Head of the Ottawa Gatineau Hotel Association said it’s still too early to tell how much of an impact the weather will have on leisure traffic at downtown lodgings in February.With Ottawa experiencing one of its warmest winters on record, local hoteliers say business is also heating up despite fears the Rideau Canal might not be open for the start of the season’s biggest festival. Traditionally the world’s third-coldest capital city, Ottawa has seen unseasonably warm temperatures so far this winter. That has prompted the National Capital Commission, which manages the canal, to warn people to stay off the skateway – typically one of the marquee attractions of Winterlude, which begins in just 10 days. The NCC says it takes about two weeks of temperatures ranging from -10 to -20 C to safely freeze the canal, meaning the skateway is unlikely to be ready in time for Winterlude’s opening weekend. But Steve Ball, the head of the Ottawa Gatineau Hotel Association, said it’s still too early to tell how much of an impact the weather will have on leisure traffic at downtown lodgings in February. Events like Winterlude typically have a “really short booking window,” Ball explained, noting out-of-town travellers often decide whether to attend only a couple of days in advance. That makes projecting revenues a tricky business. But Ball said he’s encouraged by the longer-term weather forecast for next month, which is calling for a significant stretch of more frigid temperatures beginning at the end of this week. “We still have a little time,” he said. “I’m optimistic we’re going to have a canal (skateway available), certainly the last week of Winterlude, maybe the second week of Winterlude.” Downtown hotel managers said the year is off to a strong start even though Mother Nature hasn’t necessarily co-operated with ideal weather conditions for outdoor winter activities. Ross Meredith, the general manager of the Westin Ottawa and Delta Ottawa City Centre, told OBJ on Tuesday room bookings so far in 2023 are “equal to or better than” pre-pandemic levels, thanks largely to a bounceback in guests attending business meetings and events like sports tournaments. “It’s not like they’re necessarily coming because they’re going to go skating on the canal,” said Meredith. “Right now, I’m feeling good about 2023.” Whitney Coccimiglio, director of sales and events at the Andaz Ottawa ByWard Market, also said meetings and events traffic at the 200-suite property is running “very, very close to 2019 levels” as people resume in-person gatherings. Like Ball, Coccimiglio said leisure travellers attending events like Winterlude tend to be last-minute customers, so that business will be heavily dependent on the weekend weather in February. “That’s going to be the deciding factor for a lot of these transient guests,” she explained. At the Chateau Laurier, general manager Geneviève Dumas is projecting occupancy rates for the next few months to be “similar to past years.” So far, Dumas added, the winter warm spell hasn’t had much of a chilling effect on room revenues at the iconic hotel. “The weather doesn’t seem to have an immediate impact on the weekends of February except for the (Family Day) long weekend, where we are pacing slightly behind,” she said in an email. “We are still optimistic to see the canal opening soon. However, any delays into February due to weather could affect our existing bookings.” Ball noted there are a multitude of popular events on the Winterlude calendar that don’t take place on the canal, including the national ice-carving championship, which is happening on Sparks Street, and the Snowflake Kingdom at Jacques-Cartier Park in Gatineau. “The canal is important, but there is so much more going on,” he said. The head of the region’s largest hotel industry group said things are generally looking up for the hotel business. Ball said the sector started gaining momentum in the second half of 2022 due to “pent-up demand” for travel and “a desire to get back to more normal activities.” Ball said he’s hoping the federal government’s move to mandate most employees’ return to the office two or three days a week starting this month will trigger a resurgence in out-of-town business travel. “That’s an important part of our corporate travel business,” he said. “It would be nice to see (government meetings business) recover. We’re optimistic that we’re going to get back there.” Meredith said the only fly in the ointment is fear of an economic downturn, which is dampening the longer-term meeting outlook as business groups are showing a bit of “hesitation” to book events beyond 2023. “Everyone is expecting that there could be a recession, and so they’re a bit nervous,” he said.
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