Tourism Barrie faces economic difficulty amid coronavirus crisis

Environment Canada has issued a tornado warning for the Barrie area Monday evening. File

While Tourism Barrie is facing economic difficulties amid the coronavirus crisis, the organization is looking toward the future, hoping for a speedy recovery.

Tourism Barrie has asked the City of Barrie, Ont., to consider allowing it to keep 100 per cent of the municipal accommodation tax (MAT) collected between January and September, according to a city memo.

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“Tourism Barrie has identified that it would not survive the summer and have to shut down operations and renege on outstanding commitments in destination marketing and management programs if it were not to receive the funding support from 100 per cent of the MAT from January to September,” Stephannie Schlichter, Barrie’s economic and creative development director, said in the memo to council, dated May 4.

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Tourism Barrie receives 50 per cent of the MAT, per legislative requirements, while 50 per cent goes to the City of Barrie. The MAT is a four per cent tax payable for the purchase price of a room rental accommodation.

According to the memo to council, 59 per cent of tourism businesses across Ontario have temporarily closed, while more than 21 per cent are at risk of closing permanently in the next three months. Forty-two per cent have laid off up to 100 per cent of their staff.

“Not knowing how long the virus will go, we were alerting the city that if this was a very prolonged pandemic, then Tourism Barrie, being funded by a tax, would have economic difficulties coming into the summer,” Kathleen Trainor, Tourism Barrie’s executive director, told Global News.

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The difficulty the organization is facing, Trainor said, is that Barrie is a winter destination, and as a result, Tourism Barrie invested more than $50,000 into marketing in the months of January and February.

“We use money that’s collected from the (MAT) to re-market the city, so we had used all that money to market the city in the months of January and February,” Trainor said.

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“We’ve gone into a negative because March and April [are] when you kind of recoup.”

Tourism Barrie has also had to lay off staff as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.

“To reduce costs and ride out the pandemic, Tourism Barrie has permanently laid off one staff and is temporarily laying off two more staff members,” Trainor said in an email to Barrie Mayor Jeff Lehman in April.

“The remaining two employees have taken 20 per cent pay cuts.”

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In order to move forward, Trainor told Global News that her organization has applied for the wage subsidy that is being offered by the federal government.

“We’re waiting for the wage subsidy, which will be announced on Thursday,” she said.

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“We actually brought back one more person, given that we applied for the wage subsidy, so we’ll bring back one more person, and two will remain laid off temporarily.”

Right now, as the coronavirus pandemic continues, Tourism Barrie has been promoting experiences from home.

“This is an unprecedented time, and also you’re not supposed to have visitors, and you don’t want to promote visitors,” Trainor said.

“What we’ve done is we’ve been promoting all the restaurants that have takeout.”

The organization has also been advocating for local businesses that have curbside pick-ups, according to Trainor.

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Since Ontario’s COVID-19 emergency order was enacted, hotel occupancy and room rates in Barrie have been “drastically reduced.”

Tourism Barrie reported that in March, local hotel occupancy was down 36.7 per cent over the year prior, according to the memo to council.

“I can say that April, right now, is sitting at 12 per cent, so it can be anywhere between 10 and 12 per cent occupancy,” Trainor said.

The Ontario government extended all its emergency orders until May 19 on Wednesday, two days after it allowed a small number of businesses to reopen.

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On April 27, Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced the province’s plan to gradually reopen the economy in three stages, though no firm dates were provided.

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“Tourism is part of the recovery plan,” Trainor said. “Marketing a sense of place of a destination and working with all of the restaurants and retailers is part of the recovery.”

The executive director said she was working with Tourism Barrie back when the SARS outbreak hit in 2003 and that vacation markets do “very well in recovery.”

“Barrie is a drive-through city and a drive-by city,” Trainor said.

“Barrie should actually do better than some of the other cities because it is a road-trip, it is a rubber tire, and it is more economical to stay [here.]”
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