Scott Jocelyn: Pulling back the shutters

Scott Jocelyn. Photo credit: 100 Acre Woods Photography.

WINNIPEG — As people emerge from the pandemic, their perceptions of safety and travel as they pull back the shutters will affect the speed at which the industry recovers. Scott Jocelyn, president and CEO of the Manitoba Hotel Association, points to extension of wage subsidies and property tax relief as two measures that would help the province’s hotels.

Jocelyn uses the word “devastating” to describe the impact of the pandemic on Manitoba hotels, and told CLN the recent time period has been “probably the hardest three months of my life. There have been good moments, followed by bad ones right afterward. It’s been like a bad dream, a nightmare, where you wake up and see what the industry is facing.”

Manitoba Hotel Association has 275 members, including large accommodation properties with a lot of room business and big events, and those hotels have certainly been impacted. “Every hotel has laid off significant numbers, if not all of their people,” Jocelyn said.

Other MHA members are smaller properties with guest rooms, a restaurant, a bar, some VLTs and a retail beer store. These properties were allowed to keep their retail beer stores open, and were able to keep some people on. These hotels are the gathering point in small communities, but during the pandemic people are not going out to gather. “These smaller properties need every aspect of that business to be contributing. If they have one arm tied behind their back, it’s challenging.”

Every area of the province has been affected, Jocelyn said. “There are a few exceptions, such as hotels close to hospitals housing front line workers, or people working on highway projects or railways, but we’re still talking single digit occupancy across the board.”

“I’m fortunate to be a board member of HAC. I was on a lot of calls with people doing my job across the country. I was hearing from them how things might look in Manitoba two weeks down the road.”

Some of the good things that happened included the hotel in Brandon, Man., that helped house the homeless (read more here). About 60 hotels answered a government RFP to provide rooms if they were needed for non-COVID hospital patients. “We haven’t needed the rooms, but we were able to mobilize the group quickly so that anywhere in the province was covered.” In Manitoba, the number of coronavirus cases was quite low, but there were still challenges in balancing the economy and safety.

Winnipeg skyline showing Canadian Museum of Human Rights (right). Photo credit: Dan Harper

The Manitoba Hotel Association has played a number of roles during the pandemic. Communication was crucial. “We received an unbelievable number of calls from members with questions requiring clarification. It’s quite a responsibility when people call you regarding public health orders. In some cases, we used our resources to track down the answers, and in some cases, the government hadn’t even anticipated what we were asking. We spent a lot of time providing updates for members. Another major role was presenting industry asks to government.

“Both roles continue today, but questions are more, ‘Can I do this?’ or ‘When can this open?’ and encouraging governments to open sections of the business. Nobody recognizes how many protocols our members face regarding swimming pools, spas, restaurants, VLTs, event space and gyms,” Jocelyn said. “We try to make sure the information gets out, and there are people who really appreciate it. That gets us pumped and energizes the team.

Manitoba is entering Phase 2 of its reopening. “They haven’t reopened VLTs yet, and that is impacting some of our people, as they are important, especially in rural areas. Events are for up to 25 people indoors. Restaurants are at half capacity; bars are at half capacity. Customers are dipping their toes into the water — people seem to be comfortable with that. One of our next challenges will be to open up event space.

MHA is working with Travel Manitoba and Tourism Winnipeg urging travellers to travel within the province.

The Forks, Winnipeg. Photo credit: Dan Harper

“It will be a long time before we return to normal,” said Jocelyn. “People have to be comfortable jumping in a plane, eating at a restaurant or staying in a hotel. We are pulling back the shutters, but recovery will take longer for our industry than others.”

Extension of the wage subsidy program beyond the end of August is crucial for the hotel industry, Jocelyn noted. “I don’t think enough is going to significantly change by then.”

Hoteliers will also be looking at property tax relief, which is a significant issue for Manitoba hoteliers. “We are working with all levels of government to make sure operators get relief on big tax bills,” Jocelyn said.