Last week, UrbanToronto explored several suites within the Trump Residences Toronto. This week, we return to the 65-storey building for a discussion with Neil Labatte, President and CEO of Talon International Development and Talon Luxury Collection. Neil Labatte has had decades of experience in the real estate industry, including prior positions as the Vice President of Acquisitions and Senior Vice President of Real Estate for Fairmont Hotels & Resorts. Also the former President and CEO of Legacy Hotels REIT, Neil is the founder of Global Dimension Capital Inc., a hotel and real estate advisor. 

Neil Labatte smiles for the camera in one of the Trump Residences' penthouse suites, image by Marcus Mitanis

UT: You had a career in the National Hockey League playing for the St. Louis Blues. How did you make the transition from hockey to real estate? Is this something that’s always been a passion of yours?

NL: When I was young I was always interested in architecture. I went to Brown University in the U.S. to play hockey and I tried to get on the track to architecture, but they didn’t have a defined program. So I decided I would specialize in math because I was always good in math. The transition from hockey to business was a practical one. I was 25 or so and my NHL career was basically over and I needed to find a job. So I went back to school and I switched from math to finance, a more practical application at the time.

My strategy was to pick professors at the University of Utah that were adjunct professors; they had their own businesses but they were hired by the school to teach certain specialties, of which real estate was one. I was always interested in real estate from the very beginning. So I took this course and worked as hard as I could to do well and differentiate myself, and they hired me part time. So while I was finishing my last couple semesters I worked with them 20 hours a week and I finished off my degree. When I graduated they hired me and I went into the real estate business working for this fellow who was my professor in college.

You’ve had over 30 years of real estate experience. How was that prepared you for your position at Talon?

I’ve done a lot of different things. I’ve done real estate sales, financing, development, hotel operations, hotel ownership; so in some cases having a very disparate career in a lot of different functions has really culminated in my ability to function within the Trump building itself.

My title is CEO of Talon International Development, which is the owner of the building. I work directly for the investors in the project and I’m responsible for the day to day operations of the building. There’s multiple components to the building: the Residences, the hotel, the parking, the food and beverage. We have certain people that we’ve contracted that responsibility out to day to day. We have Oliver & Bonacini in the America Restaurant, Premier Salons in the spa area, we have Trump managing the hotel rooms on a daily basis. I have principal responsibility managing on a daily basis the residential sales right now and then overseeing the project.

How does this building stand out from other condo and hotel projects in the city?

It’s the best location in my mind. I think we have the premier location for a luxury hotel. Also, I think the area around this hotel has been transforming itself more rapidly into a positive area to be than any other place in the city. There’s a lot more retail opening up here, a lot more restaurants all the time. There’s more people collectively in the area because condominium development continues in the downtown core. You’ve also got office space, too, which brings more people closer into this area now with almost 4 million square feet of office being developed. There’s going to be more people working here and more people who want to live closer to work—especially with the traffic issues that people often mention when they have to come into work every day.

Talon is the developer of Trump International Hotel and Tower, image by Marcus Mitanis

There’s not a lot of space in the financial district and this project especially is pretty huge for the area.

Sometimes the difficulties you face when you’re building a project of this complexity end up being your advantages once you have it done. Land is hard to find and it’s hard to get it constructed in a profitable way.

What advantages does a hotel/condo project offer buyers? Are there are benefits of living within a joint hotel/condo building?

There are shared services: you’ve got the restaurant, the spa. If you’re in the Residences you can get room service, which is very high quality, and you get the professional management from the hotel side. Having a condominium on top of a hotel gives you better service, better management. Also, when you look at the physical quality of the positioning of a five-star hotel with residences, it all fits together. The ceiling heights and the quality of the finishes are significantly higher than what you’d find in a standalone condominium. The Residences essentially have the amenities of a five star hotel. You’ve got people ushering you in the front door, parking your car, getting your car for you when you go out; you don’t find that sort of luxury service in a typical condominium.

The Trump brand has a very distinct identity and a specific luxury people associate with it. Is there pressure associated with those expectations?

Well I think we work very symbiotically together. Their name is synonymous with luxury and with brashness and success. We’ve got the project to fit because we’ve got a very high quality project. So I think together it works quite well.

How many suites are currently available?

We have 118 suites and we have about 50% of the inventory left.

Could you talk a bit about the suite sizes and prices at Trump Residences Toronto?

The Residences range in size from 1,300 square feet to the Super Penthouse which is 11,000 square feet. We also have the penthouses. They range from 4,200 to 4,400 square feet. The starting price is $1.7 million and the Super Penthouse is available for $37 million. 

The long hallway of a Trump Residence penthouse suite, image by Marcus Mitanis

Are there any incentives for purchasers?

A resident of Trump Residences Toronto can have discounted food and beverage, discounted spa, so this is an important attribute in my opinion. If you’re a buyer, depending on your objectives in purchasing, we have financing available. We’re really the only project of this magnitude that has financing available for units of this value. Most of the other projects that compete with us don’t have financing so if someone wants to buy they have to buy with all cash.

What amenities are included in the 32nd floor Sky Lobby?

It’s a gathering area. On that floor you have the health club, pool and access to the spa. It functions as both a greeting area and meeting area. So you’re able to bring your guest there. Also, because we’re attached to the hotel, we have a favourable relationship so if people want to have a party we can do that on the executive meeting floor, which is the 30th floor of the hotel. We also have the ability for people to stay in the hotel at a very favourable rate. Many condos have a guest suite which is often stuffed in a corner somewhere, very small and not particularly appealing. Here, you can stay in the hotel at a very favourable rate.

Could you talk a bit about the America Restaurant, formerly known as Stock? 

To be a successful hotel restaurant you have to have a following in the local community. Our concept was to align this property with the best food and beverage operator. It’s a partnership between Oliver & Bonacini and INK Entertainment. The idea is to create a venue that’s attractive as much as possible for as many like-minded people who want a luxury service. They might come for a dinner or a business lunch or breakfast. They might come later in the evening after they’ve gone to a conference or they’ve had dinner and come back to enjoy a late night drink. The other concept is to gather people from the community on Saturday nights, come for dinner and stay late. Also on Thursday nights to keep the business crowd that’s gone to dinner here at America, have a drink and enjoy the atmosphere. When you have the real estate you want to get as many people using it as you can.

Trump Residences Toronto is partnering with Toronto Men’s Fashion Week (TOM*) which takes place from February 23 to March 3. Eight of your suites will act as showrooms, housing menswear collections from some of the country's most notable designers, including HD Homme and Christopher Bates. Why did you decide to reach out and partner with TOM*? 

Our strategy is to align the building with luxury activities and luxury brands within the marketplace. So we’ve been reaching out very aggressively over the last 90 days to align ourselves with organizations, brands and service companies that are synonymous with luxury offerings, TOM* being an example of that.

Have there been any similar events like this in the past? Can we expect any in the future? 

We have more coming which haven’t been publicly announced yet. We’ve aligned ourselves with the Chinese New Year’s event happening over at the Sony Centre. We’ve aligned ourselves with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra which will be coming up shortly. We’ve got a couple other partnerships with luxury brands that we’ll be announcing next month.

Neil Labatte poses within a Trump Residences' penthouse suite, image by Marcus Mitanis

Is there a PATH connection planned?

It’s conveniently close to the PATH. There is ability to connect in the future.

The 'Lightline' public art feature at the northwest corner of the building has been a topic of discussion for many. When can we expect the light to be operational? 

It’s anticipated to have a launch in May.

Do you have a favourite project currently under construction in Toronto?

I don’t know if I have a favourite but the thing that excites me the most is the enthusiasm and confidence that developers have in the long term potential of Toronto. 

What’s your take on the Toronto market?

When people say the market is slowing, I don’t see it myself. Toronto has now become an international city so it appeals to more than just the local Canadian marketplace. With the advent of the Greenbelt, we’re almost like Manhattan in my mind. You’ve got the Greenbelt on one side and the water on the other so it’s really almost like an island available for development. You’ve got a strong economy, strong immigration, government, university, business, entertainment. It’s an amalgamation of some of the attributes of all the American cities wrapped up into one and it’s cheap compared to other major cities. You go to China, San Francisco, London, Paris, even Vancouver, we would be half to a quarter of the cost of all of those big markets.

Do you have a favourite hangout spot?

If I go to a park I go to Edwards Gardens more than any other park in the city, next would be Centre Island. I grew up very close to Edwards Gardens so I take my family there periodically.

We thank Neil for taking the time to answer our questions. We will return soon with another Q&A session with one of the many insiders in Toronto's development scene. 

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