Hard-hit tourism industry strives to ‘Keep Ottawa Awesome’ amid COVID-19 disruption

Escape Manor, Haunted Walks among local companies forced into hundreds of layoffs by the spreading pandemic


On a typical St. Patrick’s Day during March Break, Steve Wilson would be run off his feet dealing with the influx of traffic to his booming escape room business.

But on Tuesday afternoon, he instead found himself at home chasing his two-and-a-half-year-old son Charlie after all daycares in Ontario were ordered to shut down as part of a provincial state of emergency to deal with the escalating COVID-19 crisis.

Wilson will likely be playing Mr. Dad for a while. On Monday morning ​– even before the province announced it was prohibiting all gatherings of more than 50 people and mandating all bars and restaurants to shut their doors ​– he and his business partners made the difficult decision to close their seven Escape Manor entertainment facilities in Ontario until further notice.

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The shutdown means Escape Manor’s roughly 180 employees in the province are suddenly out of work. Even the owners themselves will no longer draw paycheques until the cash starts flowing again, Wilson said.

“We had to do it,” he said. “A couple of rounds of payroll would have really put us in a bad spot without any income coming in.”

Escape Manor is just one of many local businesses that are suddenly in a battle to stay afloat as Ottawa health officials urge residents to embrace social distancing in an effort to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. 

The tourism sector – with its heavy reliance on out-of-town visitors, interactive attractions such as escape rooms and large gatherings such as walking tours – is being hit especially hard.

The same day Escape Manor said it was suspending its Ontario operations, the Haunted Walk announced it was calling off all tours at its locations in Ottawa, Kingston and Toronto until at least April 12. 

Founder and CEO Glen Shackleton said the Ottawa-based company is temporarily laying off about 100 tour guides, many of them actors and students with few other sources of income. 

As wrenching as the decision was, Shackleton said he had no choice.

“We have a very loyal group,” he said, noting his company has been in business for 25 years and won the Ontario Tourism Employer of the Year award a few years ago, thanks partly to offering provisions such as sick pay for workers. 

“But ultimately when there’s zero dollars of revenue coming in, there’s not much you can do. We’ll have to find a way to pay the rent and all of the other fixed costs that a business has. With zero revenue coming in, it’s definitely going to be a challenge.”

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Like Wilson, Shackleton said the coronavirus crisis has ground business to a halt during what’s normally one of his busiest weeks of the year.

“For a lot of activities-based businesses like ours or like Escape Manor or like a lot of the other cool things to do in Ottawa, March Break is obviously a really critical time of year,” he explained. “It’s pretty much a full-time job right now just refunding people.”

Shackleton, Wilson and other local tourism entrepreneurs are now trying to find creative ways to generate new income streams. On Tuesday afternoon, Escape Manor’s marketing team was scrambling to try to launch an online version of its portable escape room game that normally gets set up in corporate boardrooms.

“It’s something that if we had a little bit more ramp-up time would have been better,” Wilson conceded.

Keep Ottawa Awesome

Escape Manor is also partnering with Haunted Walk, Escape Bicycle Tours, craft brewery tour operator Brew Donkey and local culinary school C’est Bon Cooking on a promotion called “Keep Ottawa Awesome” that’s set to launch Wednesday.

The program will allow customers to buy online gift certificates that will be redeemable at any time once the participating businesses are back in operation. Shoppers will also get access to merchandise and other perks as an incentive to keep money flowing into the companies’ coffers during the shutdown.

“It’s a way that they can make sure that these businesses survive this difficult time,” Shackleton said. 

“Every little bit helps. If you think about it, if 100 people were to buy a $50 gift card, that’s $5,000 that could help that business pay the rent for a month. It would make a huge difference.”

Meanwhile, St. Patrick’s Day would normally mean a flood of thirsty revellers for Brew Donkey owner Brad Campeau. In the wake of COVID-19, however, his Hintonburg-based business has cancelled all of its craft brewery tours for at least the next two weeks.

Instead, Campeau was keeping his one full-time employee busy on Tuesday compiling a database of all local microbreweries, including details of their hours of operation and whether they have retail outlets and offer deliveries as well as links to their websites. The list will be available to the public at Brew Donkey’s website.

“Breweries are sitting down to try to figure out how they can survive this and what they can do legally,” he said. “Without them surviving this, we lose destinations. We’re doing our best to make sure that people hoard beer.”

While various levels of governments have pledged financial support for hard-hit businesses, Shackleton said he and his fellow entrepreneurs are waiting anxiously to hear more specifics.

“If we don’t have attractions and we don’t have cool things to do, we don’t have a tourism industry,” he said. 

“The personal impact of this is massive for everyone. When this is all said and done, people will still need jobs to come back to. If those businesses aren’t there anymore, the impact is going to be much longer and harsher for Ottawa.”

In the meantime, Wilson said he and his partners are trying to help out their laid-off staffers as best they can, such as paying them later for work they do at home over the next few weeks and even providing emergency loans if circumstances warrant them. He said if the crisis stretches on, the company might need to request relief of its own from landlords at its Ontario locations.

As Charlie watched PAW Patrol in the background, the local entrepreneur turned his attention to the big picture. The most important thing right now, he said, is for everyone to do whatever they can to stem the spread of a virus that’s killed thousands around the world.

“From a human standpoint, this is a difficult time,” Wilson said. “I’m glad that the measures that are being taken are being taken now. We’d rather see everything shut down and let’s get this under control quickly than have it drag on for years and ultimately destroy our economy and destroy all of our entrepreneurial businesses.”

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