Frozen out: Tourism businesses lament shift to virtual Winterlude

Winterlude canal pic
Winterlude normally attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors to downtown Ottawa in February. Adobe stock image

Pandemic-battered Ottawa tourism businesses say the cancellation of all in-person events at Winterlude is yet another blow to the industry as it tries to recover from the catastrophic effects of COVID-19. 

The Department of Canadian Heritage, which runs the popular winter festival, said Friday it is shifting all programming online due to the ongoing pandemic. This year’s virtual events are slated to take place from Feb. 5-21.

In a statement, Canadian Heritage officials said they are looking at “innovative ways” to allow festival-goers “to express their love of winter in a virtual environment.” The department said more details would be announced in the next couple of weeks.

The news that winter aficionados would still get to celebrate online was cold comfort to a leading tourism industry executive.

“It’s disappointing that outdoor activities, which we were allowed to do through the spring and summer months, seem in the winter months to be a target of (restrictions),” Steve Ball, the president of the Ottawa Gatineau Hotel Association, told OBJ on Monday.

'Dismal' occupancy rates

“If there's any disappointment, it’s (that) after 10 or 11 months of this thing, public health doesn’t have a better sense of where the problem areas are.”

Winterlude, which has been staged since 1979, draws an estimated 600,000 visitors annually. The festival normally provides a major boost to Ottawa’s hotel industry during its slowest time of year. 

Ball said local hoteliers were already seeing “dismal” occupancy rates of around 20 per cent leading up to Christmas, even before new provincial restrictions aimed at reining in the spread of COVID-19 were imposed on Dec. 26. 

Since then, he says, occupancy numbers have dropped to single digits, with few prospects of a rebound on the horizon.

Fading hopes

“There isn’t even hope for weekend traffic,” Ball said. “We’ve got 10,000 rooms that need to be utilized to make the infrastructure work.”

BeaverTails founder Grant Hooker said Winterlude typically attracts throngs of revellers to the ByWard Market, Rideau Canal, Confederation Square and other venues in the downtown core during a “dead time of the year” for his business.

While just two outlets in the region hawk the sweet treats year-round ​– at Tanger Outlets and the Market ​– BeaverTails normally operates nine kiosks during Winterlude, including four on the canal.

"Winterlude really brought Ottawa to life. That asset to business is going to be lost this year."

“Winterlude really brought Ottawa to life,” he said. “That asset to business is going to be lost this year.”

Hooker said he’s still planning to set up stands on the canal once the skateway is cleared for use. Although his sales are down more than 60 per cent since the beginning of the pandemic, the longtime entrepreneur says he remains optimistic that his business and others will bounce back in a big way once vaccines are rolled out to the general public.

“As a society, we will always rebuild our economy,” Hooker said. “People love to get outdoors and gather with throngs of other people. Live special events are going to return. It’s almost innate that we gather and hoot it up.”

Ball agrees the vaccine will eventually provide a proverbial shot in the arm to his beleaguered industry. But until then, he said, his members are doing whatever they can to hang on.

“There’s a path forward,” he said. “We just have to hunker down and try to mitigate as many financial risks as possible.”