Hospitality business hit hard by virus

Hotels empty as travellers staying home

Outside Red Deer’s hotels, parking lots sit empty as travellers stay home because of the COVID-19 virus.

What the long-term impact of the pandemic will mean to the tourism and hospitality industry is anyone’s guess right now.

It is clear though, recovery will be a long process.

Tourism Red Deer sent out a letter to hospitality and tourism players last week to update them on the organization’s efforts and to get a better sense of how the industry is doing.

“We have heard quite a bit of feedback saying, ‘yes, it’s tough,’” said Vicky Loughlin, Red Deer Tourism’s marketing and communications manager.

“They’re worried about basically the season after the next few months and what’s going to be happening, especially with weddings.

“We’re hearing a lot about brides panicking and wanting to postpone.”

Hotels have responded to the pandemic byboosting their cleaning efforts, but those measures are being undertaken for increasingly fewer guests.

“I’m under the impression now that they’re pretty much empty, because everyone is staying home,” said Loughlin.

Only half a dozen vehicles were in the parking lots of Cambridge Red Deer Hotel & Convention Centre on Gaetz Avenue and Radisson Hotel on 67th Street at noon Monday.

Baymont by Wyndham Red Deer also had fewer than a dozen vehicles parked outside and a notice at the front doors said a job fair planned for Monday was cancelled.

The Red Deer Advocate reached out to most of the city’s hotel chains, but got little response. Cambridge general manager Gil Valee referred calls to a special crisis team formed by the company to handle coronavirus-related inquiries.

The cancellation of almost all of Westerner Park’s upcoming events — some of which draw thousands of people — through April is being felt in the hotel and restaurant industry.

Some restaurants remain open and are following the province’s guidelines to reduce seating to create more social distancing.

“But a lot are choosing to close and offering delivery. The food services side has been trying to be creative in finding ways to deliver service and revenue.”

Creativity will be a key component of future efforts to rebuild the hospitality industry.

Tourism Red Deer is looking at ways to promote the area that is not focused on attracting new trade shows or other crowd-drawing events.

After weeks and months of social isolation and government warnings to avoid crowds, it is likely it will take some time before many people are once again comfortable in elbow-to-elbow settings.

Given that nearly half of visitors are here to visit family and friends, there is opportunity to build on that market.

“Our residents are typically playing host,” said Loughlin. Giving them ideas on ways to showcase the area could provide a lift to local businesses.

Tourism Red Deer is also working with the City of Red Deer on promoting the area.

“Our plans going forward are to focus at this time on culinary and food, outdoor recreation and the arts culture and heritage side of things.”

That will mean bringing together different businesses, individuals and groups in those areas in joint promotions. While social distancing restrictions are in place, efforts will not involve getting together to meet. That will come later.

“We’d like to open up that dialogue, whether it’s through a virtual meeting or an email thread, but just trying to pick those key players out of the community in each of those segments and look at developing those stories, products and packages going forward

“In such uncertain times, you want to plan. But at this point, we’re just trying to wrap our brains around our strategy and establishing our priorities for the next few weeks.”

The city is developing a business resource page to help local firms navigate COVID-19.

The federal and provincial governments have announced they will be helping businesses hurt by the pandemic. It is too early to say what sort of aid the hospitality industry may look for.

Right now, efforts are underway to get data on how the industry has been affected. The Alberta Hospitality and Lodging Association is asking its members for feedback and Economic Developers of Alberta is also doing research.

Alberta Hotel and Lodging Association president and CEO Dave Kaiser met with the provincial ministers of finance, and economic development, trade and tourism last week.

The association has asked that the deadline for payment of the tourism levy be extended to the end of September, with no penalty, and that the government suspend collecting GST and the federal carbon tax, and extend the deadline for filing and paying corporate individual income and municipal property taxes.

The association has also asked the government mark-up on liquor be reduced.

Additional funding for Travel Alberta when restrictions are lifted was another ask.

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