Tourism's curse: First hit, last to recover

Ottawa tourism
Ottawa's tourism market will be slow to recover.

First hit and last to recover.

That’s the diagnosis for Ottawa’s tourism industry from Jantine Van Kregten, the director of communications of Ottawa Tourism.

What should be the busiest time of year for the city’s operations - September and October - is instead ghostly quiet. The typical conventions, meetings and tours from other countries were cancelled, leaving hotels emptier than they’d like.

“When somebody books a conference for 500 people, that fills up a lot of space,” she said.

Larger conferences and events are booked a year or two in advance, so hotels and conference centres are already looking ahead to 2023 and 2024.  That includes the Shaw Centre - which is open for business and just won the 2020 award for the world’s best convention centre.

Ottawa Tourism came up with several programs to attract people to the National Capital Region. 

The ‘Together Again’ program offered discounts and incentives for future meetings of 10 or more people, while another program offered those who booked two nights at hotels between July 5 and October 9 with $200  to spend at restaurants, tours, and attractions

Steve Ball, president of the Ottawa Gatineau Hotel Association, said the hotel industry is still suffering despite a brief surge on Canada Day weekend when hotels saw a “healthy” amount of traffic from Toronto and Montreal. 

But Ball said in the last few months overall bookings have been spotty, and for the most part people are only booking on weekends. 

Ball said hotels are facing difficulties re-hiring staff, as many have either moved on to other industries or are still taking advantage of government support programs.

Ball said Ottawa hotels don’t expect to see regular booking numbers until 2023. “When it comes to the hotel business meetings and conventions, it takes a lot of planning, prep time, and lead time to host a meeting. So it's not like a light switch. It's not going to come back overnight,” he said.

Ball said Ottawa hotels depend on business travel, group meetings, and conventions for revenue, “and because there's very little of that on the books, we've got great hopes that leisure will carry us through the fall.”

There are subtle signs that some business meetings are returning. This fall, Tourism Industry Association of Canada (TIAC) will be holding a meeting at the Westin hotel, while the Tourism Industry Association of Ontario will be at the Brookestreet hotel.

Beth Potter, president and CEO of TIAC, said people are “excited about the ability to come together and network with their colleagues from across the industry and across the country. We’re really looking forward to getting back to a semblance of normalcy.”

Potter said the seasonal nature of the tourism industry puts them at a disadvantage. A full day of business in July can equal a week’s worth business in February.

“Their revenue models just aren't there yet and they're not going to be able to be back at normal operating capacity until at least next summer,” she said.

Potter said TIAC will be asking the federal government to either extend the wage and rent subsidy at the original levels of 75 per cent for businesses in the tourism industry or to work with the industry to develop something new and specific for the sector. 

The CFIB is also calling on the federal government to extend the supports.

“We have to ensure that we don't lose all these businesses that have been supported for this long, right at the time when they can see the light at the end of the tunnel. We just need to get them through to the other side of the tunnel,” Potter said.