Coping with COVID-19: Ottawa hotel industry hit hard with layoffs and closures

In order to keep Ottawa business leaders informed on best practices amid the COVID-19 pandemic, OBJ publisher Michael Curran is conducting a series of video panel discussions over the coming weeks with local business experts. Watch the full series here.

In the latest Coping with COVID-19 video, OBJ looks at the devastating impact of the pandemic on the regional hotel industry.

The panel discussion included Michael Crockatt, CEO of Ottawa Tourism, Steve Ball, president of the Ottawa Gatineau Hotel Association, and Colin Morrison, general manager of the Embassy Hotel and Suites. Morrison is also the chair of the OGHA.

This is a short edited version of the panel discussion. For the full discussion, please watch the related video.

OBJ: Michael, let’s start with you. Give our audience an overall sense of the size of the tourism industry and also the sudden impact from the pandemic.

CROCKATT: Tourism is one of those industries that sometimes flies under the radar in terms of awareness. It’s huge. It’s one of the largest private-sector employers in the city. There were 43,000 of our friends, neighbours and relatives working in tourism prior to COVID-19. There are not many industries that come close to that. The total annual economic impact in our region is estimated at $2.2 billion … Over the last couple of weeks, the industry has been absolutely devastated, going from 11 million annual visitors to (visitors) not being about to access the city. So the demand has really shrunk, and it’s putting a lot of businesses, particularly small businesses, in jeopardy … We are estimating the total economic impact on local tourism could be a billion dollars this year.

OBJ: Colin, I’d like to better understand how this is affecting Embassy Hotel and Suites to give people a real-world example of how an independent hotel is dealing with this.

MORRISON: Well, we have been through hell and back. So our business has declined by 90 to 95 per cent. Basically, we’ve had to lay off 80 per cent of our staff. The salaried managers have also taken a hit in their income as well. Look at me – I’m sitting here in an empty restaurant, but we are still here to serve customers. We are part of the front line dealing with people who still need a place to stay.

OBJ: Steve, is there anything that can be done in the short to medium term to save this industry?

BALL: There are three things that we’re lobbying for fairly aggressively right now. We need some instant liquidity to keep cash flow. We need to address the employee relationships to ensure that, when the crisis is over, the industry still has an employee base. And we also need some investment in marketing strategies so that we can hit the ground running when COVID-19 passes … There are some things that can be done right away. For example, I was particularly impressed with the Quebec government’s announcement on Friday. One of their strategies is to consider using hotels as a place to house current hospital patients who are non-critical and non-COVID-related. This would free up space in hospitals to accommodate the expected inflow of COVID-19 cases.