COVID-19 has been devastating for tourism and hospitality-based businesses

·10 min read

Eganville -- While some industries have benefitted from the COVID-19 pandemic and economic shutdown, the hospitality sector has been extremely hard hit in the last year since Ontario announced its first lockdown on March 17.

“It was horrible,” said Joe Kowalski, owner and founder of Wilderness Tours, a four-season vacation destination on the Ottawa River especially known for its whitewater rafting and paddling. “For anyone in tourism and hospitality it was very challenging. Mostly all the uncertainty.”

The hospitality/tourism sector relies on visitors coming to the area and a place like Wilderness Tours not only relies on visitors from Ontario and Canada but is a huge draw for international visitors and travellers from south of the border in the United States. Last year the border was closed to all non-essential travel and this had a huge impact on the business. The company website boasts 2.5 million guests have come to experience the land and water trails from around the world, but last year it would have only seen Canadian guests.

“What hurt was the border closure,” he said. “We do a strong international business. We go to the airport several times a week picking people up and dropping them off.”

Wilderness Tours normally opens for its season in May with enthusiasts converging on the Foresters Falls location as soon as the weather allows. However, last year the company was not able to open until the end of June and when they did there were a lot of new guidelines because of COVID-19.

“You had to revamp your food service,” he said. “With our rental cabins we purchased foggers to disinfect everything. There was a lot of extra cleaning.”

Ironically, with the shutdown and restrictions in Ontario and Canada there was a lot of interest in outdoor activities within the province, he noted.

“But one challenge we had was it was hard to get staff because our government paid people money to stay home,” he said.

Looking at planning for 2021 has been challenging and one difficult decision was to move part of the kayak school to West Virginia for United States guests because there is still uncertainty about whether the border to the United States will be open, he said.

“I don’t want to do that, but we can’t lose a second year,” he said.

Mr. Kowalski said Wilderness Tours is part of the Ottawa Valley Tourist Association as well as national tourist associations and he knows there is lobbying occurring to help tourism-based industries.

“Hopefully, they are trying to open the border,” he said.

With continued uncertainty as the region has moved into the yellow zone in the Ontario colour grid, Mr. Kowalski said he is hoping there will be no change to their opening date this spring. For a company which has grown from a small rafting operator in 1975 to a huge enterprise with cabins, a park, trails and sports from rafting to canoeing and biking, 2020 was a tough year and there is trepidation looking at 2021.

“If we don’t open for business, we will go out of business,” he said.

“There is a lot of interest in the outdoors,” he added. “We need that border open and if you talk to businesses, they have all had a hard time hiring employees.”

No Kids Camp

At Frontier Trails Kids Camp outside Golden Lake there was no opening day at all last summer since children’s overnight camps were not allowed to operate in Ontario.

“We did some riding lessons and trail rides,” co-owner Marie Tubby said. “But that is a very small part of what we do.”

Along with her husband Dave, they have operated the camp which features not only overnight camping but horse-back riding since 1976. They offer not only horsemanship camp but adventure camp, traditional camp and an English as a Second Language program which has attracted many international campers. When it became clear in May the camp would not be allowed to open last summer there were already people registered for the summer.

“It was getting pretty late,” she said. “We had staff hired. We had said to people to register for $1 and we would have a spot reserved.”

With international staff and campers unable to come into Canada she had already realized it would be a different camping season, but they had still hoped to have summer camp in 2020, she said. At Frontier Trails the bulk of the year is compressed into the summer camping season of July and August. The camp is also busy with school trips in June and retreats in the fall and trail rides and lessons at other times of the year but summer is the season the business operates at full capacity. Having no camp last year was tough.

“We ended up selling half the horses,” she said. “It costs us so much to keep them over the winter.”

If they can open this year as anticipated they will have to purchase some new horses, she added.

Frontier Trails is part of the Ontario Camping Association (OCA) and this organization has been lobbying the government about camps.

“There are some camps that have gone out of business,” she said. “So, the OCA is pushing for a wage subsidy for camps and lobbying to bring in international staff.” Some large camps have up to 90 per cent of their staff come from overseas, she noted.

At this point they are planning on opening for the camping season this summer. They are being told they can operate this summer but the campers will have to stay in their cohort group, similar to what is happening at schools.

“And if you get one case of COVID, you have to shut down,” she said.

Uncertainty over this summer caused them to delay opening registration and purchasing their database to operate. They did open registration on February 15 and people are interested in coming to camp, she said.

“Most of the time will be spent outside,” she added. “We have a big tent and we can even feed them outside.”

Plans are being made for camp to open and staff are being hired, including returning staff wanting to come back.

“But some staff did not want to come back because they could stay on CERB,” she added.

Restaurants Relied on Take Out

Restaurants were restricted in how they could operate last year with regulations stipulating only take-out for many months. In Eganville, the Granary has long been a favourite spot for Valley residents and visitors.

“It has been a struggle being closed and re-opened,” co-owner Alexis Letourneau said. “It has been hard on staff. It is all so hard to wrap up in words.”

With the closure, then limited reopening with less tables and less potential diners, it has been difficult, she said.

“We are not performing the same level of business,” she added.

While they were closed to in-person guests, take-out did continue and customers from across the area continued to order their meals.

“We’ve had great community support,” she said. “There has been a big shift to take out. People were apprehensive in wanting to go out.”

The expansion of their large patio last summer into the parking lot was a game changer for them.

“We lost 50 per cent of our seating indoors,” she noted. “The patio was vital to business.” It was so successful they plan on repeating the larger patio this summer, she added.

“We are still trying to catch up from the pandemic,” she said. “And every week we have to be on top of the rules.”

With the recent switch to yellow in the Ontario colour grid the restaurant has placed a smaller cap on how many people can be seated at a table, she said.

“We are only allowed to seat six per party,” she said. “Before that it was 10.”

Coming into the Granary for a meal is part of the experience with its classic décor and local art, so this is still an attraction for people and people miss that, she said.

“People like to get out after they have been stuck at home,” she said.

As the days become longer and warmer and that draw to the outdoor patio resumes, Mrs. Letourneau is hoping for a good summer season at The Granary.

“The hospitality sector has been very hard hit because we rely so much on tourism,” she said.

At Rio Tap and Grill in Eganville, co-owner George Pezoulas said the pandemic has forced them to shift to more of an online presence, including ordering online and local deliveries in a wide area.

“We have been hit pretty hard,” he said. “You were not allowed sitting inside for quite awhile, but we never shut down. We just had to readjust our business models.”

During the lockdown, which began last March, they shifted the business with a larger online presence. Online ordering and making it easy and efficient were key, he said. When it was time to re-open for in-person seating, the seating arrangements had shifted with tables further apart.

“We reduced our capacity by 30 per cent,” he said. “So, we expanded the patio which gave back a little bit.”

Throughout the last year take-out has continued to be strong, he said.

“The local support has been phenomenal,” he said, adding there are also take-out orders regularly from Pembroke, Renfrew and Petawawa.

Rio also does a busy delivery service from Lake Clear to Golden Lake to Rankin and they have done this as efficiently and as “contactless” as possible as well, he said. Two drivers take their food to hungry diners in the area.

“Some people are still afraid to come in,” he added.

Summer is a busy time in the village but last summer was a bit softer than usual because of COVID-19, he said.

“It promoted people travelling in Ontario, but people were worried about coming in,” he said.

As for summer of 2021, there are still many unknowns.

“We don’t know what to expect,” he said.

At the same time, he realizes he has fared much better than fellow restaurateurs in larger centres.

“Restaurants in the cities were locked down longer than us,” he said.

As well, their fixed costs were different too in many cases.

“I would not want to be paying rent,” he said.

Bonnechere Caves Were Closed

Chris Hinsperger, co-owner of the popular tourist attraction, the Bonnechere Caves, said COVID totally shut him down as it had with lots of other businesses in the tourism sector. He made the decision not to open at all last summer, as many other tourist operators were forced to do.

“For my business to function, I need to be able to have a certain amount of people on the property and we weren’t allowed to have 10 people together outside,” he noted. “The conditions, the protocols, the logistics were impossible to operate business.”

Mr. Hinsperger said while he will never recoup the money that was lost last season, he is incredibly optimistic of what lies ahead.

“I think the Ottawa Valley had better brace itself. We’re a desirable market, we have active partners in tourism like the Ottawa Valley Tourist Association and Ontario Highlands that work well within our industry to promote what we have.

“And we’re a world-class destination,” he added.

He said all businesses should benefit from the influx of people he is expecting. He said he has seen his business grow over 100 per cent in the past several years and believes that will be restored when things open.

Although he was not open, he continued to grow and foster his business relationship with partners in tourism, music, etc.

“I had over a dozen different musical performers into our cave last summer and that was spread all over the internet.”

While he did not conduct any virtual tours of the caves, he recorded some story-telling segments underground that he distributed through Ontario Highlands.

“I got a very nice response to that,” he said. “People were so absolutely nice that I met and who phoned me.”

Debbi Christinck, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader