Hardest hit, last to recover: Canada needs to change 'we're closed' travel messaging in COVID-19 recovery

·6 min read
January 31, ICE District, Edmonton, Alberta Canada - Evening rush hour on ICE District: It is 5pm, rush hour after work at the newly developed ICE District, in downtown Edmonton, Alberta Canada. You can see JW Marriott, designed by Hariri Pontarini Architects, DIALOG, Shugarman Architecture + Design, completed in June 2019. (JosephoenixDM via Getty Images)

While essentially all COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted across much of Canada and in several countries around the world, Don Cleary, President of Marriott Hotels of Canada, is reflecting on restoring traveller confidence.

“[Canada] put in place tight restrictions, literally forbidding travel between provinces and closing the border, advising against travel, all of that, I think, put out the message to people, Canadians, don't travel, it was unsafe to travel,” Cleary told Yahoo Canada in April. “I think much of the data that we know now is that travel wasn't what was spreading the virus and perhaps we were unfortunate that we were impacted so heavily by the restrictions.”

“The lifting of the restrictions, I think, is the biggest factor in rebuilding confidence… When the restrictions came down and the border testing requirements lifted, people [were] booking and people are coming.”

While stressing that the Public Health Agency of Canada made decisions throughout the COVID-19 pandemic that were in the best interest of Canadians at any given point in time, from a public health perspective, Cleary highlighted that in retrospect, some of those decisions may have unduly put the burden on the hospitality and tourism industries, which certainly took on the brunt of restrictions.

“There was a narrative that travel spreads the virus and therefore, shut down travel and people gathering, which means getting together in bars and restaurants, and ballrooms and hotels,” he said. “All of that hit the hotel and tourism industry harder than other industries, we like to say we were the first hit, hardest hit and we'll be the last to recover.”

“The good news is the wage subsidy was a great godsend to our hotels and our owners to help mitigate the significant losses all hotels experienced during COVID… People made the decisions they thought were necessary, they did do a good job of protecting Canadians, their focus is not overwhelming hospitals and we understand that. Our industry did our part, we all put in place enhanced safety and cleanliness protocols… The reality is, you can still travel and you can still gather, if you follow reasonable safety precautions.”

MISSISSAUGA, ON - MAY 12  -  Passengers lineup at Pearson Airport at Gate D to begin to clear security, the line disapated quickly in Mississauga. May 12, 2022.        (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
MISSISSAUGA, ON - MAY 12 - Passengers lineup at Pearson Airport at Gate D to begin to clear security, the line disapated quickly in Mississauga. May 12, 2022. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

'There is demand at all levels'

More recently, people around the world have been inundated with images of long lines at airports as we race towards any and all opportunities to travel.

The Canadian Travel & Tourism Roundtable is now calling on the federal government to take additional actions to relieve the pressure on Canada’s travel system, particularly at airports, by June 15. This includes removing vaccine mandates for Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) and Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) workers, and removing random testing at Canadian airports.

“Businesses and individuals seem to have the money to travel and now, combine that with the desire to travel, I think we're seeing strong demand across all tiers,” Don Cleary said. “Whether it's our roadside Fairfield Inns and [Courtyard Marriotts], Four Points hotels, but also our luxury hotels.”

“There is demand at all levels…the good news is, I think, the demand and the wherewithal to do it right now."

That being said, the President of Marriott Hotels of Canada did identify that the tourism sectors in urban city centres have had a longer way to go in terms of recovery, being the hardest hit destinations amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“They really suffered greatly, because they're primarily big business destinations and they depend on groups and conventions, and all of that was shut down,” Cleary explained. “People did feel less comfortable in urban environments, and preferred to be out in secondary and tertiary cities.”

“But the demand is coming back everywhere and since the cities were hardest hit, they have the furthest to come. So if you look at week-over-week improvements, it's maybe more dramatic in our urban centres, and that's only because they're coming from a lower base.”

TORONTO, ON- APRIL 15  - The Sheraton and Hilton hotels just off of University Avenue in the downtown are lit with hearts facing Hospital Row as people in Toronto are encouraged to keep physical distancing to slow the spread of COVID-19  in Toronto. April 15, 2020.        (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON- APRIL 15 - The Sheraton and Hilton hotels just off of University Avenue in the downtown are lit with hearts facing Hospital Row as people in Toronto are encouraged to keep physical distancing to slow the spread of COVID-19 in Toronto. April 15, 2020. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

The rise of 'bleisure' travel

One trend that Don Cleary is seeing is what’s being called "bleisure" travel, where people are taking off on a business trip but tacking on a few days for their own leisure stay.

“The leisure segment of travel is stronger today than it was before COVID,” he said. “So that segment came back fairly strong.”

“We're beginning to see really good group bookings,... the individual business traveller is the one that is lagging the most… but it's being offset by those that are doing it, are staying longer and adding this leisure element to it.”

Digital enhancement. All logos and signs have been removed
Digital enhancement. All logos and signs have been removed

'We've got to change the narrative that has been we're closed, don't come here'

Historically, Canada has been a big draw for international travellers, with the country largely being seen as a safe place to visit.

“The border didn't open until the end of August so we really lost…the American and European travellers,” Don Cleary said. “We're hoping we can attract some of those people back this summer now that the border's open and the testing requirements have gone, and we know there's a lot of demand.”

“Canada is a great destination for people and I think in today's world, given how high the vaccination levels are, we have a real opportunity to have a good summer with attracting international people… We've got to change the narrative that has been we're closed, don't come here, for the last two years, to we're open and come back.”

He added that Canada also needs to get the message out that not only is the country a great choice for a leisure trip, but also for business travellers and large-group travel, like conventions.

Ultimately, the President of Marriott Hotels of Canada hopes to never see a complete shutdown of the travel and tourism industry ever again.

“The data seems to suggest now that didn't stop the spread of the virus, it just did more economic and I think psychological harm to people,” he said. “There are things that we can do we, of course, have our cleanliness and safety protocols in place in the hotels, and they have them at the airports and airlines too, but let's not go back to shutting down.”

“Going forward, we're going to have to learn to live with the virus and safety first, but not necessarily closing food and beverage outlets or restricting meeting space, or restricting cross border travel or cross provincial travel. I think those were the things that hurt our industry, and I hope going forward we can learn to be safe but not shut us down.”