Nfld. & Labrador

Cancelled convention season means millions in losses, but this hotel just reopened its doors

Business continues to be slow for many hotels across the province, but one of the largest in St. John's is open for the first time since being closed during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Sheraton Hotel Newfoundland open again after begin closed since April 1

Heather McKinnon, interim general manager of the Sheraton Hotel in St. John's, says the business had to open its doors to cover some costs after being closed for duration of pandemic. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

Business continues to be slow for many hotels across the province, but one of the largest in St. John's has reopened its doors for the first time since being closed during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The Sheraton Hotel Newfoundland had been closed since April 1 but on Thursday had a soft reopening in which only 10 per cent of its occupancy is expected, interim general manager Heather McKinnon told CBC News. 

McKinnon said the Sheraton, along with the Delta Hotel St. John's, have lost millions in revenue as a result of the pandemic and a tough year on tourism and travel. Both hotels are owned by Westmont Hospitality Group of Mississauga, Ont. 

"We're both conference and corporate hotels, and all the conferences have been wiped out for the remainder of the year," McKinnon said. 

McKinnon said the Sheraton and Delta rely heavily on conferences for business. But there is an upside. McKinnon said the Delta has been able to retain about 90 per cent of its conference bookings — pushed ahead to future years — while the Sheraton has been able to retain about 75 per cent of its conferences down the road.

Jane Kingston, general manager of the DoubleTree by Hilton — formerly the Quality Inn Hotel on Hill O' Chips — said hotels in St. John's should be in the middle of the conference booking boom at this point in the year, but due to the pandemic and a continuing travel ban nothing is coming through. 

The Sheraton Hotel reopened Thursday after being closed since April. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)
 

"I think the way forward, when it comes to conventions, it's going to be very, very difficult and very uncertain because large corporations have now realized that they can do a lot of their conferences virtually," she said. 

Further, Kingston said, DoubleTree's reliance on tour buses and tourism groups cause a loss of over $1 million for her hotel as well after mass cancellations.

McKinnon said Destination Canada predicts it will take four to five years for convention bookings at hotels to fully rebound. 

The real world

But even with conferences being cancelled and travel plans to the province being put on hold for many, leaving the doors closed for any longer would likely have bigger detrimental results on the Sheraton, said McKinnon. 

"We started to hear that people thought it was closing for good, or that it was for sale — neither of which is true," she said. 

"The Sheraton has such a strong client base we thought it's time to reopen. Plus we want to get some basic costs covered."

The DoubleTree by Hilton hotel in St. John's has been gaining back customers slowly, but is still operating at about half of its capacity. (Mike Simms/CBC)

Most programs, payment deferrals and tax breaks to help businesses through the pandemic have now ended, meaning as revenue continues to be a struggle the bills will begin to pile up. The federal emergency wage subsidy has since been extended, however. 

Kingston said hotels are now under added pressure as they begin to face reality again. As the new product in town, Kingston said, DoubleTree's guest numbers have began to climb week over week since reopening in June, but the hotel is still only operating at about 50 per cent of its occupancy.

"We're now in the real world. The mortgages are back on, everything is now back to reality in all sense of the word," she said. 

"We're under more pressure now than we ever have been to produce."

Travel ban

In September the Supreme Court ruled the travel ban on non-essential visitors put in place by the province will remain intact. The ban began May 4, but has since been relaxed for the Maritime provinces under the Atlantic bubble.  

Both McKinnon and Kingston said the health and safety of residents of the province is paramount, despite how difficult the travel ban has been for business, which they said will continue to struggle until the Atlantic bubble opens to the rest of Canada. 

"Until we see summer again I don't think we'll see too much movement," said Kingston.

"I don't think it's possible unless the bubble opens."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Heather Gillis

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