Nfld. & Labrador

Closed for Christmas: COVID-19 delivers another blow to the hospitality industry

Some businesses in the hospitality industry are shutting their doors over Christmas, and worrying about the slow winter months ahead.

Major hotel, pub closed for Christmas week, caterers taking a hit

The Delta hotel and Shamrock City Pub are two of several businesses that are closing over the Christmas holidays because of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Roman Sigaev/Shutterstock)

There's a lot less hustle and bustle this Christmas as most big corporate parties, dinners and banquets have been cancelled since Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald cautioned against large gatherings earlier this month. 

And with informal gatherings limited to 20 people, some businesses in the hospitality industry are shutting their doors over Christmas, and worrying about the slow winter months ahead.

It's another blow to the industry after a difficult summer tourism season that saw major hotels and tour operators close for the high season, while many restaurants struggled.

Stephanie Clarke, the general manager of Shamrock City Pub, says she's closing shop from Christmas Eve to Jan. 2.

"We deemed that it wouldn't be profitable for us to go ahead and remain open during the holidays. So we said we'll give the staff a break and let everyone have Christmas off," she said, adding it's her first Christmas off in a decade. 

Stephanie Clarke is the manager of the Shamrock City Pub on Water Street in St. John's. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

She said groups cancelled reservations when new guidelines about gathering were announced, and with no Christmas or New Year's Eve parties and capacity in the pub at 50 per cent, she said staff hours have also been slashed.

Meanwhile, some hoteliers will also be closing their doors over the holidays.

Heather McKinnon, general manager of the Delta St. John's Hotel and Conference Centre and the Sheraton Hotel Newfoundland, said the Delta will be closed Dec. 24-27.

"It's the first time ever," she said.

McKinnon said most of the Christmas parties booked at the hotels, even the small ones, have been cancelled. She said the Sheraton's big Christmas and Boxing Day buffets and their New Year's Eve gala also aren't going ahead.

"It's very quiet," she said.

Heather McKinnon, general manager of Sheraton and Delta Hotels, says the most of their Christmas parties are cancelled. She says Christmas and Boxing Day buffets and the New Year's Eve gala are also cancelled. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

She said their bookings dropped significantly when the province exited the Atlantic bubble. She says there are only about 40 bookings nightly for the Delta's 400 rooms, compared with 100 a night when the four Atlantic provinces were bubbled. 

McKinnon said while much of the hotel's staff is still laid off, it's been stressful for those who are working.

"Not all guests are following the isolation protocols as stringently as they can, and it's a lot of stress on them trying to keep track of everyone and giving them reminders about their isolation protocols,'' she said.

Caterers feel forgotten

With all those parties cancelled, caterers are also taking a hit. 

Jeff Tiller, who co-owns Fireside Catering, said he usually caters more than 50 events between mid-November and December.

"We've done three events since the middle of November, and the largest of one of them was 52 people," said Tiller, who has been catering for more than 20 years.

He says they've lost 95 per cent of their revenue this December and more than 200 events he was scheduled to cater have been cancelled this year. 

About 800 people attend the Noia conference in St. John's annually. Jeff Tiller, co-owner of Fireside Catering, usually holds a lobster boil for the conference delegates each year. This year all Tiller's big events have been cancelled. (CBC)

"It's been a very tough trying year, with no sign on the horizon, really, for our industry to recover," Tiller said.

To make matters worse, Tiller said, caterers weren't eligible for the province's tourism and hospitality support program, which saw some businesses receive $5,000 or $10,000 grants.

"You sort of feel like you're a left-out sector of the hospitality industry," he said. 

"No one thinks about caterers because it's not the same as going to a restaurant or tourists going to a bar."

Industry eyeing recovery

The toughest, slowest winter months lie ahead for the hospitality industry, and that has many wondering about the economic recovery, when COVID-19 restrictions will lift, and when people will start traveling again for leisure, work and conferences.

"Next year, we have 45 conferences on the books at the Delta, and I'd say about half of them are gone and cancelled now and pushed into later years," said McKinnon.

The number of conferences cancelled next year will in turn affect caterers like Tiller. He doesn't think his business will see pre-COVID levels of sales, with large conferences, banquets and events, until 2022.

"Especially the largest stuff, the 500-, 600-, 700-[person] gatherings and that, it's going to be years before that comes back because that's not something someone's going to decide one month and do the next month," he said.

Meanwhile at Shamrock City Pub, Clarke is urging people to support local businesses once they reopen after the holidays. 

"I hope the people continue to support local business and understand that this is an industry that does struggle this time of year. And hopefully we can increase our sales somehow," she said.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Janelle Kelly

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