I heard the term “the toybox of life” the other day when a sportscaster explained how he viewed his job. When asked what he thought about his job, he said it was his dream job and that he lived in the “toybox of life”. I must admit that writing this blog, helping to form a travel hacking community in Canada, and getting to enjoy Business and First Class travel using miles and points, sure feels like I live in “the toybox of life”. Today was no exception.
I was invited by Air Canada to the Exclusive Premiere of their new Signature Suite Lounge at the Vancouver International Airport (YVR). I was very grateful for the invite and through the experience, I finally got to meet Mark Nasr, the VP of Loyalty and eCommerce at Air Canada, which was quite a treat.
Pulling Out All The Stops
This was the first official Air Canada event that I had been invited to so I didn’t know what to expect other than a quick hour-long flight to Vancouver, courtesy of Air Canada. I was pleasantly surprised to be upgraded to Business Class at the gate in Calgary and on the way back from Vancouver. For those that know Altitude, the loyalty program of Air Canada, gate upgrades are a very rare occurrence so I can only assume that a request was made by the event organizers to make my travel as comfortable as possible, and for that, I am very grateful. Like I said … “toybox of life”.
When I arrived in Vancouver, I headed over to the meeting location and was greeted by some lovely Air Canada employees and then given my security pass and name tag.
Shortly after, we were led to the International Wing of the Vancouver airport and escorted to the Maple Leaf Lounge which is directly across from the international security gates. The Signature Suite Lounge is actually an exclusive lounge within the Maple Leaf Lounge (MLL) and is located upstairs from the main lounge.
Prior to the Signature Suite Lounge being developed and opened, the Maple Leaf Lounge spanned two levels with the main features of the lounge being on the ground floor. The upper floor was mainly additional seating.
As someone that has been privy to the development of WestJet’s upcoming Flagship Lounge in Calgary, I can tell you for a fact that finding space for a lounge is incredibly difficult and dealing with airport authorities to obtain space can be a long and arduous journey. It makes perfect sense for Air Canada to use the existing space of the Maple Leaf Lounge to carve out space for their new Signature Suite Lounge.
When you first make your way upstairs, you start to realize that Air Canada has really upped its game and is really doing a lot more to attract the coveted International Business Class customer. The economics around winning the business and loyalty of these customers can be very lucrative but the market is quite competitive given that so many world-class airlines fly out of YVR, specifically to Asia.
YVR is very well known for having excellent lounge facilities throughout the airport and I have had the pleasure of experiencing every one of the 11 lounges at YVR except for the British Airways Galleries Club Lounge in the International Terminal. I would say that the title for “Best Lounge in YVR” is a neck-in-neck race between the new Air Canada Signature Suite Lounge and the Cathay Pacific First and Business Class Lounge.
Both the Cathay Lounge and the AC Signature Suite Lounge have invested heavily in lounges with a focus on food and drink. Cathay’s lounge has an all-Asian themed menu whereas the AC Signature Suite Lounge is a bit more diverse but most definitely caters to the Asian clientele given that the vast majority of international flights out of YVR are bound to Asia.
The decor is tasteful, elegant, and bright with nices view of the tarmac. It was very hard to get a sense of how relaxing this lounge would be prior to a flight due to the crowd of people exploring the lounge prior to launch. Given its exclusivity, I can’t imagine it’s going to be too busy before your departure. I’ll speak more about the exclusivity of this lounge in another section below.
The Signature Suite Lounge features a menu that has been penned by celebrated Canadian chef, David Hawksworth, whose restaurant, Hawksworth, has won Vancouver Magazine’s Best Upscale Restaurant in Vancouver five times. You have most likely seen him featured in airline magazines and Top 10 lists of places to eat in Vancouver.
The lounge features both a buffet-style offering as well as an à la carte menu with full service.
The buffet featured a fairly wide range of foods with some delicious pork belly baos as the main feature of the menu. The quintessential Canadian dish that was represented on the buffet was the Montreal Smoked Meat on a Brioche Bun. I was told by the chef that the menu changes seasonally, about 4x a year so it will be interesting to see if the menu ever becomes too predictable, but honestly, with the quality of the food as high as it is, I can’t imagine it ever getting boring.
The a la carte menu features the following items (with descriptions):
Assortment of Dim Sum (Har Gow and Sui Mai)
Wild and Cultivated Mushroom Risotto, Parmesan, Chives
Winter Greens, Beets, Blue Cheese, Craisins, Red Wine Vinaigrette, Pecan
Hamachi Sashimi, Lemongrass and Kaffir Sorbet, Radish, Puffed Rice
Pan-seared Foie Gras, Grape Gastrique, Brioche, Candied Walnut, Frisee
Roasted AAA Beef Tenderloin, Spinach, Chimichurri, Pomme Puree
English Pea Falafel, Zucchini, Pistachio Salsa Verde, Cherry Tomato
Wild Spring Salmon, Lemon Emulsion, Leeks, Herb Crust
Tuscan Bread, Stuffed Chicken Roulade, Turnip, Carrot and Brown Butter Puree, Shallot, Hazelnut
Unfortunately, the full à la carte was not available as part of the preview, however, samples of bites from the menu were provided and they were straight-up delicious. From left to right, we were provided the Mushroom Risotto, English Pea Falafel, Hamachi Sashimi, and the Beef Tenderloin (but in the tartare form). The flavors were well balanced and bright. I especially liked the beef’s profile.
In speaking to the chef, I was told that like the buffet offerings, the menu will change seasonally about 4x per year.
I’ve never eaten at Hawksworth but after tasting these dishes, it’s definitely on my to-do list the next time I spend more than 4 hours in Vancouver.
As you know, I’m not much of a drinker so the finer things, as far as alcohol goes, tends to be lost on me, but I can tell you that the Signature Suite Lounge features top-shelf alcohol, including Moët & Chandon Imperial and Brut Rosé champagnes. I tried the Imperial and it was fantastic.
The great thing about the Signature Suite Lounge is that it features a legitimate bartender that knows how to make a proper drink. Later in the evening, I went with an Old Fashioned and it was fascinating watching it being made. It took a few minutes to make but you could tell that the gentleman making the drink took great pride in his craft.
Access to the Air Canada Signature Suite Lounge is exclusive to paid International Business Class passengers on AC marketed and operated flights only. This is obviously a bit of a bummer to those that read this blog and are likely redeeming for Business Class, either on Air Canada or a Star Alliance partner. Unfortunately, you will not be able to get in on an award ticket. The exact terms are below:
*Air Canada Signature Class customers departing from or connecting via Vancouver International Airport (travelling to Australia, Asia and Europe only) on an Air Canada flight with ticket originally booked and ticketed in J, C, D, Z or P will be eligible for access to the Air Canada Signature Suite in Vancouver. Bookings with upgraded tickets (including, but not limited to, eUpgrades, Last-Minute Upgrades, AC Bid Upgrades) and redemption tickets (including, but not limited to, Aeroplan® Fixed Mileage Flight Rewards®, Star Alliance® Flight Rewards, Star Alliance Upgrade Awards) will be excluded. Eligible customers will not be allowed guests. Employee tickets are prohibited access.
The reason for this exclusivity is due to the space constraints of these Signature Suites Lounges. Apparently, even with the requirement of a paid business class ticket, the Signature Suite Lounge in Toronto (YYZ) is almost always full. To avoid turning away guests that have paid for and are expecting an exclusive experience, restrictions must be put in place. While this is not ideal for folks that are into the Travel Hacking hobby, it’s completely understandable. Based on the space constraints of the lounge, I do not foresee a time where these restrictions will be relaxed.
In addition to the exclusivity of the lounge, within the lounge, there is a private dining room reserved for VIP members of Air Canada. This is the status that is above Super Elite and by invite only. I asked one of the Air Canada employees about the spend required in order to access the VIP tier and he said that there are no written rules as to who can qualify but that it is by invite only and the person that makes the call as to who is invited is the CEO of Air Canada, Calin Rovinescu.
I’m still waiting for my call.
There’s only one big glaring miss when it comes to the Signature Suite Lounge at YVR, and that’s the lack of showers for the lounge. I’m unsure why they went with this choice but my guess is that it had to do with plumbing constraints of the upstairs area. With this, Signature Suite guests have to share the shower facilities of the larger Maple Leaf Lounge downstairs. While not a deal-breaker, it’s not ideal.
The bathrooms on the floor are very large and are private, meaning you lock the main door and have the room to yourself, which is nice if you want to change.
The bathrooms feature soaps and creams from Molton Brown, a luxury brand based out of London, UK.
As I mentioned, Air Canada pulled out all the stops and even provided a nice gift bag to return home with.
The main gift is a pair of Air Canada glasses (the same ones they use onboard in on their Business Class products), as well as a drink shaker and two metal balls, which I can only assume, are there to replace ice cubes. Additionally, they also provided a certificate for David Hawksworth’s upcoming cookbook, handcrafted granola from Hawksworth Restaurant, and toiletries from Molton Brown. Very generous indeed.
Official Description from Air Canada
Air Canada has provided an official description of the new Signature Suite Lounge below:
Air Canada unveiled its second Air Canada Signature Suite for its eligible Signature Class customers travelling to intercontinental destinations from Vancouver International Airport (YVR). The airline’s second exclusive airport retreat continues to enhance its award-winning premium offering with another space where eligible customers can relax before their flight from YVR. It features à la carte dining at a complimentary, full-service restaurant from a menu created by acclaimed Vancouver-Chef David Hawksworth.
The Air Canada Signature Suite officially opens March 14, 2020 and is accessible and fully complementary to Signature Class customers, excluding upgrades and point redemption programs. The 4,400-square-foot (408 square metres) suite, conveniently located in Air Canada’s international departure area at YVR above the International Maple Leaf Lounge, can accommodate seating for up to 105 premium customers. It hosts a full-service restaurant offering à la carte dining from a Hawksworth-designed menu. The suite also features a cocktail lounge space with full-service bar and a selection of specialty snacks, a quiet sitting area and concierge service.
Other notable features of the Air Canada Signature Suite at YVR include:
- High-quality spirits supplied by the airline’s partner Diageo, Moët & Chandon Champagne (both brut and rosé available) and Signature cocktails;
- Works of art drawing inspiration from and celebrating the Pacific Coast landscape and waterways include pieces such as Shape Agenda by Vancouver sculptor Jordy Buckles, and photographic work of Montrealer Nicolas Ruel, Victoria Peak.
- Cloudscape chandelier by acclaimed Toronto design firm Moss & Lam;
- Luxury skincare products from Molton Brown.
The interior design is a defining element of the experience
Designers Heekyung Duquette and Eric Majer have created an intimate sequence of spaces. Features of the design offer a retreat from conventional airport frenzy, providing customers with a serene, luxurious atmosphere:
- Arrival is marked by smoked glass walls containing bronze mesh sculptural screens. Customers are greeted by concierges stationed at bronze podiums fronting a luggage checkroom, allowing visitors to explore the space unencumbered.
- Ascending stairs up to the main space brings visitors into abounding natural light and impressive panoramic views of layered feature spaces: bistro, bar, and dining area.
- Locally-produced bronze wall panels exude warmth and luxury, leading to the à la carte dining area and private dining room.
- Telupana Blue stone – quarried on Vancouver Island – delineates and enlivens the bar.
- Sumptuous custom hand-made wool carpet emulates the grey-blue hues of ocean vistas.
- Nature makes its way into the à la carte dining room with a burst of forest flora contained within sculptural vessels that evoke the undulating inlets of the BC coast.
- The dining scene comes alive with glowing cube lamps reflected in glassware, and the expansive view of the tarmac beyond.
- Within this space is a bronze-clad private dining room for a more exclusive dining experience.
- Its smoked glass doors are overlain with a filigree pattern of maple leaves in the wind, another reference to Air Canada imagery.
- Throughout the Signature Suite, a heightened sense of quality is conveyed through the display of noble materials, the intricacy of its details and craftsmanship, as well as proudly showcasing Canadian craftsmanship, furnishings and art.
If you are interested in seeing what is inside the Air Canada Signature Suite Lounge, a virtual tour has been set up to allow you to experience it for yourself. You can find the tour at https://my.matterport.com/show/?m=yATjJVjqx8y.
I have to say that I am very impressed with the caliber of this lounge. With its exclusivity providing a sanctuary from the hustle and bustle of Vancouver International, Air Canada has done a superb job at providing the level of luxury that few get to experience. The food in the lounge is on point and a step-change better than what you find at the Maple Leaf Lounge, but I suppose that is to be expected given the pedigree of David Hawksworth.
I’m actually on the lookout for Business Class sale fares from Vancouver thanks to this lounge. Hopefully, I can visit as a paid customer in the near future.
If you end up visiting this lounge, please let me know your thoughts in the comment section below.