Hotels brace for another spring season with no conventions

·4 min read
The Hilton Garden Inn in Fredericton was built in its location beside the Fredericton Convention Centre to attract guests attending conventions there, says general manager Celine Bertin. (Catherine Harrop/CBC - image credit)
The Hilton Garden Inn in Fredericton was built in its location beside the Fredericton Convention Centre to attract guests attending conventions there, says general manager Celine Bertin. (Catherine Harrop/CBC - image credit)

When the Hilton Garden Inn Fredericton was opened in 2018, the expectation was its rooms would be packed every spring and summer with thousands of convention attendees from across the country.

But, for the second year in a row, it looks like the COVID-19 pandemic has put a stop to that.

With restrictions on travel and gatherings continuing for the foreseeable future, that's put a chill on large national and regional conventions, and that's a cause for concern to Celine Bertin, general manager at the Hilton Garden Inn.

"April, May, June, are big convention months, however, August is probably one of the biggest convention months, along with September, October and very much November as well.

"So with that said, we're a convention hotel and a corporate hotel... so, yeah, [there being no conventions] does affect us in a big way."

Bertin said the hotel's plan hinged so much on catering to convention attendees, that its was located next door and attached to the Fredericton Convention Centre.

"If there wasn't a convention centre, frankly, we wouldn't be downtown."

Trevor Morgan, general manager of the Crowne Plaza in Fredericton.
Trevor Morgan, general manager of the Crowne Plaza in Fredericton.(Submitted by Joanne Barlow)

The Crowne Plaza is directly across the street from the centre, and typically hosts convention attendees in its rooms and at its pub and restaurant.

That won't be happening this year, and that worries Trevor Morgan, its general manager.

"The bottom line is we won't be able to replace that revenue, so we do anticipate running significantly lower revenue and occupancy through that period because of the lack of that business," Morgan said.

More help needed for businesses

The likely loss of the 2021 convention season is just the latest blow to an industry already particularly hard hit by the pandemic, said Carol Alderdice, president and CEO of the Tourism Industry Association of New Brunswick.

Carol Alderdice, president and CEO of the Tourism Industry Association of New Brunswick.
Carol Alderdice, president and CEO of the Tourism Industry Association of New Brunswick.(Submitted by Carol Alderdice)

"It makes such a big difference to hotels and restaurants when conventions are in town. It keeps them busy and it keeps them alive, and that's just not been happening.

"That's why we've had to count on federal support to keep them going."

Alderdice said that aid has been well used, but more is needed.

She said the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy, which provides up to 75 per cent of employee wages for eligible employers, should be extended to the fall, and raised to cover 85 per cent.

She also wants to see an extension to the Canada Emergency Rent Subsidy, which helps tenants pay the rent if their business or non-profit has lost revenue due to the pandemic.

In a media briefing Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said those two programs, which were originally set to end next week, will be extended to June.

CBC News did not receive a response from the Prime Minister's Office about whether it would also increase the pay-outs offered under those programs.

Hopeful for recovery

The Fredericton Convention Centre accommodated 34,000 convention attendees and generated an estimated $12.9 million for the local economy in 2019.

Instead of convention-goers, for 2021 the convention centre will be hosting lawyers, plaintiffs and defendants, as the Department of Justice has agreed to rent the space to act as the Fredericton Court of Queen's Bench to allow enough space for physical distancing.

The Fredericton Convention Centre on Queen Street.
The Fredericton Convention Centre on Queen Street.(Daniel McHardie/CBC)

While the agreement has softened the blow for the convention centre, Cathy Pugh, its general manager, said the loss of the season is hard on the industry.

"We were the first hit, the hardest hit, and it will take us the longest to recover," Pugh said.

"But we are hopeful that we will start to recover. It will take a couple of years. We'll start seeing groups coming back in 2022 and then hopefully in 2023 it will continue on the upswing, and we're hopeful that we will return in 2024 to pre-pandemic numbers or thereabouts."

Jeremy Trevors, a spokesperson for the Department of Tourism, Heritage and Culture, said convention activities related to catering and meeting facilities typically account for about $30 million in revenue generated in New Brunswick annually, while another $80 million is earned in room bookings related to conventions.

Trevors said the department hopes bookings for small meetings will re-emerge in the late spring, but that remains contingent on COVID-19 public health protocols, which will dictate what can and can't be done.

"We look forward to working with the New Brunswick Hotel Association and destination marketing organizations to plan recovery for this area of business," he said.