By Colleen Isherwood
PETERBOROUGH, ON—I posed the question delicately over lunch at a cosy pub in Peterborough earlier this summer.
“So what’s next for you two?”
Bruce and Frances Gravel were preparing to close up shop as the Ontario Accommodation Association (OAA), which they had run for 28 years, was joining its operations with those of the Ontario Restaurant Hotel and Motel Association. They met with my publisher/husband Steve and I before they left.
Bruce gave a hint of a smile as he said, “You mean what are we going to do when we grow up?”
He and Frances grinned at each other and said in unison, “We’re not going to grow up!”
That answer was totally in character. Over their years with the OAA, the Gravels have brought a distinctive blend of humour, serious knowledge and family values to their management of the association. They have known each other since Frances poked Bruce in the back in Grade 10 in Dorval, QC, and have been married for nearly 40 years.
Bruce has been the president, CEO and public face of the OAA, dealing with ministry officials on pressing issues, dispensing professional advice, communicating with the board and individual members, selling the OAA’s various products, organizing conferences, speaking in public and writing prolifically.
Frances has worked behind the scenes growing her secretarial and accounting skills into management of projects such as the Traveller’s Companion, a print directory of accommodation listings in the province that ran from 1999 to 2012, and editing the Innkeeper’s Reference Book, which grew from 45 to 477 pages over the years.
“Frances is also extremely proud of her almost 28 years as OAA’s bookkeeper: her books were virtually perfect each year, according to our auditors,” Bruce noted. “In fact, they used OAA’s audit to train many new accountants, knowing her books were virtually perfect!”
Their son, Scott, has also contributed his computer expertise over the years.
Sixty-four years of history
The organization that eventually became known as the OAA was created in 1949, when its members split off from what was then known as the Ontario Hotel Association, which later became the ORHMA.
Bruce started his career in Etobicoke, ON running the education program at the Canadian Institute of Plumbing and Heating.
The offer from Ontario Accommodation Association meant he would hold the number one position in the organization. Bruce, Frances and Scott, then age two, moved to Peterborough for the job.
Six months later, they needed a part-time bookkeeper, and Frances came on board.
Looking back, Bruce sees SAXibition (aka, the Super Accommodation eXhibition) show, as a true team effort and major accomplishment. “I organized and marketed it; Frances and I sold most booth spaces, Frances was floor manager for set-up and tear-down at the show itself, while son Scott was dock marshal outside for move-in and move-out, often in all kinds of bad weather. This went on for almost two decades, as before SAXibition our show was called ACCEX (Accommodation Exhibition).
“Another achievement I’m very proud of: serving as volunteer executive director of the Tourism Federation of Ontario (TFO) for 11.5 years, keeping a disparate, highly-independent group of 35 tourism associations together and working on common goals for the betterment of our industry.
“The TFO provided the financial and constitutional foundation for TIAO, the Tourism Industry Association of Ontario, which replaced it as per our industry’s wishes and which has paid staff.”
Boom and bust
When Bruce started with the OAA, the organization had 400 members. That number grew to over 1,000—1,200 counting allied, associate and eduction members—at the association’s peak in 2004.
Then the industry started to change, as old-time members sold their motels to condo developers. The rise of the hotel brands meant a further decline in membership, as mandatory brand conferences took the place of association conventions, and brands encouraged owners and managers to buy from the brand’s preferred suppliers.
The Gravels were always focused on their innkeeper members, and helped OAA weather the financial losses of the past few years. Bruce even took a 20 per cent pay cut two years ago.
So, seriously, what does the future hold? Both Bruce and Frances say they’re too young to retire. “We’ve got lots of energy. We like to work together, and we’re kicking around the idea of our own business,” said Bruce.
“We will not be starting a B&B.”
Travelling is a priority. They are planning a trip to Hawaii for their 40th anniversary.
Bruce, author of four humourous books, will have lots of time to pursue that passion. One project in the works includes a book set in a hotel with several collaborative authors.
“Thank you to everyone who contacted us expressing kind words and best wishes to Frances, Sandra, Scott, and myself. It is much appreciated,” said Bruce in an e-mail to members. “Frances and I feel that it has been an honour and a privilege to have served you for almost 28 years.”
Ironically, when Bruce was hired in 1985, the executive committee asked him for a five-year commitment.
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