‘Bleisure’? ‘Lizness’? Business travel still not what it used to be in Eastern Ontario

business travel

While an expected rebound in business travel didn’t materialize this year, some communities in Eastern Ontario still see it as a growth area.

Forecasts by Twenty31 Consulting, a management strategy and research firm that works with tourism organizations in Eastern Ontario, estimated last fall that there would be an increase in business travel by 36 per cent in 2023, spurred on, in part, by a new kind of get-together: team-building for remote teams.

The company predicted a rise in “bleisure” and “lizness” trips — in other words, more trips combining work and leisure, where travellers favour accommodations with free wifi, desks and other workplace comforts.

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However, between rising interest rates and high inflation, along with the resulting decrease in consumer spending and confidence, the predicted tourism rebound is behind schedule. In fact, conventions, conferences, retreats and team-building exercises have been stagnant or declining.

“Our report was optimistic and bullish and we haven’t seen (those outcomes) so far,” said Oliver Martin, partner with Twenty31. “That said, non-discretionary business travel — the kind that is needed for sales, revenue and maintaining client relationships — is still healthy in a downturn economy. The business travel period is really September to May, so we will need to see what happens in the fall and whether there’s a resurgence in small and medium-sized travel. Time will tell.”

Despite the recent challenges, tourism organizations and businesses in Eastern Ontario are preparing to host major business events once things rebound.

In May, Kingston city council approved a Tourism Kingston request for information (RFI) aimed at attracting a partner to construct a downtown conference centre paired with an upscale hotel, a learning space for St. Lawrence College students, and a residential condo development. The results of the RFI will come back to council in early winter.

If the RFI identifies a viable project partner, it will be at least two years before the centre opens its doors. In the meantime, it’s the job of people like Ted Robinson, Tourism Kingston’s business events specialist, to increase the number of conferences, retreats and similar events hosted in the city — and not just regional and provincial events, but also national and international opportunities such as the recent Canada Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce Summit. The 2023 edition of the summit marked the first time the event was held outside Toronto.

Attracting more of these opportunities means building the conference centre, resuming regular air service between the local airport and major cities, and a full VIA rail service schedule, Robinson said.

“If you look at our competitors, we definitely come out on top as far as our overall infrastructure is concerned, between hotels, attractions and activities, as everything is within walking distance of the major hotels downtown,” he said. “The venue still matters, but what you do outside the venue — restaurants, music and experiences — is becoming a much more important piece of conference planning.

“We think that if we can get these last pieces of the puzzle in place like air service, that’s going to create a huge advantage for us.”

This fall, a west-end Kingston hotel and conference centre that began renovations during the pandemic should re-open, adding further capacity.

Projections by HLT Advisory show that Kingston’s downtown conference centre would attract approximately 273 events and 41,650 delegates per year, ranging from large conventions with thousands of visitors, to banquets of around 165 people. One significant driver of traffic is expected to be Queen’s University and the many professional associations that count Queen’s professors as members.

But Kingston isn’t the only Eastern Ontario market eyeing an increase in business travellers.

For years, Cornwall’s DEV Hotel and Conference Centre, formerly the NAV Centre, was a popular site for conference planners. However, during the pandemic, the centre secured a contract with the federal government to house asylum-seekers.

With that space largely off the market, business travel in Cornwall has not fully recovered.

However, according to local officials, the DEV Centre has expansion plans underway and there are new hotels in the works. Groups from Ottawa and southern Quebec continue to make the trip to Cornwall for training and conferences.

“I think, to a large extent, they’re picking Cornwall because of the experience,” said Bob Peters with Cornwall Economic Development. “We have phenomenal restaurants and a great downtown for shopping and browsing. Most of our conference facilities are within a short stroll of the Riverside Trail, so (attendees) have an ability to enjoy kilometres of waterfront parkland without ever running into a car.”

Peters and Robinson mentioned one common strength for Eastern Ontario as a business travel destination: cost.

“One of the things that’s definitely come out of the pandemic is people looking for alternate destinations,” said Robinson. “Conference planners and attendees want to go to unique places they haven’t discovered before. They want to go to smaller places with prices in bigger cities getting out of reach.”

“You can’t get a hotel room in downtown Toronto for less than $500 now and our hotel rates are a fraction of that,” said Peters. “A conference organizer is going to look at two things: availability of space and how much the facility and hotel rooms will cost. For smaller events, you know Eastern Ontario offers a very cost-effective solution.”

As Kingston and Cornwall gear up for more business travel, at least one hotel in Eastern Ontario seems to think there are better money-making opportunities. The Holiday Inn Express in Brockville is converting its conference centre into residential spaces, which are set to open later this month.

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