THUNDER BAY, ONT. — Thunder Bay’s hotel sector was heavily strained by the COVID-19 pandemic, and felt the impact along with hotels across the world.
Despite this, statistics show that the Thunder Bay hotel sector outperformed Canadian averages by quite a margin.
“We were actually one of the top five markets throughout the pandemic,” says Paul Pepe, manager of Tourism Thunder Bay.
He attributes the resilience to Thunder Bay being a regional service centre for Indigenous communities and having a strong diversity of hotel markets.
“Mining, exploration, industrial, commercial and corporate travellers were still coming into the city to some degree (during the pandemic) and then during the summer months as travel restrictions eased, smaller cities like Thunder Bay and Sault Ste. Marie became very popular over the last two summers,” Pepe said. “We had very robust summer occupancies that were in some ways, almost near normal summers because people were looking for smaller cities, they were looking for outdoor activities, and people were road-tripping.”
As more travellers passed through the area during the leisurely travel season, Thunder Bay became a more noticeable and more popular destination. It was listed last year on Google as number seven on a top-10 list of most-searched cities in Ontario when people were looking for outdoor places to visit.
“That really played to our advantage as an outdoor city and certainly that’s what we sell Thunder Bay as,” Pepe said.
The diversity of the other markets has helped cushion the pandemic downturn in the hotel sector. Those diversities include the housing of evacuees who escaped flood, fire and water contamination, providing the Health Sciences Centre with COVID-19 hotel hospitals to house infected evacuees and homeless people, and the housing of regional mining and mineral exploration businesses that have been doing work throughout the pandemic.
Meanwhile, as the pandemic eases its grip on the world, a growing global worker shortage has also engulfed the hotel sector.
Pepe says he has learned that many hotels have taken rooms out of their inventory because they didn’t have the staff to clean them.
“That is something that is felt across the board,” he said, adding that four of five vacant rooms in a hotel that he stayed at recently in southern Ontario hadn’t been made up. He says the hotel was really apologetic and explained ‘we just don’t have enough cleaners.’”
Pepe says the city is currently promoting Thunder Bay through major digital campaigns across Ontario, Manitoba, and Minnesota in an effort to raise the profile of the city for those summer leisure travellers.
“We are seeing a fairly robust return to the small meetings and convention markets as well for the city,” he said. “Meeting planners are saying they’re having trouble finding meeting space into November.”
Although Pepe and his team anticipate what he calls a “pretty healthy return of the industry,” they are still watching out for the signs of a slower recovery and challenges with the labour market.
“We’re well poised for a solid recovery over the next two to three years and we have the tourism development fund through the Community Economic Development Commission, which is powered by the municipal accommodation tax,” he said.
Pepe says they grant those funds to events and product development applicants, which is a tool for tourism recovery for provincial and national sporting events, conventions, new product development and tourism experience initiatives.
John Cameron, development officer with Tourism Thunder Bay Sports, says things are shaping up this year with numerous events already scheduled, specifically around the August long weekend.
“Capacity will be at a premium for that weekend,” Cameron said. “We have the Wushu Nationals, which is the martial arts national championship and recognized as an Olympic sport, and we have the Northern Ontario Disc Golf Championships. There’s an international exhibition series between Canada and the United States, women’s national baseball teams and the 100th-anniversary celebration of Chippewa, which was supposed to be held in 2021. Plus there’s the Italian Festival, the Strathcona Golf Invitational all on that same weekend. And we could add the arrival of a couple of cruise ships too.”
Sandi Krasowski, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Chronicle-Journal