Sean_ODonnell copie (Mixte Mag)

Sean O’Donnell | The Importance of Friendship

An experienced player in the hospitality industry, Sean O’Donnell is a master in the art of receiving guests. However, this easygoing executive prefers treasured conversations with close, long-time friends to the hubbub of large-scale events.

When Sean O’Donnell talks about his life, he keeps notes handy to ensure he mentions by name every childhood friend, co-worker, colleague, mentor, and business partner he has encountered over the course of his career. For this down-to-earth Montrealer with an Irish father and Yugoslavian mother, friendship has been an invaluable and essential part of his journey. He began by studying business administration at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia, although he did not complete his degree as he discovered his natural talent for hospitality. “To pay for my education, I would work at popular clubs in downtown Montréal every summer. My first job was as a busboy at Les Beaux Jeudis, a restaurant owned by Bernard Ragueneau, who quickly became my mentor,” he recalls. After leaving school, he started working at the Copa, a club in the Laurentians. He then became a financial partner in and manager of Bourbon Street, an intimate 150-seat jazz club. Twenty years later, under his administration the bar had expanded to accommodate up to 5,000 patrons. The reputation of this Sainte-Adèle institution, known in particular for its very popular Monday night shows, crossed the border. Back then, the proximity of André Perry’s recording studio meant that one might see big stars like Annie Lennox, Keith Richards, Robert Charlebois, or Garou enjoying a drink. “The club became legendary,” recounts O’Donnell who, after several years, had become the sole owner of Bourbon Street.

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Maison 4110
On the 20th anniversary of Quintessence, Sean O’Donnell and Steve Courey, who are both friends and business partners, pose with their entire team in front of the hotel, which was designed by Patty Xenos.

Success breeds success, and in 1992 he was asked to start a business on the slopes of Mont Tremblant where Intrawest had just acquired land. He opened the site’s first commercial establishment, Le P’tit Caribou bar, in 1993. Working with partners, he followed this up with Resto-Bar Le Shack, La Forge Bistro-Bar & Grill, and several years later the five-star Hotel Quintessence down by the lake. The latter was a bold undertaking that required O’Donnell to show both diplomacy and perseverance whether he was dealing with municipal politicians or surrounding residents. He prevailed, and the 30-suite boutique hotel, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, has maintained its undeniable chemistry: an exceptional layout with every room facing the water, plus courteous, personalized service. Mont-Tremblant has slowly evolved over the years from a ski destination to a four-season resort, and O’Donnell had a lot to do with this transformation. “We had to offer year-round programming and a variety of activities. Many of the artists that I knew from Bourbon Street came to perform at Tremblant, and I worked with promoter Donald K. Donald, which helped attract visitors. In retrospect, my proudest achievement is the longevity of the businesses I established with my teams. Some 30 years after opening Le P’tit Caribou, we’re still contributing to Tremblant’s reputation and renown, both locally and internationally,” observes O’Donnell.

In 2010, already busy running his Mont-Tremblant businesses, O’Donnell was approached by Guy Laliberté to head Cirque du Soleil’s new hospitality division. “I had never worked for a large organization, but before I could go, I had to put the necessary tools in place to ensure the stability of my Tremblant operations.” Once this was done, he left the lake and joined Cirque du Soleil with the blessing of his business partners and his wife, Annie. “We had a lot of fun and collaborated on a number of projects. For example, we opened clubs in Las Vegas and Ibiza, designed the private island resort of Nukutepipi in French Polynesia, and developed a business relationship with Club Med to incorporate circus arts into the chain’s various establishments. It was a very exciting life and I learned a lot from it,” he notes. When Laliberté sold Cirque de Soleil in 2015, he asked O’Donnell to join Lune Rouge, his family office, as president of real estate and hospitality. “We had just acquired Maison Alcan, shortly before the sale of Cirque, with the idea of creating an eclectic ecosystem that would include students, large offices, and innovative companies. The concept was to provide a gathering place, an attraction in the heart of Montréal’s Golden Square Mile, where people could come for a meal or event, and where those who work there would feel at home.” After several years of major renovations to carry out this vision and comply with the seven-building complex’s heritage classification, Maison Alcan recently opened its doors to the public. Among its tenants are Zú, a nonprofit organization that supports and promotes entrepreneurs who are using technology to revolutionize the creative industries.

Sean O'Donnell and Herby Whyne
CV Concept
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Design Louis George
Tres Chic
IMG_2182 copie (Mixte Mag)
Maison Alcan

“I’m really proud of what we’ve done with Maison Alcan. We’ve maintained the original vision of making it an accessible place, open to all, while adding a contemporary twist,” says O’Donnell, who goes on to note that he did not accomplish this tour de force on his own. The support of the various teams and partners involved were what enabled him to deliver a high-quality destination to downtown Montréal.

With all these projects, it is hard to believe that this workaholic manages to find any hours, minutes, or seconds to relax! “I bike, do a lot of hiking in the mountains, and box at Hard Knox Gym with trainer Herby Whyne, a great guy who helps me improve. I box twice a week and think it’s one of the most rigorous and comprehensive forms of training available.” He also uses his free time to stay in touch with his friends, many of whom he has known for years. “I’ve always enjoyed having fun and sharing it with those close to me. I love organizing parties, trips, or just chances to hang out with friends,” explains O’Donnell. “The real challenge is finding a good balance between work, family, and friendships. I’m lucky; in addition to having two incredible children, Alison and Liam, many of my friends are also work partners, so we often combine business with pleasure.”

Whether it is work, relaxation, or leisure, friendships are the common thread connecting everything that O’Donnell undertakes. “They are essential—they motivate and inspire me. They’re what makes me want to get up in the morning and what sustains me.”

hotelquintessence.com and maisonalcan.com

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