Province gives $8M lift to Ottawa Tourism, Shaw Centre in bid to kickstart beleaguered industry

Nina Kressler
Nina Kressler is CEO of the Shaw Centre. File photo

The Ontario government is giving an $8-million funding boost to two of the capital’s highest-profile tourist organizations in a bid to help the pandemic-battered local industry get back on its feet.

Tourism Minister Lisa MacLeod announced Tuesday that Ottawa Tourism would receive $6 million to help create “niche tourism products and activities” and boost its marketing efforts. 

Meanwhile, the Shaw Centre, the city’s second-largest meeting and convention space, is getting $2 million in fresh funding to help “prevent insolvency” after pandemic-fuelled restrictions pulled the plug on what was expected to be a record number of gatherings at the downtown facility in the 2020-21 fiscal year.

“This is going to really enable us to be a bigger catalyst for that economic recovery for our industry and really for our community as well,” said Ottawa Tourism CEO Michael Crockatt, adding the agency has yet to nail down exactly where the additional money will be spent. 

“Whatever we were able to do in marketing, now we’re going to be able to do more of it.”

Crockatt said the extra cash comes none too soon for the organization, which is in charge of promoting the capital as a tourist destination. 

Ottawa Tourism has an annual budget of more than $20 million. About three-quarters of its funding comes from a four per cent municipal accommodation tax, with the remainder from city grants and private partners.

'A lot more stability'

The non-profit organization now has about 35 employees, down from more than 40 pre-COVID. Crockatt said he’s not sure if the funding would lead to new hirings, but he said it provides Ottawa Tourism “with a heck of a lot more stability than we’ve had in the last many, many months.”

The organization estimates that the pandemic is expected to cost the city as much as $2.8 billion in lost visitor spending by the end of 2021. Crockatt said that while the industry is starting to show signs of renewed life, cities such as Ottawa that rely heavily on convention and business traffic will take longer to bounce back than some other regions of the province.

“The recovery is starting for sure … but it’s not going to be an even recovery,” he said. “It’s not going to be even geographically, and it’s not going to be even in (all) parts of the sector.”

"It’s pretty easy math to show that you’re not going to be able to sustain yourself for a very long time."

Shaw Centre CEO Nina Kressler said the provincial cash gives the convention centre another lifeline after the pandemic wiped out virtually all of its income over the past 15 months. The facility also received nearly $4 million from the province in December to help see it through the winter.

The Shaw Centre posted a $1.3-million profit on more than $18 million in revenue in the 2019-20 fiscal year and had booked a “good surplus” for several years before that, she said, but it has little financial wiggle room left. The convention space was forced to cut 60 per cent of its management team and lay off 90 per cent of its unionized staff to stay afloat. 

“It’s pretty easy math to show that you’re not going to be able to sustain yourself for a very long time,” Kressler said.

While the record year the Shaw Centre was hoping for in 2020-21 never materialized, Kressler said the marketing team has managed to convince many groups that planned to cancel their events to reschedule them instead. 

“Our booking pace looks good,” she said, adding a couple of meetings and conventions are back on the docket for this fall.

“We suspect that there’s a lot of pent-up demand for people trying to get back together again. I think we’re going to see some good momentum coming back. The challenge in our business is the booking window can take years. I think the Canadian business is going to come back before the international.”