Nfld. & Labrador

'Batten down the hatches' as hotel operators face COVID-19 cancellations

Hotel operators in central Newfoundland say they're preparing to be as flexible as possible during the outbreak of COVID-19, which has started to force the cancellation of sport and work events.
A boat approaches an iceberg near Twillingate. (Twillingate Adventure Tours/Facebook)

A co-owner of a Newfoundland hotel chain says his business is preparing to "batten down the hatches" as the COVID-19 outbreak forces the cancellations of many high-traffic events.

Bruce Sparkes, who co-owns the Clayton Hospitality Group, said his business has moved into cost-cutting mode to try to weather what could be a lengthy period without many conferences, concerts and sporting events.

"Everything under the sun has been cancelling," Sparkes said from the Comfort Inn in Gander, one of three hotels his group owns.

"There's supposed to be a big conference here next week with delegates into the hundreds, and that's about to be postponed or cancelled," he said. "We're hoping that they're all going to postpone everything and not cancel it altogether, so we're making the shoe fit around here. We're reducing where we can. And hopefully it doesn't last too long."

Bruce Sparkes is a co-owner and operator of the Clayton Hospitality company, which operates hotels in Gander, Clarenville and St. John's. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

On Friday, the Newfoundland and Labrador Volleyball Association cancelled its senior-level tournament, which brings teams — and hotel traffic — to Gander.

HockeyNL, which governs minor hockey associations in the province, has also cancelled all sanctioned hockey games "until further notice" — meaning the coming end-of-year tournaments appear to be off the books, too.

"I think this situation calls for a classic case of cutting your costs wherever you can." said Sparkes. "There's no way we can do anything about the top line on the statement, and drive revenue, because there's not going to be anyone around."

Sparkes said the Gander hotel has seen about 130 arrivals in the past seven days, which is way down.

Questions for tourism season

Owners of hotels and B&Bs in Twillingate say they are also entering an uncertain time, as the global outbreak of COVID-19 looms over the town's tourism-related economy.

While concerns and precautions related to the virus have begun to force the cancellations of hockey tournaments and music festivals, tourism operators in Twillingate are starting to wonder what it might mean for business during the upcoming iceberg-watching season.

"It's just a watch and see right now," said Chris Scott, the owner of a B&B, restaurant and boat tour company in Twillingate. 

"I haven't seen a decrease in bookings, I haven't seen no cancellations as of right now. So we're hoping that trend continues."

Chris Scott reads from his guestbook at the Harbour Lights Inn, a B&B he owns in Twillingate. Scott says he regularly gets guests from around the world, including Germany, Switzerland and the United States. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

Peak tourism season in the town runs from mid-May to September, but Scott said bookings start to come much earlier, in January and February.

Deborah Bourden co-owns and operates the Anchor Inn, the largest hotel in Twillingate, along with other tourism businesses. She said she's heard from operators that the phone lines are a little bit quieter this year.

She said her businesses have seen group cancellations, and explained she feels those are likely because group tour sellers operate on a much longer lead time.

"They're going to say, 'OK, I'm selling this tour, [but] right now it's not selling because people are nervous.' They have greater lead times so we're seeing a couple of cancellations there," Bourden said.

Both Bourden and Scott — who owns the competing Harbour Lights Inn — say they hope national and international travel will return to normal, and the worst of the COVID-19 outbreak will pass, by the time their tourism season hits its regular peak.

But they're also prepared to take extra precautions this year.

The Anchor Inn contains 26 rooms in two buildings, making it the biggest hotel in Twillingate. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

"We not only have a responsibility for the people that's visiting our establishments, we have a responsibility to our personnel … and they have responsibility to their families also and their community," Scott said.

He pledged he'd follow the latest advice from health authorities when operating his business, which sometimes sees between 75,000 and 80,000 people come through in a summer.

Sparkes said while business has dried up in Gander, he's also being aggressive in enforcing new hygiene standards to look after the guests he does have.

"We have three properties in Newfoundland and we're getting into every one of those rooms now, and anything that the customer touches that can be removed is being removed," he said, such has in-room coffee machines.

Ted Rosenthallewis is the head of the Twillingate Islands Tourism Association and owns the Crowe's Nest Cafe in Twillingate. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

Local focus

Ted Rosenthallewis, the head of the Twillingate Islands Tourism Association, said the majority of visitors to the area are fully independent travellers — using rental or personal vehicles, and booking their own accommodations.

He said that type of traveller is more flexible in their bookings, so there's a better chance those bookings won't be cancelled early.

Twillingate draws many of its visitors from Ontario, and Bourden suggests changing marketing focus can help if international travel is discouraged.

An iceberg floats in the waters near Twillingate in 2019. Peak tourism season for Twillingate runs from May to September. (Submitted by David Boyd)

"I think the biggest thing that we've been talking about is maybe switching some of your marketing focus. And bring it closer to home," she said.

Bourden said she suspects people who still want to travel will be looking at destinations inside the country, and perhaps inside their own province.

"More Newfoundland and Labradorians [might be] travelling in the province because they're going to feel safer," she said. "And plus, it's going to be easier to execute that at the last minute."

The Anchor Inn opens each year in April, and sells many rooms to families heading toward the Twillingate area for hockey tournaments.

On Thursday, Hockey NL announced it was cancelling all of its sanctioned games, practices and playoffs "until further notice."

On Monday, an announcement from the St. John's airport said the baggage arrivals area would be open only to passengers.

"We advise those picking up loved ones to use our free cellphone waiting lot and pick up travellers on curbside or wait in short-term parking," read a tweet from the airport early Monday evening.

Bourden said Wednesday she hopes some activities will return and resume.

"We believe, optimistically, that this will be behind us as H1N1 was behind us and SARS, that then you will probably see a surge of last-minute bookings. And I think there, we would do well."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Garrett Barry