Ottawa Tourism CEO banking on 'pent-up demand' from T.O., Montreal travellers to help kickstart sector

Chateau Laurier

With tourism in free fall for the past few months as the COVID-19 lockdown kept travellers at home, the man tasked with reigniting the local industry is hoping geography is on the capital’s side.

Ottawa Tourism CEO Michael Crockatt says the coronavirus pandemic is expected to cost the $2.2-billion local sector at least $1 billion in lost revenue this year alone, adding he doesn’t expect the outlook to brighten any time soon.

“We don’t see getting back to 2019 levels of visitation until beyond 2021,” Crockatt told OBJ on Monday, the start of Tourism Week in Canada in what’s shaping up to be a woeful year for the entire national industry.

“It’s definitely challenging. That’s a huge impact to a lot of businesses and a lot of individuals. It’s tough to hear some of those stories.”  

With international travel likely years away from returning to pre-COVID levels and no definitive timeline for when most provinces will once again throw open their doors to visitors, Crockatt says the industry faces an uncertain future even after restrictions aimed at limiting the spread of the coronavirus are eased. 

“The big question will be how comfortable do Canadians feel with leisure travel once they’re able to do so,” he says. “We’re trying to prepare for multiple different scenarios, sort of best-case to worst-case.” 

In recent years, the region has drawn an average of about 11 million visitors annually ​– the vast majority of them from within Canada and a good chunk of them from Ontario and Quebec, especially Toronto and Montreal. 

Crockatt says that being in the shadow of those two metropolises could play in the capital’s favour when it comes to kickstarting the tourism sector.  

“Sometimes it’s not an advantage for us, but in this case an advantage for us might be that we are located right between Canada’s two largest cities,” he says. “We’re certainly looking to those markets … as being key places where there is hopefully some pent-up demand for travel.”

Ottawa Tourism derives much of its $23-million annual budget from accommodation levies charged to hotel guests and other funding from various levels of government. With hotels virtually empty at the moment, Crockatt says he expects revenues at Ottawa Tourism ​– which employs 39 people ​– to drop as much as 70 per cent in 2020.

Ottawa Tourism has put all its marketing efforts on hold during the pandemic. While it waits to resume those campaigns, Crockatt says the organization is keeping a close eye on social media and analyzing search engines such as Google in an effort to predict what destinations and activities travellers will be most eager to experience once they feel free to get back on the road.

“All those things play into the planning for the recovery and the restart of tourism marketing,” he says. “We may not be able to outspend other destinations, but we want to be able to outsmart them. Whatever we do in the market has to be the smartest, most well-researched, data-driven, strategic approach to attracting visitors that there can possibly be. The lucky thing is that we know our market quite well, and we’ve invested in some of that research to understand the tendencies of travellers.”

Whether those visitors will be back this year is doubtful, Crockatt concedes. But the travel industry veteran remains optimistic that the local sector, which employed more than 43,000 people before the pandemic hit, will bounce back ​– even musing that Canadians will be inspired to visit new destinations that have become part of the nation’s shared experience during the lockdown.

“Rideau Cottage might become a famous landmark for people wanting to get their photo taken where the prime minister was speaking every day,” he suggests.

“Throughout history, people have always wanted to travel. Travel will come back. It won’t come back at the same level that it was at in 2019, at least not immediately. But people will want to travel, and we have an incredible destination.”