Local convention, hotel execs hope higher capacity limits trigger fall rebound for beleaguered industry

Nina Kressler
Nina Kressler is the president and CEO of the Shaw Centre. File photo

Like most of her colleagues in Ottawa’s hospitality sector, Nina Kressler could only sit back and watch as her hopes of a banner 2020 evaporated almost overnight when COVID-19 hit.

Heading into this year, the president and CEO of the Shaw Centre had more than 50 major events booked at the downtown convention facility, the most since the building opened a decade ago. But when the province ordered all meeting venues to shut down in March in an effort to combat the spread of the coronavirus, it suddenly appeared 2020 would be a lost year for the business.

Now, Kressler ​– like many local tourism executives who’ve watched their industry take a massive blow this spring and summer in the wake of the pandemic ​– is hoping the recent loosening of restrictions on the number of people allowed to congregate in meeting and convention spaces will help trigger a rebound this fall. 

When it gave meeting facilities the green light to reopen last month, the province capped the number of people allowed in each building at a total of 50. Last week, the government revised its rules, stipulating that as many as 50 people could gather in each separate meeting room within a facility.

“Allowing us to have multiple groups … is a really good news story for us,” Kressler said, adding her sales team has started getting “quite a few inquiries” from groups looking to book meeting space this fall. 

The longtime convention industry executive expects that once students are back in school, people will “start thinking about business” again.

Still, how far the changes will go toward spurring a recovery this fall is anyone’s guess.

“We were hitting such a great stride with Ottawa Tourism in positioning Ottawa as a great city for conventions,” Kressler said earlier this week. 

“We would have had record everything this year,” she added, noting the Shaw Centre was expecting to draw more than 63,000 out-of-town visitors and generate as much as $19 million in revenues in 2020. 

Brookstreet expects more weddings, social events

Nyle Kelly, the general manager of Kanata’s Brookstreet Hotel, also said the jury is still out on how much of a boost the higher capacity limits will give his resort, which has 30 meeting rooms covering more than 30,000 square feet.

“To only have 50 people in the facilities, it’s really not worth opening up,” he said. “I think it’s going to help a little bit. I guess the big question is, will people want to come into the buildings in groups?”

Like Kressler, Kelly believes the next few weeks will tell the tale.

“I think everybody’s got the big question mark of September and school starting, what’s going to happen then,” he said. “But we’ll have to wait and see.”

Corporate and social gatherings are big business at Brookstreet, the veteran hotel manager notes, with hall bookings and related spending on guest rooms, restaurants and other amenities making up between 30 and 40 per cent of the hotel’s annual revenues.

The Brookstreet has seen little of that usual income so far this year, Kelly said, but he predicts the phone will start ringing a bit more now that restrictions have been eased.

“I think you’ll see some businesses start to book meetings again,” he said, adding he expects reservations for weddings and other social events to begin trickling in as well.

But even with 50 people now allowed in each room, it’s still not enough to turn a profit, Kelly said. He’s hoping the province will soon raise the occupancy threshold to 250, as it is in Quebec.

“That’s when we can really start booking meaningful business again,” Kelly said, noting it will likely be a lot longer before even larger gatherings of several hundred people take place. “You won’t see a 500-person conference for 12 months, probably.”

The Shaw Centre’s Kressler said her sales staff have been working diligently to reschedule events that had originally been slated for 2020. The building already has about 30 conferences on the books for next year.

“We see 2021 as pretty strong,” Kressler said. “The team’s done a great job of moving those cancellations into postponements for the next year.”

Still, she concedes it will probably be at least another three or four years before the Shaw Centre can even approach the heights it had expected to reach in 2020 before the biggest health crisis in generations turned the business upside down. 

“I suspect the vaccine holds the key to that,” Kressler said. “We were (on pace for a record), and we hope to get back there again.”