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The Canadian tourism sector has experienced a brisk recovery since the initial pandemic lockdowns, according to economic experts. But that recovery pace has been easing due to higher interest rates, a slowing job market, and broader cyclical slowdown in the U.S. and abroad. In Ontario, many tourism operators continue to face a great deal of debt caused by the pandemic, prompting many to worry about what the future holds. 

 

Locally, tourism in 2024 is expected to continue to do well, despite the ‘economic crunch’ that may prompt travelers to adjust their plans in the coming year. 

 

We reached out to Explore Waterloo CEO Michele Saran to get her take on what the local tourism sector can expect in the New Year:

 

 

How is local tourism shaping up for 2024, considering the economic realities many people are dealing with?

 

Tourism in Waterloo Region is expected to continue doing well into 2024.  We are beating 2019 pre-pandemic; hotel occupancy numbers and campaigns are driving keen interest in our offerings.  Yes, the economic crunch is impacting everyone and may result in visitors spending a bit less but not completely abandoning all vacation plans.  People consider travel a priority and have been shown to spend less in other discretionary areas to afford some kind of getaway with family and friends. Waterloo Region’s main market is the GTA, and we really lean into the concept of being the perfect road trip destination.  This type of travel can be as budget conscious as one wishes.  There are so many affordable options for fun.

 

 

Are local tourism operators feeling optimistic about what is in store for 2024?

 

The operators I speak with are all quite optimistic about a strong 2024, despite concerns around inflation and its impact on visitor spending.  In addition to leisure travel, we are also seeing incredible interest in the region for meetings, conventions, and sporting events.  The tourism industry is nothing if not resilient. Having come out on the other side of a worldwide pandemic that shut everything down completely, we now have the gift of perspective.  

 

 

What are some of the hurdles do local tourism operators face in the coming year?

 

One of the biggest challenges facing tourism operators everywhere (not just in Waterloo Region) is rebuilding the workforce.  Hospitality workers left the industry during the pandemic, and many did not return.  Industry advocacy organizations are working to address this issue from many angles, from working with government to ease immigration barriers to marketing the industry to students as a career choice. Finding affordable housing is a big hurdle for those in the service sector.  Many of the destinations that are the most popular with visitors are also very expensive places to live.  People want to live in the same area where they work, and this presents another labour-related challenge for the tourism industry as well as many others.

 

Despite optimism for next year’s visitation potential, a very significant issue is the amount of debt tourism businesses incurred during the pandemic just to stay afloat and survive.  According to the Tourism Industry Association of Ontario, 55% of operators say they lack confidence they will be able to repay their debts in two years and 45% risk closure in three years without government intervention.  Thirty-three percent of tourism businesses indicate that they hold more than 250K in outstanding debt. This is a serious issue and one all tourism advocacy organizations continue to push with government for solutions.

 

 

Is talk of the pandemic a thing of the past?

 

I recently returned from the Tourism Industry Association of Canada’s Annual Tourism Congress.  The conversation was around the legacy effects of COVID cited above but I think the entire industry is ready to put the pandemic itself in the rearview mirror and focus on what we do best – welcoming visitors and showing them why our area is fantastic.   

 

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With concerns about the pandemic now in the past, how is the 2023 summer tourism season shaping up?

 

According to a report by the Ontario Chamber of Commerce and the Tourism Industry Association of Ontario released in December of 2022, it was stated that the province’s tourism industry was not fully expected to recover from the pandemic until 2025.

 

 

We reached out to Explore Waterloo Region CEO Michele Saran to get a sense of what the summer tourism season may be bring locally:

 

Q. How much does tourism contribute to our local economy?

 

A. Tourism is big business.  Over 5 million visitors come to our region annually, injecting more than 557M into the economy.  Tourism is also a catalyst for trade.  People may come to our area for a staycation, sporting event or a business meeting and may like what they see and choose to move here, invest here, or send their kids to school at one of our fabulous academic institutions.  Places that are great for visitors are also great for residents.  Everyone wants to live in a place with wonderful restaurants, retail, and attractions as well as nature.

 

Q. What is your prediction for the summer tourism season in Waterloo Region? Better than last year?

 

A. I predict Waterloo Region will have a strong summer season in 2023 surpassing 2022.  It seems that any lingering concerns about COVID are now mostly gone, and Explore Waterloo Region is launching our promotional campaign as early as possible this year. Many people are looking for getaway options closer to home considering inflation etc.  Given a full 96% of visitors to the Region are from other parts of Ontario, we should be in a good position.

 

Q. What is the driving factor for people to get out and explore this summer?

 

A. For 2023, there is still incredible pent-up demand for travel after the pandemic but the driving factor about destination selection is affordability.  People want to get out and have fun, authentic experiences but cost may force many to explore options closer to home.  Luckily, we have those kinds of experiences in abundance in Waterloo Region!

 

Q. Are ‘staycations’ still as popular or are people ready to explore even further this year?

 

A. Search analytics show people are definitely ready to travel internationally but the high cost of air travel and media reports of airport congestion and other challenges are mitigating factors when it comes to actually booking.  “Staycations” are always popular with our target market in Ontario.  Easy getaways that are close to home and affordable.

 

Q. Do labour shortages continue to persist in the hospitality and tourism industry and if so, will it have an impact this summer?

 

A. There are 80% more job openings in our sector now than in 2019.  In fact, of the almost 2000 open positions in Waterloo Region in Q1 of 2023, almost half were tourism related.  That said, our industry is nothing if not adaptable and resilient.  Businesses may have to modify their opening hour and job duties may shift to encompass a broader array of tasks, but everyone is motivated to take advantage of the pandemic winding down.

 

Q. What are people looking for this year when it comes to spending money on tourism, considering the higher cost of living?

 

A. People are leaning into the idea of the “road trip” with friends or family to save money which is exactly how we are marketing to the GTA.  We are positioning Waterloo Region as the ultimate road trip destination with something for everyone.  Cities on the edge on the nature; authentic cultural experiences and incredible farm-to-fork, culinary options.

 

Q. How has Explore Waterloo Region been preparing for the 2023 summer season?

 

A. All throughout 2022 Explore Waterloo Region has been actively working on product development.  We have been looking to leverage our tourism icons and create packages that will make people want to stay longer in our area and spend more. 

This year we will offer some incredible experiences on the Grand River that feature overnight luxury glamping and indigenous-themed feasts; we have another package that celebrates our amazing “farm to fork” culinary offerings where one can have an al fresco dining experience in a beautiful orchard; there will also be a curated Oktoberfest experience that allows one to really see the best of the best of that festival and it includes a luxury hotel stay.  All these experiences will be marketed on www.explorewaterloo.ca and via our aforementioned “road trip” campaign on our social channels.

In terms of our efforts in Business Events and Sport hosting, we always encourage delegates to add on a leisure visit pre or post to make the most of their time in Waterloo Region.

 

Q.  What are a few of the ‘must see’ attractions in our Region this summer?

 

A. There are so many options for people this summer!  Of course, all our annual festivals are back – Uptown Waterloo Jazz Festival, Bluesfest, the Waterloo Busker Carnival and Downtown Kitchener and Cambridge both have Ribfests -to name just a few!

For those that want to get outside and be active, there are some wonderful opportunities to Canoe the Grand with Grand River Experiences or explore on horseback.   We also have over 500 km of trails in the Region.  One can hike or cycle them.  Explore Waterloo Region has partnered with Zeitspace on a new cycling app that is hyper-local and will let you plan your route by level of difficulty.  It also layers on all the bike-friendly, certified businesses along the way!

Canada Day offers up the Stihl Timbersports Rookie Championships at Bingemans and Cambridge is celebrating its 50th anniversary at the “Cambridge Celebrates Canada Day” event.

For those seeking a bit of culture, The Neebing Art Fair will be returning to Bingemans showcasing incredible indigenous art.  Of course, St. Jacobs always has something going on and it’s a great launching point to get out and do a farm gate tour through the townships to buy the best in local produce and get a sense of our wonderful Mennonite community.

People can always check out our events calendar at www.explorewaterloo.ca for more detail and options.

 

 

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As the world slowly begins to reopen in wake of the pandemic, thoughts of visiting other places are very much on the mind of many.

 

Trave expert Judy Silva-Foye, Branch Manager at Vision Travel in Cambridge, says the pent-up demand for wanting to travel is growing steadily as restrictions continue to be lifted and vaccinations roll out.

 

“People are tired of being confined to their homes. They’re tired of being scared and not being able to socialize. They’re just tired period,” she says. “There is a huge demand right now for travel and I believe when the floodgates open, there will be a lot of people who just want to travel.”

 

The indication, currently being seen in the U.S., is clear that leisure travel is already beginning to rebound toward pre-pandemic levels as travel experts like Judy field numerous inquiries from people looking to book holidays for later this year and next.

 

But what about those travelling for business?

 

According to Fortune magazine, it was estimated that until the pandemic struck in March of 2020 decimating the entire travel sector, corporate travel accounted for roughly $300 billion of the global airline industry’s $800 billion in revenue and represented about 50% to 70% of its profit basis.

 

Companies during the greater part of this worldwide crisis quickly began to rely on Zoom meetings with more success than many had initially predicted, not to mention saving millions on travel with an expectation this trend will continue.

 

However, this may not be the case. According to a Wall Street Journal report earlier this month, many companies that have learned to do without travel during the pandemic say they are ready to start packing their bags again instead of defaulting to virtual alternatives. In fact, several high-profile events, such as the TED conference, are returning to an in-person format this summer.

 

“I think Zoom has filled a void and has allowed people to realize it can be an option. But I firmly believe it will not be the main option,” says Judy. “I see it as a secondary choice for some of those lesser calls or meetings that don’t require people travelling to discuss an issue.”

 

A survey conducted in mid-June by Statista – a German-based company that specializes in market and consumer data – contacted companies in several countries, including Canada, to get a sense of what their travel plans are.

The results among Canadian companies were as followed:

  • 18% said they have no plans to resume travel in the near future;
  • 52% have considered resuming travel in the near future, but have no definite plans;
  • 18% said they plan to resume travel in the near future (1-3 months);
  • 12% said they were unsure.

Judy says her company’s corporate division has been fielding many inquiries recently for business travel and have been signing new accounts.

 

“We have a bunch of new businesses that want to turn to a professional service to handle their business needs,” she says, adding human nature will play a key role in the recovery of the sector. “Human beings are relational. We were made to interact with other people so I expect travel will come back.”

 

According to Businesswire.com, which wrote in May about the Key Trends in Business Travel (2021) report, the lasting impact of COVID-19 will continue to affect the travel industry well beyond 2021.

 

Some of the key highlights in that report include:

  • Traditional reasons for business travel may see a decline, but a new kind of business traveler may emerge. As many employees may have become remote workers due to the pandemic, the industry can see an uptick of visiting colleagues when restrictions fully recover.
  • As vaccine rollouts are gaining traction across the world, it is opening-up the opportunity to travel for many. Important nations with high percentages of business travel are also far along with vaccination progress. The U.S., where 20% of domestic travel in 2019 and 2020 was for a business purpose, is progressing well with its vaccination program for example.
  • Many companies are focused on reducing emissions and carbon footprint to reach a sustainability goal. These companies will have sustainability practices in place with a corporate sustainability policy. However, many companies do not incorporate business travel into a sustainability policy. Some methods of travel can be extremely harmful to the environment, and it is the company's responsibility to ensure that sustainable options are always considered.

For Judy and other travel professionals, if there is one ‘positive’ takeaway from the pandemic is the fact that working with a travel agent can be vital in times of crisis, considering the many Canadians who were left stranded when COVID-19 hit.

 

“I think consumers can now see how important it is to actually deal with a professional,” says Judy, adding their connections to tour operators has been key. “We probably managed to get refunds for people faster and helped them navigate the unchartered waters of these trying times. People have realized how important is to have someone in your corner who has your back.”

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The Cambridge Chamber of Commerce and Ontario Chamber Welcome Focus on Tourism, Small Business, Women, Training, and Local Communities

 

The Cambridge Chamber of Commerce released the following response to the Government of Ontario’s 2021 Budget, Ontario’s Action Plan: Protecting People’s Health and Our Economy.

 

“Ontario’s 2021 Budget means supports for the hardest-hit sectors and communities including right here in Waterloo Region, much needed aid for women who have been deeply impacted by the pandemic, and initiatives that will create a strong economic rebound related to tourism, training, and vital infrastructure such as broadband,” said Cambridge Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Greg Durocher.

 

Leading up to Budget 2021, the Ontario Chamber Network was calling for policies that mitigate the immediate impacts of the crisis and lay the groundwork for a robust and inclusive economic recovery. Resources need to be focused on those hit hardest by the pandemic, where they will have the greatest impact.

 

“Ontario’s business community welcomes the 2021 Budget, which gives businesses much-needed supports to confront the current health crisis while laying the foundation for a strong and inclusive economic recovery,” added Rocco Rossi, President and CEO of the OCC.

 

Some of the things called for in the Ontario Chamber Network pre-Budget Submission included:

  • Targeted support for the hardest-hit sectors and communities;
  • Demand-driven skills programming;
  • Enhanced access to capital for small businesses and entrepreneurs;
  • Bold action on interprovincial trade;
  • Strengthening of municipalities’ fiscal capacity; and
  • A sensible path to getting Ontario’s finances on track post-pandemic.

 

“Women’s fulsome participation in the labour market is a precondition to our economic recovery and future prosperity. We greatly appreciate the new supports for women, as they have been among those disproportionately impacted by the crisis,” said the report’s author Claudia Dessanti, Senior Policy Analyst of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce. “A taskforce for inclusive economic growth, further supports for child care, a job training tax credit, relief for the tourism industry, and support for survivors of domestic violence are all welcome initiatives that will help turn the tides on the impacts that were so severe and immediate for women in Ontario. Budget 2021 addresses many of the supports we called for in our recent report, The She-Covery Project: Confronting the Gendered Economic Impacts of COVID-19 in Ontario.”

 

Some of the measures welcomed by the Ontario Chamber Network in the 2021 Budget are:

 

Support for inclusive growth:

 

  • A taskforce for inclusive economic growth. The COVID-19 crisis has disproportionately affected women, racialized individuals, Indigenous people, people with disabilities, and other communities in the province. The new taskforce will examine how to increase women’s participation in the workforce, which will support economic recovery.
  • Temporary Job Training Tax Credit. Studies suggest about half a million jobs are not expected to return in Canada after the pandemic, the majority of which are occupied by women. Financial support for underemployed individuals to access training and reskilling will be particularly important for lower-income workers, new immigrants, and Ontarians living in Indigenous, rural, remote, and northern communities.
  • Child care support. Access to affordable child care is a long-standing issue that has been exacerbated by the pandemic. Enhancing the CARE tax credit for 2021, extending financial support for virtual learning costs, and investing in new child care spots will help ease the burden for Ontario families and allow more women to re-enter the workforce.
  • Supports for women fleeing domestic violence. The increase in domestic violence incidences during the pandemic has forced many women to leave their homes and communities, jeopardizing their safety and livelihood. Support for women in transitional housing and underserved areas will help provide safety for women in vulnerable situations.

 

Supports for business:

 

  • Doubling of the Ontario Small Business Support Grant. The grant has helped many organizations survive the crisis thus far and making this an automatic top-up instead of asking businesses to re-apply will reduce the administrative burden on both businesses and government.
  • Additional resources for the Digital Main Street Grant. Many small businesses, particularly in rural and remote regions, have benefited from the supports of this grant to get their business online. Expanding the program will help more businesses digitize and prepare for the economy of tomorrow.
  • Invest Ontario Fund. Additional funding in Invest Ontario over the next four years will be important to create jobs and investment across the province.

 

Support for tourism:

 

  • Tourism and Hospitality Small Business Support Grant. The OCC recently wrote to the Ontario government about how the tourism industry is not eligible for the Ontario Small Business Support Grant. This new grant is welcome news for hotels, travel agencies, hunting and fishing camps, and other organizations that did not qualify for the original grant.
  • Local Tourism Tax Credit and Tourism Recovery Program. Many of the chambers of commerce and boards of trade are active in the tourism industries within their local communities. These additional supports will be critical to support a revival of tourism after the pandemic.
  • Support for alcohol producers & local distilleries. Ontario’s vineyards, cideries, and small distillers have been greatly impacted by the pandemic as tourism stalled this year.

 

Support for communities and municipalities:

 

  • Broadband investments. The pandemic has put the spotlight on the digital divide for people and businesses, particularly in remote and rural communities. Additional funding to connect all Ontarians, including businesses, to reliable broadband by 2025 is welcome news. 
  • Regional Opportunities Tax Credit. Additional resources towards this program will allow rural and remote communities to invest in projects that create local jobs and economic growth.
  • Property reassessment for municipalities. Pausing the property tax reassessment gives municipalities and businesses more capacity and time to adjust to the economic uncertainty and challenges caused by the pandemic.
  • Expansion of the Ontario Together Fund. The Ontario Together Fund has successfully leveraged Ontario’s business community to address pandemic-related challenges and support relief efforts.
  • Access to vaccination appointments. The Ontario Chamber Network welcomes support to help seniors and people with disabilities get to their vaccination appointments. The faster the population is inoculated, the sooner we can focus on recovery.
  • Strategic Priorities and Infrastructure Fund. Renovations to local buildings and sports facilities will also be integral to local economic growth and recovery initiatives.

Read the Ontario Chamber of Commerce full pre-Budget submission here.

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Tired of staring at the same four walls?

                                                

The reality of COVID-19 has clearly altered travel plans for millions of people this summer and for the months to come, but the desire to get away from our day-to-day lives remains strong.

 

“I think there is a pent-up need for people who want to travel,” says Judy Silva-Foye, Branch Manager of Vision Travel Solutions.

 

With more than 30 years experience in the business, Judy has seen it all but says the COVID-19 crisis is something she has never faced before, even taking into account such other health emergencies like SARS, H1N1 and Swine Flu.

 

“We survived 9/11 and thought at that time there wasn’t anything that would look quite as a bad,” she says, noting the shutdown happened in early March marked the first time in 35 years she was forced to lock her office doors. “It felt so surreal.”

 

For Darlene Whipp, office manager at Donaldson Travel, reopening her office to the public in June – by appointment only – was a big step to returning to some sense of normalcy, even though several desks were removed to create safe physical distancing, plexiglass partitions installed and hours of operation shortened. 

 

“We’ve been dealing with a lot of cancellations and rebookings,” she says. “But we are getting a lot more people coming in wanting to travel.”

 

Winter holidays to the Caribbean, which has seen many destinations reopen thanks through various health and safety protocols, have sparked the interest of many travellers looking to get away.

 

“A co-worker of mine just issued tickets for 12 people to travel to the Dominican Republic in January,” says Darlene, adding her office has been keeping close tabs on what is taking place in the Caribbean. “We’ve constantly been taking webinars with the resorts as they go over all their new protocols and what they’ve been doing to make things safe for clients.”

 

Donaldson Travel President Mark Crone says the airlines have also stepped up with many new protocols and recalls a very positive experience he had on a promotional flight in mid-July to Montreal sponsored by Air Canada to showcase their company’s changes to travel industry experts.

 

“I think it’s really reassuring that planes are really being properly cleaned,” he says, adding that loosening restrictions around the 14-day quarantine period in Ontario would be in a major boost and confidence is coming back as more offices reopen. “A few months ago, we were all self-isolating but now I think we just want our freedom. But the big thing is what’s happening in the U.S. and if they could get more control of it (COVID-19) I think that would help the mindset here all that much more.”

 

Keeping that in mind, Judy says travel destinations in Canada has been a wonderful option for those itching to get away, which could include renting an RV.

 

“We’re suggesting to people that now is the time to see your own country,” she says, noting there are many options just within Ontario to provide people a great holiday, such as a wine tour. “I think this opened our eyes that we have to look into our own backyard this year and seeing what we have closer to home.”

 

But for those looking at travelling – for both holiday and personal reasons - to other provinces, or other countries that are allowing Canadian visitors, travel experts say that research is necessary to ensure what guidelines are in place.

 

“We have become quite the experts on where to find information,” says Judy. “Because it’s not just about the country you’re leaving from but the country you’re going to.”

 

Mark agrees and says the amount of information surrounding travel is overwhelming as the COVID-19 crisis continues.

 

“It’s all very fluid, and changes,” he says. “We’re getting creamed with information every day. You have to be on top of it for sure.”

 

That’s why Mark says turning to a travel expert for assistance is very good idea.

“For the life of me, I don’t understand why anyone would try to book a trip online if they don’t absolutely understand what’s going on right now,” he says. “There’s certainly a short list of places you can go.”

 

Judy says she is confident the travel industry will survive.

 

“Travel will come back because there is always going to be a desire for travel,” she says. “But will it come back the same? No. It will never be what it was before, just different.”

 

She says the impact of COVID-19 has created a domino effect and has resulted in a global connection towards trying to bring the virus under control.

 

“We don’t all have to have share the same beliefs, but we should all try to end up at the same place,” says Judy.

 

 

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