Road-trippers trigger uptick in downtown Ottawa hotel traffic

Downtown Hilton
Occupancy at the downtown Hilton Garden Inn and Homewood Suites is running at about 40 per cent right now, well below its typical summer numbers. File photo

The COVID-19 pandemic may have decimated his industry, but a new wave of leisure travellers drawn to Ottawa’s greenspace, outdoor patios and other attractions has hotelier Wayne Day seeing a few rays of hope on the horizon.

The new general manager of the Hilton Garden Inn and Homewood Suites took the reins of the downtown Ottawa lodgings back in May, when coronavirus fears and travel restrictions meant only a couple dozen of the properties’ combined 346 rooms were occupied, creating a gloomy outlook for the summer holiday season.

Almost three months later, the hotels are now running at about 40 per cent capacity ​– still well below the mark of 85 per cent in March and nowhere near the usual level of occupancy for peak summer holiday season, but still at least a bit of reason for optimism, Day says.

Business has been better than expected thanks to a few factors, he explains. 

The hotel managed to land a couple of corporate bookings that brought extended stays, including a group from Amazon that is doing training sessions at the e-commerce giant’s distribution centre on Boundary Road. 

In addition, Day says he’s seeing an uptick in car traffic from nearby centres such as Montreal, Toronto and Quebec City as stir-crazy urbanites look to escape their immediate surroundings for a few days after months in lockdown.

“I guess we’ve been pretty fortunate, actually,” says the hospitality industry veteran, who previously worked for the Casino du Lac Leamy before joining the Hilton as hotel manager two years ago. “We can’t really complain that much. A lot of people are in worse situations than us.”

The hotel recently launched a promotion with reduced rates on rooms, parking and breakfast that seems to be paying off, Day says. He says many guests are making snap decisions to hit the road, cutting the typical booking window from almost three weeks down to three days.

“It’s all last-minute (reservations),” he says.

More tourists are bringing their bikes to take advantage of the capital’s trails and explore the city while physically distancing, he adds, in addition to seeing its sights on foot.

“There’s so many places to walk around in the city,” he says. “You can still go to the ByWard Market, go to the patios.”

More hotels reopening

At the Chateau Laurier, which reopened on Canada Day after being closed since late March, the venerable lodging is also “seeing nice traction,” says director of public relations Deneen Perrin.

“We are starting to see the phones ringing,” she says. “Obviously, it’s not the usual summer traffic, but there is some pickup.”

Like Day, Perrin says a hefty chunk of the hotel’s customers are from Toronto, Montreal and other places within easy driving distance, and many of them are coming with their bicycles in tow.

“That seems to be a trend now,” she says, adding sales are being buoyed by a current promotion that’s offering guests one free night’s stay for every night they pay to stay in the hotel until the end of the year.

About two-thirds of the region’s hotels are now in operation, up from about 50 per cent at the height of the lockdown, says Ottawa Gatineau Hotel Association president Steve Ball. 

The capital’s overall average occupancy rate is “inching its way up slowly,” he adds, and now stands at about 20 per cent. While that’s more than double what it was in the spring, it’s still a long way from summer norms of about 80 per cent. 

Ball remains hopeful that Ottawa’s location in a geographic sweet spot between the country’s two largest urban areas and the capital’s array of natural attractions that allow for plenty of physical distancing will encourage residents in nearby cities to hop in their cars and pay Canada’s capital a visit.

“That’s why we believe short road trips … staying in a hotel and doing a patio or going to a museum or the national gallery is a desirable opportunity for people as an option to get a little travel in this summer,” he says.

Back at the Hilton, Day says he and his fellow hoteliers need to do whatever they can to boost business in a dry summer for tourism. He recently opened a 40-seat patio at the Queen Street property that’s now drawing thirsty customers from the surrounding neighbourhood as well as the hotel itself, and his employee headcount has bounced back from a low of 11 a few months ago to about 50 today.

“You have to almost reinvent yourself every week,” Day says.

Still, with the Canada-U.S. border closed to car traffic and 50-person limits on indoor gatherings scuttling virtually all meeting and convention business, Ball says many hotels can expect to struggle for some time to come.

“I just think it’ll be a fairly long, slow road ahead of us to recover to the numbers that we were at in 2019,” he says.