SASKATOON — Jim Bence, president and CEO of the Saskatchewan Hotel & Hospitality Association talked with CLN what it means for the hospitality industry now that the province has entered Phase 3.
Saskatchewan entered Phase 3 of the post-COVID recovery on June 8, which means that restaurants, pubs and taverns can open — a step forward for the hospitality industry that applies to a big piece of the sector. Saskatchewan has lots of “gallonage houses,” small hotels with about 10 rooms that have off-sale liquor, a restaurant, a pub and VLTs. “They rely primarily on bar service, off sales and VLTs, but pubs have been closed and VLTs restricted during COVID-19,” said Bence.
Bence told the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix he expected between 50 and 75 per cent of restaurants and bars to reopen on June 8. He noted that some people are really anxious about going out, and suggested that customers who are risk averse could go to restaurants on Tuesdays, Wednesdays or Thursdays, when the restaurants are traditionally less crowded. Smaller, family-run restaurants and those that have been offering takeout or delivery during the pandemic are more likely to reopen, he said.
Phase 3 means that restaurants can open at 50 per cent capacity, which is good, but means it’s still difficult to make a profit. “Restaurants will have to look at the risk profile and make the decision that is best for them.”
How hotels are faring
In Saskatchewan, hotel business immediately dried up across the province in March. Rural operators had to close, and midscale operators had already been pounded by the oil and gas industry. A number of full service operations closed completely, while others scraped by on four to five per cent occupancy, laying everyone off except for a few managers. In early May, Premier Scott Moe’s Saskatchewan Party announced $2 billion in infrastructure spending, dubbed “an economic booster shot,” which immediately injected capital into small and medium-sized markets.
“For hotels in Humboldt or Assiniboine, there’s crazy low occupancy, but [the injection of cash] was enough for some operations to open up. We’re also very appreciative of the wage subsidy, as it has allowed [hospitality businesses] to bring people back to work,” said Bence.
“Before COVID-19, [the] Saskatchewan and Alberta [economies] took a terrible plunge because of oil and gas, and we’ve seen a dramatic drop from the year before,” said Bence. “Leisure travel is right off the map, and corporate groups have evaporated entirely.”
Urban properties are the ones that are really struggling, as leisure and corporate business in the cities has dried up, Bence added.
Praise for government communication
“Our government has been extremely willing to talk,” said Bence. Jeremy Harrison, minister of Trade and Export Development and minister of Immigration and Career Training, and Kent Campbell, deputy minister of Trade and Export Development, are on the Business Response Team formed in March to support businesses in the province dealing with the economic challenges resulting from COVID-19. This provides an opportunity for the SHHA to engage with government directly each week. “We’re engaged in a way that we can make recommendations to government, and they can move quickly. You don’t often see governments working at the speed of business, but they are this time.”
SHHA worked with Restaurants Canada’s Mark von Schellwitz, vice-president for Western Canada, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business and the Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce on eviction protection for small businesses. On June 5, the Saskatchewan government announced temporary commercial eviction protection for small business tenants during the COVID-19 emergency. The moratorium on evictions applies to landlords that are eligible to apply for the Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance (CECRA) program but choose not to.
“The government connection and commitment to communication with business is right on,” Bence said. Saskatchewan restaurants can now accommodate gatherings of 15 people indoors and 30 outdoors. The increase to 30 people for outdoor gatherings was originally part of Phase 4, and SHHA and other groups played a role in moving it to Phase 3.
“We have done a great job of flattening the curve. Operators’ behaviour in terms of staff and customers has been safe. It’s time to put our foot on the gas a little bit and move forward,” Bence said.