Struggling Ottawa hotels call for federal support

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With weddings, conferences and festivals happening online, members of the Ottawa Gatineau Hotel Association say their industry is struggling and are calling on the federal government for greater financial support.

According to the Hotel Association of Canada, 32 per cent of hotel owners surveyed in the country said their businesses wouldn't make it beyond November, with half indicating they'll close before the pandemic's end.

"I think it's an accurate reflection of what's happening across Canada," Steve Ball, president of Ottawa Gatineau Hotel Association, told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning on Monday.

"Certainly, Ottawa-Gatineau is not immune to what is going on."

Survey's findings 'quite frightening'

Ball said strong ownership groups somewhat insulate the city from the broader trends but the thought of half of surveyed hotels closing remains "a figure that's quite frightening."

He said the tourism industry contributed approximately $2.2 billion to Ottawa's economy in 2019 and hopes governments recognize that a full economic recovery is impossible without them.

Ball would like for the federal government to implement fixed cost relief for hotels, address access issues in the Business Credit Availability Program and increase the Canada emergency wage subsidy to a 85 per cent subsidy rate for "businesses experiencing deep and sustained revenue loss."

Calling the industry "critical infrastructure," he said a hotel closing also means businesses around it also suffer.

'Difficult way to make a living'

"We're surviving, but we're tight," said Colin Morrison, chair of Ottawa-Gatineau Hotel Association and general manager of Embassy Hotel and Suites in Ottawa.

"I won't say that we're one of the ones that are on the brink, primarily due to a good ownership group, but it is a difficult way to make a living these days."

Morrison said the federal government's wage subsidy was a godsend, helping him keep on some staff.

Other government programs and loans are harder to qualify for, Morrison said, both because hotels are neither large nor small-sized businesses and often don't have long-term relationships with banks because they're seen as complicated portfolios to manage.

Hotel employees some of country's most vulnerable

Hotel Association of Canada said those impacted by the industry's decline are some of the country's most vulnerable workers: women, immigrants, millennials and visible minorities.

Many didn't necessarily have the job skills to find work elsewhere, leaving them "caught in the middle," Morrison said.

Many hotels didn't have the cash reserves to keep employees on when the pandemic first hit — something Morrison calls "gut wrenching."

The Embassy Hotel and Suites laid off 80 per cent of its workforce initially, but was later able to hire back all but 20 per cent, thanks to the wage subsidy.

"We're hoping that business will rebound eventually so that we can bring those people back," Morrison said.