Summer tourism surge convinces Lord Elgin to reopen

Ottawa tourism

When the road to recovery for Ottawa’s hotel industry took a bit of a surprise shortcut last month, the Lord Elgin Hotel shifted its reopening plan into high gear.

After being closed for more than 18 months as the pandemic all but wiped out tourist traffic for most of 2020 and into 2021, the family-owned downtown hotel will start welcoming guests on Oct. 1. 

General manager David Smythe said an unexpected surge in late-summer leisure visits that saw the city’s hotel occupancy rate jump to 70 per cent in August led to his decision to reopen.

“Certainly, we took note of that and thought, ‘Let’s get going,’” said Smythe, who’d been keeping a close eye on occupancy rates all summer and noticed a steady uptick from May onward.

Still, he said August’s numbers were “a surprise for everybody” in the industry. While last month’s numbers were still well above pre-pandemic norms, which typically saw occupancy rates in the mid-80s for the month, they were a vast improvement over 2020.

“To be honest, I never would have guessed that the city would achieve a 70 per cent occupancy (rate),” added Smythe, who credited Ottawa Tourism for creating incentive programs such as offering guests who booked two nights at area hotels between July 5 and Oct. 9 with $200 to spend at restaurants, tours and other attractions.

“They were more aggressive in the marketplace than I think Ottawa Tourism has ever been with some of the best offers I’ve ever seen from any city,” said Smythe, who’s been GM of the Lord Elgin since 2004. “Kudos to them for doing a great job and bringing so many leisure travellers to Ottawa. You could see the progression every week.”

Steve Ball, the president of the Ottawa Gatineau Hotel Association, also singled out the tourism marketing agency’s efforts for helping to fuel the industry’s late-summer revival.

“I think the uptake was very positive on that one,” he said of the $200 carrot that Ottawa Tourism dangled to visitors. “We had a couple of programs in play that were really appealing.”

Ottawa Tourism spokesperson Jantine Van Kregten said the program has "generated thousands of room nights and thousands of redemptions at Ottawa businesses" since it was launched. She said the total number of room nights sold in Ottawa since mid-July is up 50 per cent from last year, but still down 30 per cent from 2019.

Ottawa Tourism's data shows a "very strong leisure performance on summer weekends," Van Kregten noted, adding that was the response the agency was hoping for when it created the $200 incentive. 

Ball cited other factors such as August’s hot, dry weather and the popularity of special attractions such as the Canadian Museum of History’s sold-out Queens of Egypt exhibit for helping to drive up the volume of weekend motorists from Toronto and Montreal.

“That was a little unexpected, but it was happily taken,” he said of the August resurgence. “I wasn’t optimistic going into the summer, so we did very well.”

Smythe said the 355-room Lord Elgin, which employed 116 people pre-COVID, will open its doors Friday with a staff of 42. He said he expects business to be “a bit of a grind at first,” adding that the hotel needs to be at least 30 per cent occupied in order to break even.

“When you go from zero (per cent occupancy) and you need to get to 30, that’s a challenge,” he said.

At the same time, Smythe said he’s encouraged by the higher-than-expected number of guest room and meeting space requests from government, association and corporate clients since the Lord Elgin announced it was back in business. 

He said all of the property’s largest meeting spaces are already fully booked for several days in November.

“It’s nice to see the mix happening and not just one market segment,” Smythe said. “There is pent-up demand, and I think that's why we’re getting the phone calls. It’s taken us a little bit by surprise.”

Still, Ball isn’t breaking out the champagne just yet. He noted that many hotels are struggling to rehire staff as many previous workers have either moved on to other industries or are still taking advantage of government support programs.

“It’s going to be a long, drawn-out issue for our industry,” he said.

And while local properties are starting to see more bookings for weddings and Christmas parties, Ball predicts it will be a long winter for hotels that rely on business and convention traffic.

“We know we don’t have a lot of that type of business on the books right now,” he said. “Our industry has always had that luxury, where we could look ahead and know what our occupancy was going to be six months or a year out. The pandemic destroyed that.”