M Power Recap: In Conversation with Wendy Lisogar-Cocchia

Here's what you missed from Century Plaza Hotel and Absolute Spa CEO Wendy Lisogar-Cocchia at last week's M Power speaker event.

November 28, 2016

By Vancouver Magazine / Photo: Sheldon Cox

Wendy Lisogar-Cocchia joined Vancouver magazine editorial director Anicka Quin on stage at Brian Jessel BMW on November 15 as part of our M Power speaker series, sharing her experience as CEO of Century Plaza Hotel and Absolute Spa, and her work opening up the Pacific Autism Family Network.


Your father opened Century Plaza Hotel, which you are now the CEO of. Were you always involved in the business?

My father was there all the time, day and night. I loved him and wanted to see him so I tagged along as a kid, coloured in his office on his floor, and then on some posters for entertainment. Over the years I was fortunate to do every single job in the hotel. It was great preparation for when he had a stroke, and I was 22 years old and running the family hotel.

You launched your first business from that hotel with Absolute Spa. Your dad didn’t go the family route though—he played hardball.

It was very much to his chagrin that I was opening up my own business, but I had to have something that was my own. So it was 1997, and it was when spas were coming to the forefront of hotels, but only really fancy ones had them. In the ’80s, gyms were the thing for hotels, and I thought the spa might be it for the ’90s. It was 600 square feet, and he wouldn’t loan me the money. It took everything to get the bank to loan me a little…but I followed in his footsteps in a way. Because when he built the hotel, he told the bank it was an “apartment-hotel,” because the bank wouldn’t lend him money for just a hotel but they would for an apartment building. And then when they came to the opening they were saying, “Wait, why is there a concierge in the lobby?” So I kind of did the same thing to get the money I needed for the spa. I love negotiations to this day. It was a hard lesson, but the greatest lesson. 600 square feet with three employees has grown to Canada’s largest independent spa chain, with over 250 employees. I’m very proud of that.

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Last week, big news for you: you opened the Pacific Autisim Family Network in Richmond. It’s been eight years in the making, this 60,000 square foot facility specially designed to meet the needs of children, youths, families and adults with autisim spectrum disorder. Tell me what got you going on the journey to create this centre.

We have a son with autism. It’s difficult…and we’ve found it difficult to find resources and information. We couldn’t find a charity or centre…where do you phone? There isn’t a centralized hub. So my husband and myself put our minds to it and created a charity. Eight years later, this Good Life Fitness autism hub opens in Richmond. It’s a hub-and-spoke model, so you don’t actually have to go to the centre in Richmond: everything that happens there will be happening at the spokes throughout British Columbia, and connected with amazing Telus technology.

So what do you find in the centre?

We have an entrepreneurial innovation area which is also a retail gift store. Individuals with autism will be making things for sale. We’ve got a fantastic health unit, doing genetic research, and also a model for dentistry that features a desensitization chamber to get them in the room to open their mouths to start the dental work. Whether you’re getting diagnosed very young or as a senior, there’s services for you…it’s for the whole lifespan.

The incidence rate for autism is 1 in 42 boys, and 1 in 68 kids. Combine pediatric AIDs and depression and cancer and diabetes, all together the number aren’t equal to autism.

Eight years ago you went to the province, and got $20 million in match funding. What was the first meeting like?

They said to me, “You’re not going away, are you?”

The phrase “that will never happen” is something you’ve heard many times in your life.

It’s happened to me with every endeavour. It started with building the spa in the hotel. I wanted to build a beautiful three star hotel that movie stars would come to, no one thought it was possible. Then we ventured into our international spa product distribution company, where we actually sell to competitors—the industry said that would never happen. There’s a reason some things haven’t come to fruition already, like the charity…they’re hard to do. It takes a lot of door knocking, a lot of meetings, and a lot of patience.

What do you think worked for you? How did you make this happen?

It’s hard asking for help, money, to get your foot in the door. I had the fortune of spending time with Richard Branson [CEO of Virgin] when he was here. I was skirting around talking about my charity, and he leaned in close and said, “You want to ask me something, don’t you?” and I said, “Yes!”. He said, “You want to ask me for money for your charity, don’t you?” and I said, “Yes!” and he says, “Then you should ask,” with a big grin. So I did my pitch and asked…and he said “Absolutely not, I’m totally committed for the year, but I think what you’re doing is fantastic and don’t be afraid to ask.”

How did your perception of asking for help shift for you after you talked to him?

I learned that it’s not an ask, it’s a match. When you know people’s passions and involvement, and know how you’re going to make a difference, you’ve got to put yourself in other peoples shoes, what would they want to hear, what would they respond for. So most times, just telling the story is enough, you don’t actually have to do the ask. And sometimes it’s not a match and that’s okay.

I’ve heard you talk about making your workspace a space you love. Talk about the design of the autism centre and how that played out.

When you enter, there’s an immediate sense of calm. The colours are specifically chosen. Earthy green on the main floor, second floor is yellow, happy (for the health services), and the third floor is purple (it’s the collaboration space for autisim groups and charities). The BC Guide Dogs are part of what we’re doing, they actually train more autism support dogs now than seeing eye dogs and we’re excited about raising money for them. We had two dogs at the opening.

Back to hotel and spa, as far as the business itself, what are some of the things that have changed in how you run things?

Well, I married the night manager. [Laughs.] We changed the marketing of it and we changed with the times. What a good marketing manager was back then is nothing like the social media marketing manager we need nowadays. We turned it into a four star hotel with a lot of European tours, and really diversified the market.

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