'A plethora of empty rooms': No Winterlude, no February, hoteliers lament

Hundreds of bookings disappear after annual event put on ice again
Embassy Hotel and Suites

From Colin Morrison’s perspective, the past few days have pretty much summed up the last two years for Ottawa hoteliers, who’ve been riding a constant rollercoaster of emotions during the pandemic.

On the downside, on Jan. 11, Canadian Heritage announced that in-person Winterlude activities were being scrapped for the second year in a row due to the rampant spread of the Omicron variant of COVID-19. Then, on the upside, on Jan. 13, the National Capital Commission opened the whole Rideau Canal skateway, the earliest the green flag has gone up along the entire 7.8-kilometre stretch in decades.

As Morrison, the general manager of the Embassy Hotel and Suites, watched hundreds of skaters pack the canal last Thursday morning, he didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at the realization that the city’s biggest winter tourism event had been iced, despite what’s shaping up to be a banner year for its central attraction.

In the end, he’s chosen to try to make the best of yet another devastating blow to an industry that’s been dealt perhaps the worst hand of any during the pandemic.

“We’ve done enough crying,” Morrison said. “We’ve been crying for the last 21 months. We have to be positive, we have to look forward, we have to do everything we can to ensure that doors don’t close permanently in restaurants and hotels around the city.”

Still, the longtime hospitality executive knows it won’t be easy to keep his chin up for the next few weeks. 

"Absent Winterlude, we don’t have a month of February. That’s not trying to be dramatic about it – it’s an absolute."

His 140-room property was banking on an influx of out-of-towners flocking to the canal and nearby venues to check out the ice sculptures and other attractions during Winterlude. The festival, which draws an average of 600,000 visitors a year, typically provides a much-needed shot in the arm to Ottawa’s tourism and hospitality businesses during their slowest season.

But, once again in 2022, that won’t happen. All Morrison and his fellow hotel managers can do is grin and bear it.

“There are a plethora of empty hotel rooms in the city of Ottawa,” he said. “Absent Winterlude, we don’t have a month of February. That’s not trying to be dramatic about it – it’s an absolute. You remove Winterlude, you remove all leisure business from Ottawa in the month of February.”

With almost no convention traffic on the horizon and corporate business “virtually non-existent,” Morrison expects February’s revenues at the Embassy to be less than 20 per cent of pre-pandemic levels. The hotel’s workforce, which typically numbers about 65 in good times, has been slashed to less than 10.

Trying to look on the bright side, Morrison notes that all those vacancies have allowed hotels like his to offer rooms at drastically reduced rates to COVID-positive health-care and other essential workers who are forced to self-isolate. 

Hundreds of room nights cancelled

It’s a slim consolation.

“We are helping out the community, but that doesn’t pay the bills,” he said.

A few blocks north at the Lord Elgin Hotel, general manager David Smythe can only lament what might have been after what had promised to be a bonanza of bookings during Winterlude was wiped out in a matter of hours.

The veteran GM said the hotel expected to be filled to capacity during the first three weekends of February with tourists itching to have some winter fun. After Winterlude was called off, the  Lord Elgin saw 150 room nights canceled in one 24-hour period.

“We were enthusiastic about February,” Smythe said, adding the 355-room hotel was on track to be “well above break-even” for the month. 

“That’s over. How are we supposed to pay our bills? I wish somebody could tell me that.”

Colin Morrison photo
Embassy Hotel and Suites GM Colin Morrison (right), shown with Steve Ball of the Ottawa Gatineau Hotel Association, says he expects February's revenues to be more than 80 per cent below pre-COVID levels. File photo

Meanwhile, BeaverTails founder Grant Hooker was wrestling with conflicting emotions.

As the former president of the Canadian Tulip Festival, the longtime entrepreneur understands that organizers of major events have to make tough calls that aren’t always popular. He doesn’t envy the Canadian Heritage officials who were forced to weigh whether Winterlude could be staged safely with Omicron still raging and ultimately determined it could not.

“I know the choices they have to make, and I have to respect them,” said Hooker. “We’ve become accustomed to the world turning in a way we’re not happy with because of COVID and because of the decisions that organizers have to make.”

His business typically generates between 30 and 40 per cent of its winter sales during the festival. BeaverTails will still operate four kiosks on the canal throughout the skating season, but Hooker knows a big chunk of his expected revenue stream has likely dried up.

“That’s a disappointment and it certainly will affect the bottom line,” he said.

A frustrated Smythe at the Lord Elgin questioned why all of Winterlude’s in-person activities were wiped out even though provincial guidelines still allow for outdoor public gatherings, albeit with strict capacity limits.

Few marketing opportunities

“There’s a disconnect between what the federal government is saying and what the Ontario government is saying,” he said. “There should be some consistency for everybody.”

Meanwhile, Morrison, who’s also the current chair of Ottawa Tourism, said there’s little the marketing agency can do to promote the capital to visitors when most of the city’s main attractions are shuttered. 

He says many hospitality businesses were caught off-guard by the latest clampdowns and he’s calling on the province to give the industry more advance notice of future reopening plans to allow hotels, restaurants and marketing agencies like Ottawa Tourism enough time to kickstart their campaigns. 

“When we find out on a Tuesday that restaurants are going to close on a Wednesday and we find out on a Monday that they’re going to reopen on a Tuesday, there’s no ramp-up time,” Morrison said. 

“We really would benefit as an industry, as a community, from a plan that would say, ‘OK, this is what we’re looking at, this is the lead time you’ll have, these are the milestones that we have to achieve to get there.’ The challenge is right now we know (the restrictions will last) 21 days, but that’s all.”

Asked how much longer cash-strapped hotels can hang on in the current business climate, Morrison responded with a bit of gallows humour.

“That’s the $64 question – and that’s about all I can pay for it,” he said with a chuckle. “It is as dire a situation as it can be.

“If we watch our pennies, we’ll make it through.”