Ottawa tourism groups are bracing for a difficult 2014 after seeing only slight growth in the number of visitors during the past year.
Paul Akehurst is the managing director of JPdL Ottawa.
“It looks like 2014 is going to be another challenging year, from what I’m hearing anecdotally from hoteliers across the city,” said Dick Brown, executive director of the Ottawa Gatineau Hotel Association.
The gloomy outlook for the new year follows less-than-encouraging numbers from a variety of metrics in 2013.
The Conference Board of Canada anticipated the growth in the number of visitors to the city would be a few percentage points lower in 2013 than in past years, while hotel occupancy only showed a modest increase.
The number of passengers to arrive at and depart from the Ottawa airport in 2013 was also expected to decrease by about two per cent from the year before.
Part of the issue, said Mr. Brown, is that the “convention cycle” appears to be a little soft for 2014. He said that’s because a lot of the pent-up demand for the Ottawa Convention Centre after it opened in 2011 has now been satisfied.
“There was such anticipation within the convention market for the opening of the centre and a proper meeting place in the capital … that 2011 and 2012 were very, very busy convention years for the city,” said Patrick Kelly, the president and CEO of the Ottawa Convention Centre.
“The heightened anticipation of the opening of the convention centre has, now that we’ve almost finished our third operating year, settled down somewhat.”
Mr. Kelly said that Ottawa is now competing directly with other major cities around the world to host these conventions.
That’s why the venue has now started targeting high-growth areas such as Chicago and Brussels for new clients, he said.
There were nevertheless others in the tourism industry that saw their fortunes turn around in 2013.
Event planner JPdL Ottawa saw its best year of business since the recession started in 2008.
Paul Akehurst, managing director of JPdL Ottawa and its sister company Intertask Conferences, said his business previously relied heavily on the federal government for much of its revenue.
That market has been steadily decreasing in recent years, which has forced the company to invest in new technologies such as registration systems and to diversify its client base so more of its clients are private enterprises.
“The way we do business pre-recession is different from how we do business now,” he said. “We just have to be that much more efficient.”
He declined to say exactly how much more JPdL Ottawa and Intertask brought in for 2013, other than to say it was a 30 per cent increase in revenues.
Despite the positive signs from the past year, however, Mr. Akehurst is also anticipating that business will flatline in 2014.
The less-than-optimistic outlook for the convention business comes despite the Conference Board of Canada’s prediction, in its year-end report, that domestic business travel to the region will increase 6.2 per cent this year after declining 4.3 per cent in 2013.
The anticipated down year when it comes to conventions has tourism officials reaching to control what they can on a short-term basis: the number of pleasure visitors in the city.
OGHA’s Mr. Brown pointed to earlier last year as an example.
The first quarter of 2013 was the worst that Mr. Brown said he has seen in the past decade. That forced Ottawa Tourism to tap into reserve funds for an ad blitz to attract visitors from the Quebec City to London corridor.
The spending from the new markets helped reverse hotel reservation decreases of 17 per cent in January, 11 per cent in February and nine per cent in March, according to Mr. Brown.
Ottawa Tourism is going to spend $12 million on advertising this year, he said, an increase from the $8 million it spent in 2013.
Sidebar: Tourism in 2013 by the numbers
Inbound and outbound passengers at the Ottawa Airport
January to November 2012: 4,307,260
January to November 2013: 4,193,925
(Source: Ottawa International Airport Authority)
January through December
2013: 48% 66% 61% 68% 78% 76% 72% 75% 74% 74% 68% (December figure not yet in)
2012: 58% 75% 67% 62% 78% 80% 68% 73% 76% 72% 68% 48% 69%
(Source: The Ottawa Gatineau Hotel Association)
OCC will run about 47 conventions in 2013-14, about the same as 2011-12. It’s 10 fewer than in 2012-13.
(Source: Patrick Kelly, Ottawa Convention Centre)