May 29th to June 4th marks Tourism Week in Canada. We’ve invited guest contributor, Jim Byers, journalist and travel expert, to provide insights and perspective on how cities outside of Toronto are faring as the Visitor Economy begins to rebound.
Tourism is rebounding strongly in cities across Canada. But most tourism officials say they’re not quite back to pre-pandemic levels, and that labour shortages could limit their ability to recover as quickly as they’d like.
To provide insights and perspective on local challenges, a review of tourism officials in several major Canadian cities outside of Toronto, including Vancouver, Montreal and Calgary, finds municipal leaders are generally in a positive mood as Tourism Week in Canada kicks off.
“Right now … the occupancy is strong,” said Karen Soyka, Vice President, Strategy & Business Development at Destination Vancouver. “What we have (for figures) is really up to March, and what we’re seeing is 70 to 75% occupancy, which slowly increased through the spring. Our forward-looking forecast is it’s going to be between 80 and 85% right into the fall. Some say it could even be better.”
“It’s a really good story,” Soyka said during a chat at last week’s Rendez-vous Canada tourism meetings in downtown Toronto, where more than a thousand international buyers and Canadian tourism sellers met for in-person meetings. “What we don’t know is if all hotels can run at 100% capacity. Labour is going to be our biggest issue.”
Leisure travel in Ottawa was close to pre-pandemic levels during the Canadian Tulip Festival in May, said Jantine Van Kregten from Ottawa Tourism.
Ottawa officials say their forecasts are showing a stronger summer than 2021 or 2020, although occupancy levels will likely be below those of 2019.
Hotel bookings in Calgary in March of this year were actually 2.4% ahead of March 2019 levels, said Jeff Hessel, Senior Vice President Marketing, Tourism Calgary. But he said downtown hotels aren’t seeing the same success that outlying hotel properties are enjoying.
Business travel is picking up, Hessel said, but leisure and family travel are driving the largest increases in hotel stays in Calgary.
A senior Tourism Montreal official said the city is doing better than expected, with hotels at 70 to 80% occupancy in summer and rooms pretty much sold out for the coming Formula One automobile race.
Paul Nursey, CEO of Destination Greater Victoria, said his city had an exceptional spring. “It exceeded even our most optimistic expectations.”
Nursey said a recent report from HVS Canada found that RevPAR (revenue per available room) in Victoria in March of this year was 28% ahead of March, 2019 and that wedding business and conventions and conferences have returned.
“We’re grateful for the return of flights and international ferry operations,” he said.
Soyka said Vancouver hotel rates “are higher than what you might anticipate.”
“What we’re hearing is people are interested in added things they can do on a visit. They know the cost is up because hotel prices and airline costs are higher, but it doesn’t seem to be an issue,” she said.
“People really want the experience, and the money isn’t the first factor anymore.”
The travel rebound has posed challenges for many cities, mostly a shortage of skilled workers.
A recent published report suggested some Banff restaurants have increased their wage offerings to more than $20 per hour to try to attract workers. The minimum wage in Alberta is $15 per hour.
Hessel said Calgary hotels “are having the same type of labour issues we’re seeing across the country, which at times is capping the amount of people that they can have in the hotels.”
Hessel said Tourism Calgary is working with Bow Valley College to try to bring in new workers and also with immigrant associations. Travel Alberta has a tourism hospitality worker campaign going on, pointing people to jobs in the industry, he said.
One official from a major Canadian destination said hotel guests need to be realistic.
“If someone wants an early check-in, for example, that’s going to be hard with our staffing issues,” she said.
“One specific challenge we’re facing … is that the two largest employers in Ottawa—government and high tech—both pivoted strongly to remote work during the pandemic and return-to-office plans are very slow or even non-existent,” said Van Kregten from Ottawa Tourism. “Working remotely has a huge negative impact on business travel and the businesses that depend on those visitors.”
“Until in-person events resume, the tourism industry’s recovery will be incomplete,” she said.
As travel returns to normal, destination marketing organizations are once again trying to lure travellers, both from Canada and from outside the country.
Tourism Montreal says their marketing efforts have picked up substantially, with major campaigns in Ontario and the U.S.
Soyka said Destination Vancouver is marketing a good deal inside the province, with a focus on boosting overnight stays rather than day trips.
Calgary is putting a strong emphasis on events, such as the Chinook Blast winter festival, as well as Folk Fest, Global Fest, Country Thunder and Chasing Summer.
“You name it, they’re all back and at full capacity,” Hessel said.
Ottawa Tourism’s marketing focus in 2022 will have a “Here to Inspire” theme, said Van Kregten. The focus will be on culture and creativity; museums, festivals, live music, visual art, and other creative outlets.
Soyka said Destination Vancouver is calling this phase a “rebuilding” period versus “recovery,” because they feel a lot of things will be different coming out of the pandemic.
“We don’t know who the traveller of the future is going to be,” she said. “As much as we’re using 2019 as our benchmark … the traveller is shifting and changing and we’re all trying to figure out what that’s going to look like.”
“As a destination we want to be sure we’re rebuilding responsibly, sustainably. It’s not just trying to bring everybody back, it’s ‘Who’s the right traveller for Vancouver’ and how does that align with the values of our destination.”