By Karen van Kampen
For 10 years, Mandy Farmer wrote one business plan after another, trying to sell the concept of retro-themed hotels to her business partners at Accent Inns. Yet she couldn’t convince them to invest in renovating old motels and rebranding them with a 1970s flair.
Refusing to give up, Mandy brought her partners to a motel that was owned by Accent Inns. The property was projected to lose money, and Mandy asked for their advice on how to turn things around. Standing in front of the motel, her partners proposed Mandy’s idea as their own — suggesting they reinvent the property with a retro theme. Naturally, she agreed.
In 2014, the first Hotel Zed was launched. Today, Accent Inns operates three Hotel Zeds across British Columbia, entertaining guests with a 1980s arcade, mini disco, and bike path that runs through the lobby. “We are rebels against the ordinary,” says Mandy, echoing Hotel Zed’s tagline.
As President and CEO of Accent Inns, Mandy is being recognized as an innovative hotelier with a passion to bring comfort and happiness to her guests. She was the 2020 winner of the Excellence Award, a category of the RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards, that honours an entrepreneur who has built and managed a successful business over a decade through timely innovation, strategic thinking, and smart execution.
Looking back, Mandy remembers the pivotal experience of watching her dad become a hotelier. She was 13 when he built the first Accent Inn, transitioning from the family construction business into hotels. “I saw my dad come alive,” she says. “There was a jaunt in his step. He whistled. He talked to everyone about Accent Inns. He was so proud.”
When Mandy was in her twenties, she became Sales Manager at Accent Inns. It wasn’t easy cold calling potential business customers, including film studios and insurance companies that needed accommodations for their employees on the road. “You’d have doors slammed in your face,” she says. “But it was also exhilarating to get a sale.” She worked her way up in the company by recognizing and seizing every opportunity.
During her executive MBA at Royal Roads University, Mandy wrote her thesis on retro-themed hotels. She graduated in 2003 and became Vice President of Accent Inns. Two years later, Mandy was appointed president and CEO. Today, she continues to brainstorm innovative and unique ideas to grow the five Accent Inns and three Hotel Zeds. “It is in our blood to look at every single thing and decide, how can we make that unordinary?” she says.
Accent Inns are built on fun and humour, with secret jokes hidden in every room. Stepping into an elevator is like taking a hot air balloon ride, with guests surrounded by a 360-degree aerial photograph of the property. At Hotel Zed, things get a bit wilder, with a mini disco where people can DJ their own dance party and a retro office space with a secret switch on a bookshelf that opens onto a 1980s arcade.
“I was able to go down the rabbit hole of fear and see that I could lose the family business. We kept talking about leading with love and opening our hearts wide.”
Mandy remembers working at franchised hotels that were very formulaic, giving her scripts to read when she was on the front desk. “We are the exact opposite,” she says. “We are surprising and fun, refreshing and real.”
Mandy is also dedicated to the happiness and satisfaction of her 300 staff. New employees are told, “We hired you because you’re awesome. Please let your awesomeness show, however that is for you,” she says. They are given a name tag and asked to create their own title. There is a disco dancer and dog walker on the team. “It’s permission to be yourself at work,” she says.
After so much success, the pandemic has brought about a difficult time for the company. “I was able to go down the rabbit hole of fear and see that I could lose the family business,” says Mandy, who decided that if they were going to go down, they would do so with their heads held high and help as many people as possible. “We kept talking about leading with love and opening our hearts wide,” she says.
After hearing about a nurse sleeping in her car for fear of bringing the virus home to her family, Mandy began providing hotel rooms at cost to frontline workers. When bus drivers were being mistreated by some passengers during the pandemic, Mandy and her team gave drivers thank you notes and gift cards to show their appreciation. She gave her employees the gift of giving at the holidays by providing them with two gift cards: one for themselves and one to give to someone else.
Then there were the party parades in which staff would drive by kids’ houses in Hotel Zed’s 1960s VW buses with signs and balloons, honking and wishing children a happy birthday. The parades were provided free of charge, which kept Mandy’s team engaged and feeling like they were making a difference. “It’s changed our company,” says Mandy. “To this day, we’re constantly asking, how can we help?”
Looking to the future, Mandy is excited to continue to grow her business as well as her people. “It’s a passion for us to transform our employees’ lives, however we can do it,” she says. “I want their jobs to be the best of their lives so that when someone asks them when they’re 80 years old, ‘what was your favourite job?’ I want to be it.”