Owners of Ottawa convention centre, hotels offer properties for ad-hoc hospital, self-isolation amid COVID-19

Infinity Convention Centre laid off staff Monday while four of five hotels, under same ownership, continue to run
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The ballroom of the Infinity Convention Centre, as seen early this month during the Royal Ottawa Foundation's Inspiration Awards Gala, co-hosted by Ben Mulroney. Photo by Caroline Phillips
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In these crazy coronavirus times, when being a social wallflower is the only way to go, the Infinity Convention Centre has ceased to be the place of fancy parties and big-money fundraisers.

The popular and modern events facility, located on Gibford Drive, near the Ottawa airport, is closed for the time being. It made the tough decision to lay off 68 staff members this past Monday, including its general manager. “All we were getting were cancellations,” Lee Knowles, its vice-president of operations, explained in a phone interview. “Everybody, everybody’s gone. I’ve got one sales manager. That’s it.”

Her lone manager is handling communications with current and future clients for the eventual time when the contagious respiratory illness is gone and large groups of people feel safe enough to come together for celebratory occasions.

Rather than let the property sit vacant, the owners of the Infinity Convention Centre have let local officials know they're willing to have their opulent space be used as an ad-hoc hospital, on a cost-recovery basis, to help contain the COVID-19 spread. “I’m really proud of the ownership because it’s really a tough decision, to take your $20-million crystal palace and offer it up for emergency medical,” said Knowles. 

The Infinity Convention Centre (ICC) is owned by two prominent local Indo-Canadian families: the Sohals and the Aggarwals.

The families are also in the business of hotels — an industry that’s been devastated by the ripple effects of COVID-19. 

The owners are adapting to the challenging situation by working with the government of Nunavut. It's the only province or territory in Canada that, to date, has no reported cases of the coronavirus. And, it wants to keep it that way.

Starting today, some of the hotels owned by the Sohals and Aggarwals — including their extended-stay property — will serve as temporary homes for Nunavut residents in Ottawa wishing to head back north. The Nunavut government is insisting its returning residents undergo a 14-day isolation period before boarding a homeward-bound plane. The territory is covering all the hotel and meal costs during the isolation period. There will also be security guards present to make sure individuals comply with self-isolation rules.

Nunavut has made the same arrangements for returning residents leaving from Winnipeg, Edmonton and Yellowknife. It's banning entry of most non-residents.

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From left, business partners Anand Aggarwal, Sonny Sohal, TJ Sohal and Harry Sohal at the official ribbon-cutting ceremony in 2018 for their Homewood Suites by Hilton extended-stay hotel, located near the Ottawa airport. Photo by Caroline Phillips

The Sohals and Aggarwals own the Homewood Suites by Hilton, Hampton Inn by Hilton, Residence Inn by Marriott and Holiday Inn Express, all in the vicinity of the Ottawa airport. They own a second Holiday Inn Express further downtown, on King Edward Avenue.

On the same day that the Infinity Convention Centre laid off its staff, the owners made the decision to close the Holiday Inn Express on Hunt Club. They are currently keeping their remaining four hotels up and running.

The owners have also reached out to the City of Ottawa to offer their available hotel rooms as an option for health care professionals wishing to self-isolate, rather than return to their families and possibly spread the disease. Several hotels in Niagara have already started doing this.

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The Infinity Convention Centre during more celebratory times. Photo by Caroline Phillips

Activities of all kinds currently remain in a coronavirus-caused holding pattern. It's pure speculation, said Knowles, as to when people's lives will return to normal.

Looking down the road, the Infinity Convention Centre is trying to accommodate clients who want to rebook their events in several months’ time, said Knowles, while also recognizing that it’s hard to cram two seasons’ worth of parties into one.  

The annual Boys and Girls Club of Ottawa breakfast, originally set for early May, has been rescheduled to Tuesday, September 15th at the Infinity Convention Centre. The ICC is also a major sponsor. As well, the Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation’s annual Cancer Champions Breakfast has been moved from mid-May to Wednesday, September 16, at the Infinity Convention Centre.

“The fall market is always very busy, regardless,” said Knowles. “To take your busy spring market and try to plug it into a fall market — somethings just won’t be possible. However, if clients are flexible on their dates, it will work, because there are some evenings or days when we aren’t fully booked.

“We’re going to try and make everything happen, as much as possible.”

The Infinity Convention Centre will pull through, said Knowles, when asked about its future. “It’ll survive. I have no doubt.”

— caroline@obj.ca