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‘We’re in uncharted territory:’ Occupancy rates at N.S. hotels plummet amid coronavirus pandemic

Hotels in Atlantic Canada brace for slow season during COVID-19 pandemic
With summer right around the corner, hotels in the region would usually be gearing up to welcome an onslaught of guests. But amid the COVID-19 pandemic most sit empty. Ashley Field has more on how the industry is weathering the storm.

With summer right around the corner, Nova Scotia hotels would usually be gearing up for their busiest time of year. Instead, many sit empty as the novel coronavirus continues to spread around the world.

“We haven’t had a guest for about a week and a half now, and we don’t anticipate having any for quite some time,” says Erika Banting, co-owner of the Tattingstone Inn in Wolfville, N.S.

“It’s devastating — it’s beyond words.”

Banting and her husband have owned the historic inn since August 2015. This year was poised to be their busiest yet, with bookings up 25 per cent.

Tattingstone Inn co-owner Erika Banting says she’s seen an “unprecedented” number of cancellations overnight due to the novel coronavirus outbreak.
Tattingstone Inn co-owner Erika Banting says she’s seen an “unprecedented” number of cancellations overnight due to the novel coronavirus outbreak.
The Tattingstone Inn in Wolfville, N.S.
The Tattingstone Inn in Wolfville, N.S. Ashley Field/Global News

“It’s a sinking feeling in your stomach knowing that you were set to have a record year and now you’re not. Now our goal is to stay in business,” says Banting.

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Banting says she watched from a distance as the virus spread, saying she realized the impacts it would have on her business “literally overnight.”

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“The day that sticks out in my mind is March 11. We had an unprecedented amount of cancellations that day. The phone just wouldn’t stop ringing, emails didn’t stop coming,” she says.

“It’s scary. Not only for the business but for all the staff that we employ; we want to be able to bring them back.”

Up to 90 per cent of hotel staff laid off

According to Hotel Association of Nova Scotia president David Clark, there are thousands of hotel staff in the Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM) alone who are now unemployed.

“It’s been a devastating couple of weeks,” he says. “Most hotels have laid off pretty much 90 per cent or more of their staff.”

That’s the case at the Atlantica Hotel Halifax, where Clark is the general manager. He says that while several hotels around the HRM have decided to temporarily close, the Atlantica remains open but with a skeleton staff, down from 100 employees to 10.

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Atlantica Hotel Halifax laid off 90 per cent of its staff amid the novel coronavirus outbreak.
Atlantica Hotel Halifax laid off 90 per cent of its staff amid the novel coronavirus outbreak. Reynold Gregor/Global News

“We’ve been through some tough times, but we’re in uncharted territory right now,” he says.

“There’s some programs in place with the government that will help for the time being, but the long term is going to be important, and we have to try and make sure that these people are taken care of.”

‘Tough year’ ahead for hotels

Not only are people not travelling right now, says Clark, but major events have been either cancelled or postponed — notably, the North American Indigenous Games scheduled for July.

“That was 5,000 athletes and all their support people and families and visitors and media, and it’s gone,” says Clark. “I mean, hopefully, we get them back next year, but this will be a tough year for hotel operators.”

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How to support local businesses through COVID-19 pandemic
How to support local businesses through COVID-19 pandemic

He says there are no Hilton- or Marriott-owned hotels in Halifax — those, too, are owned by private individuals.

“You see the words Hilton and Marriott on the side of buildings, but these buildings are owned by people who own small or medium-sized businesses. They may have one hotel or a few hotels,” says Clark.

“I think most of us are very positive in terms of we will come out on the other side, but you know, it’s going to be tough. I wouldn’t be surprised if some properties don’t survive.”

‘Trying to be optimistic’

Banting says she’s applied for help through federal programming, but she’s also hoping for some civic support.

“It would definitely be nice if our municipal governments would give us a little alleviation in regards to property taxes. Ours here are quite substantial, so any relief in that regard and postponement of utilities, that would be extremely beneficial,” says Banting.

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Tattingstone Inn co-owner Erika Banting is hoping for municipal relief amid the novel coronavirus outbreak, as property taxes are “quite substantial.”
Tattingstone Inn co-owner Erika Banting is hoping for municipal relief amid the novel coronavirus outbreak, as property taxes are “quite substantial.”. Ashley Field/Global News

“Not only for us but all the small businesses in town, it’s vital that we get some relief wherever we can.”

She says these are “scary times,” but she’s trying to stay positive.

READ MORE: Coronavirus — Nova Scotia announces rent-deferral program for small businesses, iPads for seniors

“We don’t know what the new normal is going to be, and so it’s the anticipation of not knowing that’s a little bit scary,” says Banting.

“I’m trying to be optimistic, and hopefully, if everybody listens to the safety regulations and stays safe then maybe we can get out of this soon rather than later.”

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