Casa Loma CEO Eva Pyatt chalks up the Toronto landmark’s dramatically rising fortunes to the simplest of changes: fresh eyes.
The castle on the hill had been losing money under the strains of a complex relationship between the city, which owns the castle, and the Kiwanis Club, which had managed it since 1937. When city council established the Casa Loma Corp. as a temporary caretaker in 2011, “everything was on the table,” Pyatt said in an interview.
“Everything” included selling Casa Loma entirely, but the corporation’s five-member board, all senior city staff, was also “free to just focus on running the business,” she said.
The city terminated its agreement with the Kiwanis Club. Pyatt, a City of Toronto employee, was appointed as interim CEO. The board was charged with managing the castle’s day-to-day operations while deciding what the future will entail.
One of Pyatt’s “fresh eyes” was current chief financial officer Kelly Ng.
“Coming from outside, I was able to see how things have been done for the longest time, and basically ask, ‘Why is it being done that way?’” he says.
Last year the board decided to solicit third-party management proposals from the private sector for operation of the castle’s grounds, and from the applications received, five qualified to proceed to the next stage.
“We’re currently reviewing the submissions,” Pyatt said. “Then we’ll go back to council in the fall with a recommendation from the board.”
Pyatt is setting a high precedent for the next CEO to follow: Casa Loma posted an operating surplus of $731,000 in 2011, $507,000 of which was generated by the corporation after the city took control. That surplus grew to $1.5 million in 2012.
Councillor Joe Mihevc, who for years has served as the castle’s unofficial spokesperson, says Casa Loma has always been “a very positive tourist attraction” but capitalizing on the event business is where “they’ve historically been weak.”
The new management, he said, is “really tapping into that market wonderfully.”
According to its 2012 annual report, the castle was host to 25,812 visitors at business meetings, social events and weddings last year, and wedding photography permits rose by 17.5 percent over 2011. It also was the site of 91 weddings in 2012.
Ng says the castle’s previous management “was not keen on running events during daytime operating hours.” He also remembers learning that, in the past, the castle’s part-time workers were never cross-trained to perform more than one role.
“We would have, say, six part-timers scheduled to work because three of them only knew how to be guides, and three of them only knew how to work the box office,” he says. “Now, rather than having a staff of six at any one time, we only need a staff of, say, four.”
And Pyatt has no compunction against being host to events such as wedding photography shoots during the castle’s visiting hours.
“You can always find a bride or two wandering the halls,” she quips.
Paul Iorfida, the castle’s facilities manager, has been working there since 1995, and seen first hand the difference his new managers’ priorities have made.
“I work at a castle. This it is probably one of the best offices in the city,” he says. But “when business wasn’t good… repairs got backlogged, and everything started to look stale.”
According to its 2012 annual report, Casa Loma set aside a total of $1.075 million for a capital restoration fund in 2011 and 2012.
“A building looks only as good as its upkeep,” Iorfida says. “With the changeover, we’ve had more opportunities to spend money on improving the castle’s interior.”
Customer service has improved too, according to Melissa Cadman, who joined Casa Loma as a guide three years ago.
“We make sure that each person who walks in gets our undivided attention,” she says. “When groups come we have audio guides brought to the front door instead of having them find their way to the gift shop.”
In addition to tourism, the corporation has increased the number of in-house events at the castle, creating partnerships with theatre companies Brant Theatre Workshops and the Classical Theatre Project, offering archery classes and even running its own music festival, called Mostly Unplugged.
Mihevc calls the revival “only the beginning of what is possible” in terms of Casa Loma being a destination not only for tourists but for evening and weekend outings for Torontonians too.
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