Year-round outdoor pools, parking lot car shows: How Calgary hotels survive in tough times

·3 min read

Calgary hotels are facing staggering declines in occupancy due to reduced travel but some are taking creative pivots in hopes of increasing revenues.

In April, when COVID-19 cases in Alberta were rising and pandemic lockdowns were at their strictest, the occupancy rate for Calgary hotels fell to just eight per cent, according to estimates by the Calgary Hotel Association.

That's a 48 percentage point drop from the same time last year.

During the summer months when occupancy is typically higher due to vacation travel, occupancy was estimated at 18 per cent in June, 24 per cent in July and 29 per cent in August.

I'm tap dancing in quicksand. - Fraser Abbott, Hotel Arts Group

Comparatively, in 2019, occupancy was at 69 per cent in June, 80 per cent in July and 77 per cent in August, according to the Calgary Hotel Association.

"I'm tap dancing in quicksand," Fraser Abbott, director of business development with the Hotel Arts Group, told the Calgary Eyeopener.

"It's a bumpy patch of COVID turbulence, but we're doing our best."

Abbot says Hotel Arts would generally stick to around 80 per cent occupancy during the year.

"We're finding that midweek the occupancies are quite a bit down because the corporate travel and the border restrictions and all that," he said.

"We're hovering between 15 and 30 on the midweek and then we get a nice bump upwards on the on the weekends."

Submitted by Jane Douglas, Submitted by Fraser Abbott
Submitted by Jane Douglas, Submitted by Fraser Abbott

At Hotel Blackfoot in Calgary, it's about the same, says Jane Douglas, the hotel's director of sales.

"We run during the week an average between 20 and 30 per cent occupancy," she said.

"Out of my 193 rooms, when we're selling 60 rooms, I'm doing a happy dance.… But, of course, it's nowhere where we need it to be."

Douglas and Abbot say they've both taken COVID safety seriously at their hotels, and prioritize making their guests who do stay feel protected.

Douglas says this has drawn back their clientele she calls "road warriors," who are coming down from Edmonton, and sometimes from either Vancouver or Toronto.

Creative solutions

Tough times have led to innovation for both establishments, which are seeking ways to maximize the use of their spaces and create revenue.

Over the summer, Hotel Blackfoot rented its sports bar out for the shooting of the supernatural western television series Wynonna Earp.

"We're working in that area really diligently, in the film industry, to try and generate some revenue," said Douglas.

Submitted by Jane Douglas
Submitted by Jane Douglas

Both are also developing guests packages that mimic international travel but at home, targeting the uptick in local travel.

Hotel Arts is developing an "all inclusive package" with Travel Alberta set to run in January with extras for guests to create a local vacation feel.

Over the summer, Hotel Blackfoot hosted car clubs in its parking lot, which brought in some food and beverage revenue, says Douglas.

Courtesy of Hotel Blackfoot
Courtesy of Hotel Blackfoot

Meanwhile, Hotel Arts has enclosed its outdoor pool, which typically closed over winter. Thanks to an inflatable shelter, it now offers year-round access.

There is even talk of using the empty ballrooms as a space for virtual golf, says Abbott.

"We're trying to reposition our brand as Calgary's urban resort," he said.

Despite best attempts at staying viable, Douglas says challenges remain, and she believes there are hotels that won't survive this.

"It's really a very sad industry right now," she said. "But we have to keep our heads up and we have to keep moving forward."

With files from Danielle Nerman and the Calgary Eyeopener.