Globally Local: Sheraton Hotel Toronto

Two renovated outposts of the Sheraton Hotel in Toronto root the global brand with local flair.

In the spring of 2020, at the height of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Sheraton Centre hotel in downtown Toronto sent a love letter to the city. With international travel halted, staff lit up a series of windows in the otherwise empty guest rooms. Anyone passing the 43-storey building was treated to a glowing, giant heart on the otherwise dark facade.

Two years later, the pandemic restrictions have eased and guests are once again filling the Sheraton Centre’s 1,300-plus rooms. And yet, the love letter continues. Capping a five-year redesign and renovation process led by Toronto-based DesignAgency, the hotel has recently finalized a major makeover replete with touching nods to the city.

As guests pull up in their taxis, they arrive in a porte cochère, a giant canopy that was once laden with a heavy, coffee-coloured ceiling. Now it is much brighter, painted white and aglow with LEDs. The centrepiece is a sparkling work of art: a contour map of Lake Ontario, fashioned from shimmering black scales and hanging from the underside of the roof. Conceived by local creatives Art and Objects, the map is the kind of piece that wouldn’t make sense in a Sheraton in Montréal or Vancouver. Lake Ontario is just a walk away from the Sheraton Centre.

It adds similar flavour to a wall sculpture that projects into the nearby lobby and is composed of a grid of discs. “The pattern echoes the rhythm of the windows of the Sheraton Centre,” explains Allen Chan, co-founder of DesignAgency. “It also evokes rhythms found in brutalist architecture, which is something visitors might see as they walk around Toronto.”

Courtesy of Sheraton Centre Toronto

Perhaps ironically, the push to go local is actually part of a broader, national strategy for Sheraton Hotels. Around the same time as the unveiling of the Sheraton Centre, the hospitality brand also opened a redesigned Sheraton Gateway, next to Toronto’s Pearson International Airport. The company also has plans for other revamps across the country.

According to Amanda Nichols, Global Brand Leader at Sheraton Hotels & Resorts based in Washington, D.C., each new Canadian Sheraton will be linked by “brand signature elements.” These four unifying features can be found in both the Sheraton Centre and Sheraton Gateway, all in the lobbies.

Part of the $30-million makeover of Sheraton Gateway is a massive lobby re-imagined as a “Public Square” loosely organized around the reception area, lounge spaces and &More, a part bar/café/grab-and-go food offering. (Photography by Gillian Jackson)

So-called Community Tables are purpose-built workspaces where patrons can grab a seat, eat a snack and have a quick meeting or check their emails. They are the hotel equivalent of office hot desks. More private, the Sheraton Studios are hi-tech, glass-enclosed spaces that are built for focused work. Even more secluded, the Soundproof Booths are dotted throughout each lobby, perfect for a video or phone calls where hotel noises are not appropriate.

Elsewhere in the lobby campus are spaces for co-working and meeting plus soundproof booths for personal calls, among other amenities. (Photography by Gillian Jackson)

“At the heart of it all is &More by Sheraton,” explains Nichols. “This is our signature concept combining a bar, coffee bar, and market. It offers dining options that are locally sourced and easy to consume while working.” Think bite-sized foods that aren’t too greasy (treacherous for eating next to a laptop). Beyond those elements, there is an imperative for each property to “bring in regional or community nuances through custom design,” says Nichols.

&More, a part bar/café/grab-and-go food offering. (Photography by Gillian Jackson)

Part of the aesthetic comes down to how the hotel is used. “An ‘Airport Property’ has its own specific requirements,” explains Robynne Moncur, whose firm, Moncur Design Associates, designed the Sheraton Gateway. “For example, the average stay at the Gateway property is less than one night, and the hotel needs to be flexible to accommodate an influx of people at a moments notice. Social spaces are just as important as the private areas.”

In practice, that means the design team opted for a calming colour palette (neutrals, natural woods) to contrast the potentially frenetic energy of the hotel and dotted the expansive lobby with intimate seating nooks to foster conversations between friends or strangers. As with the Sheraton Centre, there is original art specific to Toronto, though here it is less abstract than sculptures made of discs. The vintage photos of streetcars actually look like streetcars. According to Nichols, these pieces are meant to “encourage curiosity and conversation about travel and exploration.”

Photography by Gillian Jackson

At the Sheraton Centre, a different purpose manifests in a different aesthetic. The hotel is one of Canada’s largest conference facilities, with more than 170,000 square feet of events space. In addition to out-of-town conference goers, the city’s business leaders routinely drop by for events. That is evident with the Sheraton Club on the 43rd floor. Reserved for elite, frequent fliers and complete with a private boardroom that overlooks the financial district, it has a panache to match its high-in-the-sky location: herringbone floors, original oils on the rich blue walls, plush velvet sofas.

43rd-floor Club Lounge. (Photo courtesy of Sheraton Centre Toronto)

The Sheraton Centre has had an incredible transformation, considering what the hotel was like pre-renovation: stuffy, stodgy, a strange amount of Edwardian-style wood panelling for a building that was actually built a mere 50 years ago. The best parts remain, including a glassed-in courtyard garden with a waterfall that is visible from the new Community Tables. But DesignAgency worked hard to imbue the design with luxurious comforts while avoiding the previous, too-corporate placeless-ness.

Perhaps the clearest example is the new lobby bar and restaurant called 43 Down. The vibe is warm and cozy yet upscale, with a mix of natural woods, buttery leathers and punches of brass. Sofas and chairs are upholstered in soft greys and look like they belong in trendy living rooms. During the day, 43 Down is hidden behind milky white screens. The walls open at night so the crowd can flow in and out of the adjacent lobby. When that happens, the mood is exciting. “We wanted to create a lobby bar, and indeed a whole lobby, that really welcomed the city in,” says Chan. “Before, the hotel felt separated off. Now we want this all to feel like it really belongs to downtown Toronto.”

A departure from the traditional hotel restaurant, 43 Down is a “beverage-forward concept” focusing on mixology. (photo courtesy of Sheraton Centre Toronto)