Pandemic car rentals hit 'extremely hard,' effect felt on P.E.I.

With travel and the mass movement of people halted across the world for over 15 months, many businesses are continuing to feel the sting, including car rentals on P.E.I.

'Our revenue dropped down 72 per cent'

P.E.I Car Rentals is owned by Tolga Toprak, a Turkish immigrant who came to P.E.I. with his family in 2018. (Nicola MacLeod/CBC)

With travel and the mass movement of people halted across the world for over 15 months, many businesses are continuing to feel the sting, including car rentals on P.E.I.

Tolga Toprak and his wife Ozlem immigrated to the Island through the provincial nominee program from Turkey three years ago. They own and operate P.E.I. Car Rentals, which is located in the Delta hotel in downtown Charlottetown.

"We were expecting, actually, 2020 was going to be much stronger than 2019, and beginning of March last year ... just after the pandemic started, we started getting the cancellations," Toprak said.

"Our revenue dropped down 72 per cent."

Much of the company's business relies on tourism in the high season and conferences in the shoulder season, both of which have been virtually non-existent for over a year.

"Also the value of the cars that we are renting out, it also dropped," he said. "We were charging, for example, at $70 a day and then it came down to $30."

Some business down 95%

The Topraks are not alone. 

The group representing the Canadian car rental industry said they've been hit "extremely hard" by the pandemic.

"Some of our operators that service airports are seeing declines in volume, you know, in excess of 90 to 95 per cent ... it basically mirrors the drop in passenger volumes at the airport," said Craig Hirota, vice president of the Associated Canadian Car Rental Operators.

"Even the operators that tend to specialize in markets not directly reliant on travel … they have seen their business volumes drop 30 to 40 percent as a result of various stay-at-home orders and business shutdowns in jurisdictions across Canada."

We are getting lots of inquiries, especially for July, August and September, which is a great sign— Tolga Toprak, P.E.I. Car Rentals

The group represents about 200 business across the country, both small independent operators like Toprak's business, as well as larger car rental companies. 

"They're doing everything they can to try and survive. Some of them have commented they're not even sure why they're still in business because it's such a struggle," Hirota said.

"The major brands are challenged in their own ways with the drop in volumes."

Inquiries flowing with reopening plans

But P.E.I. Car Rentals remains optimistic.

Toprak said that bookings have been up in recent days, since the news that P.E.I. could potentially open up to domestic travel with reduced or eliminated self-isolation within the next 10 weeks.

"We are getting lots of inquiries, especially for July, August and September, which is a great sign," he said.

"We are really doing well with the guests of P.E.I. .. they do rent cars and then, you know, tour around on the Island ... the good weather affected our business."

Toprak said the company anticipates increasing their revenue by 30 per cent in 2021. That's after it dropped 72 per cent from 2019 to 2020. (Nicola MacLeod/CBC)

Toprak said the business also received $60,000 in government assistance throughout the pandemic, which made them feel supported as a newcomer business.

And business has not been entirely eliminated. Toprak said they've held on to that 28 per cent, which is mostly people without cars, insurance-covered vehicles after accidents and other newcomers upon arrival to the Island.

"Those people, when they come over, they need cars. Because maybe we are immigrants too, we are getting lots of immigrant guests to our company," he said, adding that many non-immigrant Islanders also wanted to support local business.

"People were so sensitive about supporting the local companies … we got lots of support."

Customers staying longer

Toprak is also noticing a trend in his booking inquiries: visitors coming to the Island for longer periods of time. 

"I am seeing people coming for 47 days, 37 days, 50 days," he said, adding that they're also renting to seasonal residents coming without a vehicle.

Overall, the company hopes 2021 will be better, projecting about 30 per cent more revenue than 2020.

"A lot of people are getting their vaccinations," Toprak said. "We are more positive than last year."

At a national level, the Associated Canadian Car Rental Operators hopes the country's reopening doesn't take too long, as many members cannot financially afford to wait. 

"Canada's so seasonal, we're losing that summer window, and if we go into the September to December period, it's traditionally the slowest period in the rental industry to begin with, so it's not an ideal period to try and stage a recovery," Hirota said.

"It'll mean our industry's got to survive another three months until we get into the spring. … If normal economic activities across the country don't start by midsummer, it's going to be real difficult to be real optimistic going into the spring."

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