Edmonton hotels open but empty as pandemic devastates hospitality industry

Hotel managers say bookings have fallen off a cliff in the last two months, forcing companies to lay off most employees until the COVID-19 pandemic subsides.

Managers report many hotels have laid off 90% of employees

Since the Courtyard by Marriott's downtown hotel lobby is free of guests, staff have put chairs up in order to clean the carpets. (Chris Short)

Hotel managers say bookings have fallen off a cliff in the last two months, prompting companies to lay off most employees until the COVID-19 pandemic subsides.

Many hotels, which are considered an essential service, remain open but they are serving fewer customers than ever.

"We're essentially just covering shifts for the couple of guests we have in house," said Chris Short, general manager of the Courtyard by Marriott hotel in downtown Edmonton. Short is also vice-president of the Hotel Association of Greater Edmonton.

Listen to Chris Short discuss this issue with host Adrienne Pan on CBC's Radio Active:

Just a handful of the hotel's 188 rooms have been booked each night over the past week, and 69 of 76 staff members have been laid off, Short said.

"Everybody is suffering but our industry has been dramatically affected," said Perry Batke, general manager of two Best Western hotels in Leduc.

Most employees at his hotels have also been laid off.

At first, the crisis seemed manageable, Batke recalled, but then came cancellations of flights, conferences and sports tournaments.

When bars, lounges and pubs were ordered to close two weeks ago, that caused another large drop in business.

Empty chairs and tables are now the norm at Barney's Pub and Grill inside the Best Western Plus Edmonton Airport Hotel. (Gail Johnson/Denham Hospitality Organization)

"It seemed like every 30 minutes, we were faced with unbelievably difficult and complex situations with impossible alternatives," he said.

Some hotels, including the Fairmont Hotel Macdonald and the Delta Hotels downtown and south side locations, have temporarily closed their doors to visitors.

Batke said the few guests that remain in his hotels work for service companies, airlines and essential manufacturers.

Through surveys with members, the Alberta Hotel and Lodging Association estimates that more than 90 per cent of hotel staff have been laid off during the pandemic due to the drastic drop in occupancy. 

The empty parking lot at Best Western Premier Denham Inn and Suites in Leduc. (Perry Batke/Denham Hospitality Organization)

The provincial and federal governments have announced support for businesses suffering financially during the COVID-19 crisis. One of the provincial measures gives hotels the option to delay paying the four-per-cent tourism levy until August 31. 

Hotels that delay that payment will not face any penalties or interest, a news release said.

The help is welcome but "not nearly enough," said Dave Kaiser, president and CEO of the hotel association. His organization is lobbying for more support from governments, including deferrals on utility bills and other expenses.

As the pandemic continues, hotels are also accommodating self-isolating guests and preparing for the possibility of accommodating COVID-19 patients.

"This is beyond what anybody could imagine," Batke said.