celebrities and rock stars in his many clubs. Last year, he estimates he rented more than 1,500 rooms at Toronto hotels to host his out-of-town acts. This year INK was the official host for the Much Music Video Awards, organizing official after parties for stars such as Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus.
In the brave new world of product placement, nowhere is the power of celebrity more profound than in the hospitality industry. You are where you dine and sleep.
Today, paparazzi in front of Nobu in New York or Thompson’s Hollywood Roosevelt provide perfect global marketing. Whether it’s handbags or hotel rooms, celebrities move product.
“I know this city,” says Khabouth. “I know the hotels. I know the nightclubs. I know the people. I’m not saying this because I’m trying to boast. It’s a fact.”
Pierre Bergevin , president of real estate consultancy Cushman & Wakefield, says there is still room for good boutique hotels in the city.
“Just try and get a room during the film festival,” says Bergevin. “They attract a higher-spending customer with good disposable income that isn’t necessarily on a corporate budget.”
Bergevin says the small size of the hotels also means that there is less chance of saturation.
But like hip nightclubs, hot hotels can be yesterday’s news. Maintaining an edge will be challenging. And then there is the question of too much product.
“What keeps me awake at night? That the (condo) market will crash,” Khabouth says bluntly.
Sales in the new condo market were down 8% in the second quarter of 2010 compared with the first. Some analysts say there are already too many projects on the market.
Pearl remembers 1989 in Toronto all too well. His company had 40 low-rise homes in North York that had been sold. Only four closed the year the bubble burst.
“We learned some hard lessons,” says Pearl. “You never say never — the economy can always go south. Or your ego can get the better of you.”
Pearl says he has seen too many projects fail because of hubris. Of developers who think it’s cool to get into the hotel and restaurant business because they want to hang out with models.
“This isn’t about vanity, about having a place to crash,” says Pearl. “We’ve seen that movie before. Our numbers have to work.”
Pearl says Lifetime is conservatively managed and takes on strategic partnerships to diversify. Khabouth claims he is not leveraged on any of his existing companies. The partners say they are funding the start-up costs, including the elaborate showroom, entirely with cash.
Once construction starts, the building will be debt financed. But first, they have to sell consumers on the idea of buying into the Bisha lifestyle.
Advertising for Bisha shows a sensuous black and white image of a woman’s face, blindfolded by a lace handkerchief. It suggests the good life with a hint of S&M, not all that different from the underground club scene Khabouth helped cultivate.
But after conquering the club world, it remains to be seen whether he can create a hotel brand that will bear his name.
“This is taking everything I know — all my different skills — and putting it in one project,” says Khabouth. “It’s something that hopefully will be around for my kids and grandkids.”
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