Thursday, 17 September 2009 07:13
Written by Kenton Smith
In a sunny Saturday morning, across a table at Bread & Circuses, the Ida Albo and Rick Bel Show unfolds.
“Rick? You’re giving me a look there,” chuckles Ida. “Look?” replies Rick, flashing a wink. “What look?”
“Oh oh,” says Ida, pointing. “Look, he’s writing all this down.”
This is the indelible first impression one gets: that of a loving, long married, endearingly playful husband and wife. She dressed in workout clothes, he in casual weekend wear, the co-owners of the historic Fort Garry Hotel hardly project the image of a so-called power couple.
“I mean, the Perons in Argentina–now there was a power couple,” says Rick. But Theirs Truly? “We’re honestly kind of surprised,” laughs Ida. Yet the two have spent nearly the entirety of their marriage as business partners–and it’s a relationship that continues to prove both a personal and professional success.
It was in 1994 that the couple became co-owners of one of Winnipeg’s most distinctive landmarks, which over its near 100-year history has sheltered everyone from Elizabeth Taylor to Queen Elizabeth II. Ida and Rick have continued renovation on the hotel ever since, with perhaps the most significant development coming in 2006: the addition of the popular Ten Spa facility.
“I think we’ve had a definite impact on the city through the hotel,” says Ida proudly. “It’s a special place. Being the caretaker of a national historic site–that’s a privilege.”
Married for 27 years, they’ve been working together for 25, having owned the former Prairie Oyster restaurant at The Forks before purchasing the hotel. “The marriage is still there, so obviously, it’s been working for us,” says Ida.
Besides, Rick confesses: “We really don’t know any other way.”
“What, you’re saying it’s not the kids that are holding us together?” Ida giggles, swatting Rick’s head.
But seriously: what’s their secret? A key to managing the business partnership, they agree, is compartmentalization: respective responsibilities are designated and respected. “We try not to cross over,” Ida says, before pausing and turning to Rick: “Don’t we?”
“Oh?” smiles Rick. “I didn’t know you tried so hard.”
The professional boundaries are the easy part: the concept of division doesn’t apply so easily to the separation of business and married life. “There’s no such division,” laughs Rick. “When you’re married to your business partner, it’s 24/7.”
Perhaps it is also just a question of disposition–and patience. After all, Ida says, any kind of relationship has its stresses and demands: sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s hard.
So which has it been for them? “It’s been fun,” Ida replies with a smile. “It sure hasn’t been boring.”
To be sure, the couple likes having projects, and staying busy. For example, Ida is about to be certified as a yoga instructor. Over coffee, she’s constantly checking her BlackBerry–she’s got a yoga class to get to at 11:00, in fact. Neither she nor Rick come across as people who have all day, or enjoy sitting still.
Indeed, it helps that they share a spirit of adventurousness. “Years ago, before we had opened the Prairie Oyster, we just thought: ‘Wouldn’t it be something to run a restaurant?’” says Rick. Yet serendipity has also played a role in their major business decisions; after all, he says, one tends to fall into opportunities, just like most things in life.
But don’t’ think there’s never a plan. Far from it: the couple agrees that there’s a lot of necessary research and preparation needed to do anything “right.” By way of illustration, the two had already been researching for the development of Ten Spa when the idea of a hammam came up. So they decided to experience one for themselves: the couple travelled to Istanbul, where they both saw many historic facilities and experienced numerous treatments.
“We like to do the necessary work,” says Ida. “We put in a lot of intensity. We like to make sure that whatever we do, it’s as good as it can be.”
As for future projects, what exactly do they have up their sleeve? “Coffee first,” laughs Ida. The next major priority is the present renovation underway at the Fort Garry, which will double its capacity and refashion it as a convention centre by November.
Then early in 2010, there’s the opening a new downtown business venture: a new yoga centre at the former location of Kismat restaurant. The centre will be, Ida and Rick say, an extension of the services already provided at the hotel–especially the spa.
And this is all only the immediate future. “We have so many, we don’t like to talk about them too freely, lest they don’t always come to fruition,” Ida says.
How best to describe the relationship up to now? “It’s been an adventure,“ declares Ida. “And as long as we keep having fun, there’s no reason for us not to continue with it.”
“Until one of us drops, that is,” Rick adds.
photography by Ruth Bonneville