The Vancouver Sun
By: Joanne Lee-Young
March 3, 2015
VANCOUVER — In downtown Vancouver, steps from a Taco Del Mar and the Subway next door, Michael Alaska is opening glass doors and greeting customers as if he was on New York’s Fifth Avenue or in London’s posh Mayfair district.
“I call it doorman ballet,” he says, theatrically rolling one bent arm and shuffling aside.
Alaska wears a top hat and long grey coat with a mandarin collar. He looks like a quintessential doorman, exactly what his employer, luxury retailer Holt Renfrew, wanted when it created his position last fall.
“Granville Street is our front door,” says general manager Jeanie Owen. “We wanted it to have a feeling of old-world elegance.”
The company has long employed doormen in Toronto, but Alaska is the first ever in Vancouver.
His appointment is part of Holt’s “service strategy,” a plan that started four years ago, Owen says.
It also comes as the local retail market gets ready to shop at and also work for legendary names like Seattle-based Nordstrom and, later, Saks Fifth Avenue.
Last week, Nordstrom named company veteran Chris Wanlass as manager of its Vancouver store at Pacific Centre, which will open in September. Tuesday, it begins the posting of 44 manager positions.
“They’ll learn about our culture, hear from company leaders and work side by side with a mentor manager,” says Wanlass in an email.
In total, the company expects to hire more than 1,000 sales and support positions in June.
“I think there will be a lot of coaching and extensive in-house work to replicate the (Nordstrom) culture” in Vancouver, says Milton Pedraza, chief executive officer of the Luxury Institute, a New York-based research and consulting firm. “It’s not just operations, and ‘how to do a transaction’ or ‘process a return,’ but the ‘how-to-behave’ part.”
Farla Efros, chief operating officer of Hilco Retail Consulting, says with such intense competition “across the board, online, the many established names and also the fast-fashion scene, the only way to differentiate yourself is around the customer experience.”
There are the usual ways to get an edge: customized events, personal shoppers, and even people to help organize your closets.
And then there are the “intangibles,” says Efros, recalling in 2011 when Holt Renfrew let go of Tom Hargitai, a doorman who had worked at its Yorkville location for 21 years.
“He was very well known,” says Efros. “People were very upset,” and jumped online to share poignant anecdotes, deeming the doorman, whom some affectionately called “the mayor of Bloor Street,” an institution.
When Alaska first started opening doors for Holt Renfrew in Vancouver last November, a few longtime customers did a double take, he says. “People run across the street. They think I am him,” he says.
As much as Alaska revels in evoking the charm of another era, Granville Street can be a gritty portal into the polished floors of Holt Renfrew.
On a recent weekday, a reporter watched as a young man angrily confronted Alaska, finally spitting on the glass of one of the doors, yelling “that’s what I think of your store” before continuing with a string of expletives.
Alaska defused the encounter with a gentle response before retreating inside. “What happened is very rare,” he says, before admitting that “it’s a very interesting location. It’s not a hotel driveway and it’s not West Georgia.”
On the flip side, in a town perhaps not yet used to department store grandeur, Alaska says he has also has had some folks awkwardly “try to grab the door themselves,” apologizing to him that “they are just going through the store to get to their office.”
Alaska, who has worked in hospitality for airlines and cruises and was also previously a stuntman, says when he answered the Holt’s ad, it said “preferred background in entertainment and theatre. They didn’t want a security guard.
“I come from a place of wanting to do something like this, welcoming everyone. In my mind, I am thinking MGM 1950s movies kind of service,” he says. “I bring that all to the role.”