Lori Armstrong left Canada over a decade ago with no set plan. She has earned her way up to director at one of the most distinguished hotels in the world.Speak French with thirty-something Lori Armstrong and you’d swear that you’re talking to a woman born and bred in France. Her command of the language is flawless, her accent untraceable, and her yet she really only fully immersed herself in French over the past decade. Although born in Montreal, English is her mother tongue and she grew up in an Ontario suburb, opting to study English Lit at one of Canada’s top ten universities, Western. So how did she end up in Nice, and as Sales Director of Le Negresco, no less?
“My fiancé at the time,” she tells me over coffee at La Rotonde, as the carrousel of painted horses rise to the occasion of announcing the hour, “was going to research his doctorate at Marburg in Germany. So I decided to move to Strasbourg, which was close to him, and where I could learn French. As luck would have it, I’d enrolled in a French class at Western before coming to France, and one day ran in to my teacher outside of class. She asked my reasons for taking the course, and then told me that she lived in Nice, and that I should abandon my Strasbourg plan and come stay with her. And so I did, and she is now my daughter’s godmother.”
One thing leads to another
Lori had no real course of action other than to move to France and waitress while learning French. Within a few days of arrival, she distributed CVs to restaurants along Felix Faure and had a call within hours from l’Horloge of the Aston Hotel. Quite a challenge, as her French wasn’t up to snuff at the time. “I remember just moving here and a young girl asked me ‘Vous avez l’heure?’ and I had no idea what she was saying because I learned the question as ‘Quelle heure est-il?’ In the beginning I never heard words individually, just a slur of sounds.”
After only a year, and a break up with the fiancé, Lori’s waitressing turned into a sales job with the Aston Hotel. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do, so when regulars came in to the restaurant, and they looked happy, I’d ask what was their job. One day one of the clients told me she was in sales and painted it to be the most glamorous job in the world. A week later, she offered me a job with the hotel, and the company even paid to apply on my behalf for a work visa, unheard of in France as it’s incredibly expensive, not to mention painfully administrative. I stayed on for four years, working my way up to international sales manager and then in 2006, I became deputy director of sales with a hotel they’d purchased in Paris.”
Lori left the Aston Hotel group but stayed in Paris for two and a half years before buying a ticket to come back to Nice, with no job. Coincidentally, she received a call from a head-hunter – “I must have signed up with them online years before that but had never heard a word” – who propositioned her with a sales job with Le Negresco … in Nice. “To be honest, I was more interested in the job part than the Negresco aspect. I did some research on the hotel and saw that at the time, this was August 2008, the hotel had a waning reputation.”
Not just a job but in many ways a family
“As you can see, though, I took the job and I love it. It’s stimulating and there’s never a moment to sit back and ask ‘What to do now?’ Every day starts with a morning meeting, reviewing arrivals and then I debrief my team. From there, it varies. For example, today I assisted a Japanese team scouting the premises for a program they’re shooting here next week.”
Lori’s passion about the hotel’s uniqueness is apparent. “The Negresco is the only one of its kind. Le Chantecler, which just received a second Michelin star, the only restaurant ranked so in Nice, is fur- nished with panelling from a 17th century chateau. Here in La Rotonde, we are sitting in a carousel, and then there are the 1600 original works of art through- out the hotel. Madame Augier, the hotel’s owner, seemed to have different phases in her life which reflects in her taste in art. There are masterpieces here but also less known artists for whose work she just appreciated.”
The legendary Madame Augier, age 89, lives on the top floor of the hotel. Her family bought the hotel in 1957 because it had an elevator, which could accommodate her mother who was in a wheelchair. This was their home. And she treats guests as company. Recently a hotel guest didn’t appreciate cats, and it’s common knowledge that Carmen, Madame Augier’s ten-year-old cat, has free reign of the hotel. “If a guest does not like the company of cats, they can find another hotel,” was the owner’s reply.
Lori joined the Negresco at an interesting time. There was the €12 million renovation completed in 2010, room rates were revamped on a more attractive scale, and Pierre Bord became the new general manager in 2011, turning that stuffy “waning” reputation into a fresher but still extravagant hotel with occupancy rates not seen since for decades. Americans, incidentally, make up the hotel’s largest visitors market, followed by Russians and then French, with an average stay of 2.5 days.
“I don’t consider myself French,” she answers my question pensively, “even though I have a French partner and our daughter was born here. Maybe if I lived in Canada I would, but in France I always know there’s something different about me.”
Does Lori ever think of moving back to Canada? “I don’t think so. I’m so comfortable with myself here and the quality of life on the Riviera is amazing. Actually my partner and I visited Canada last winter. He’s also in the hotel industry and was convinced the porters and doormen were going to die from the cold.