Blog - Cambridge Chamber of Commerce

Summer is nearly here and the outlook for the local tourism sector is expected to be a hot one thanks to the continued interest of visitors seeking getaways that won’t break the bank.

 

“Our main market is leisure travel from the GTA and given current inflation, people are considering staying a little closer to home, perhaps to save a little money,” says Explore Waterloo Region CEO Michele Saran. “We feel we’re in a good position for those quick little getaways if you can’t afford a full-on trip somewhere overseas.”

 

In fact, while international travel numbers to Canada continue to slowly rebound according to Destination Canada, the domestic market has long since fully recovered following the pandemic.

 

“Research shows Canada is the top international destination for Americans and where they want to go in 2024,” says Michele, adding Waterloo Region is in a much better position than places that rely on international travel. “I’m hearing a lot of positivity from local operators, and everyone seems to be excited about the summer season; the only thing they’re wishing for is good weather.”

 

Tourism in Waterloo Region contributes approximately $557 million annually to the local economy, and it’s a sector that takes in more than just leisure travel.

 

“When we’re talking about tourism it’s not just about leisure visitation. It’s also about business events and conventions, as well as sporting events,” says Michele, pointing to the 2024 Special Olympics Ontario Spring Games (May 23-26) in Waterloo Region as a prime example and the fact more than 700 athletes and their families would be in the area.

 

Economic impact

 

On the business side, she says the region has secured $49.5 million in economic impact last year for business events in the coming years. 

 

“Tourism is big business,” says Michele, adding Explore Waterloo Region continues to build on that by creating attractions which combine urban and rural experiences. “We’re putting all kinds of packages together to give people a reason to want to come here.”

 

This includes providing visitors the chance to ‘walk with an alpaca’ courtesy of a local farm near Bright, or the opportunity to go ‘glamping’ in one of the luxury containers at Bingemans. As well, visitors can also canoe down the Grand River this summer topped off by experiencing an authentic Indigenous meal along the journey.

 

Michele says food remains a popular local attraction, noting the creation of a ‘FarmGate’ app that will guide visitors to local farms so they can learn more about where their food comes from, as well as the Farm To Fork television show, hosted by chef Nick Benninger on Bell Fibe TV-1, to promote local cuisine. 

 

Also, wellness-focused excursions have become a growing trend as more Canadians prioritize ways to rejuvenate their body and mind.

 

“We have some great spas in our area, and they all offer great experiences which can all be part of your wellness getaway,” says Michele, adding Waterloo Region’s hundreds of kilometres of hiking and cycling trails also play a role in that trend.

 

Last year, Explore Waterloo Region partnered with Ontario By Bike to create a cycling app that not only highlights various trails and their difficulty levels, but features ‘bike friendly’ businesses along the way, and businesses wishing to be included can apply for certification. 

 

“It’s all about promoting things that you can’t do in Toronto that captures your imagination,” says Michele, referring to local tourism.

 

 

According to the Destination Canada report, Tourism Outlook: Unlocking Opportunities for the Sector, total tourism revenue was poised to exceed 2019 levels. Key report highlights include:

 

  • Demand for travel is projected to grow by 30% by 2030 and will outpace the capacity to host in peak seasons, limiting Canada’s growth potential.
  • The report identifies a $160 billion revenue potential for the tourism industry by 2030, but only if a transformational path is taken that addresses constraints and shifts demand to change how growth occurs.
  • Destination Canada proposes a transformative path to secure an additional $20 billion in annual revenue by 2030, driving real prosperity for tourism businesses across the country and contributing a 14% increase in GDP generated by tourism, 84,000 more jobs and $5.3 billion more in tax revenue for all levels of Government.
  • Industry transformation will close the $20 billion opportunity gap, but it will require sector-wide collaboration on seven key levers: revenue and yield growth, brand leadership, investment, access, workforce and digital readiness, environmental sustainability, and support from Canadians.
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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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By comparison to other statutory holidays, Family Day is still a relatively new after Ontario followed the lead of several provinces and adopted it in 2008.

 

While most businesses will be closed on Monday, Feb. 20, they will be operating on the weekend itself providing a great opportunity to get out and explore and support what our region has to offer in terms of retail, dining, and overall experiences.

 

We reached out to Explore Waterloo Region for their input on what the Family Day Weekend means locally:

 

Q.  Has Family Day Weekend grown in popularity since its inception in Ontario in 2008?

 

A. If Explore Waterloo Region’s membership is any indication, it is definitely growing in popularity in our area.  Every year there seems to be new Family Day activities for both locals and visitors to enjoy.

 

Q.  Is this an important winter weekend for the economy in Waterloo Region?

 

A. Waterloo Region is a four-season destination, and our winter visitation numbers tend to be relatively strong compared with other areas that consider this season a “low” time.  Our region does a great job at always having interesting activities going on but having a long weekend in the winter does help our hotels encourage more overnight stays. It means visitors can extend their road trips and have more fun.

 

Q. What are some great things people should check out that weekend in Waterloo Region?

 

A. We have all kinds of great outdoor activities to enjoy like skiing (downhill and cross-country), ice-fishing, hiking, winter cycling and skating. Both the St. Jacobs Market and the Kitchener Market have special activities planned.  If indoor is more your speed, our museums and galleries are offering up all kinds of fun things. Family Day also coincides with post-secondary reading week so it’s a perfect time for our student populations to take a well-deserved study break and enjoy what’s in their own backyard and maybe invite their family and friends to visit too.

 

Q.  How does Explore Waterloo Region promote this weekend?

 

A. Explore Waterloo Region continues to promote our area as the perfect location for a road trip.  For Family Day we specifically gear our campaign to families (naturally!) looking for a fun getaway.  We will have a variety of options promoted on our social channels and our website provides planning inspiration for visitors coming to the region and for locals looking for some cool things to do.

 

 

On Family Day itself, the City of Cambridge is offering various free drop-in activities for the whole family, including swimming, skating, sports, and fitness. 

 

The Cambridge Centre for the Arts will also be open that day from 1-4 p.m. and is offering a range of family activities. 

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The weather may be colder, but things are heating up fast when it comes to the winter tourism season in Waterloo Region.

 

In fact, tourism spending in Canada in general is expected to recover quicker than anticipated according to Destination Canada’s latest tourism outlook which is predicting a return to 2019 levels by 2024, up from 2025 as predicted last spring. As well, the report indicates Canada’s tourism sector could generate more than $142 billion by 2030 which represents a 35% growth over the next decade.

 

This doesn’t come as a surprise to Explore Waterloo Region CEO Michele Saran, noting that domestic travel has recovered much quicker than international visits.

 

“When you’re talking about Waterloo Region, keeping in mind we receive 96% of our visitations from the GTA, we expect to be fully recovered here to 2019 levels by 2023,” she says. “In fact, we’re almost there now.”

 

Michele credits this local rebound not only on a growing pent-up demand for travel opportunities following pandemic lockdowns and restrictions, but the fact the region has so much to offer.

 

“When you talk about the winter season, in Waterloo Region we always do quite well,” she says. “Interestingly, I’ve never seen a destination that doesn’t take a hit at this time of year except for us, and Christmas really seems to be our ‘thing’.”

 

Michele credits the numerous holiday festivals and activities for providing a major boost to our local tourism and hospitality sector, including Cambridge’s ‘Winterfest’ which offers numerous events and displays until the end of the month, Kitchener’s recent ‘Christkindl Market’ and KWFamous ‘Holiday Pop-Shoppe’, as well as Bingemans’ ‘Jingle Bell Rock’ and ‘Gift of Lights’ events.

 

“Everybody (tourism operators) seems very positive about this season,” she says. “And we’ve been doing our Road Trip campaign for the last few months on social media, and we’ve been talking about winter and amplifying all the fabulous things you can do within an easy drive of our target market.”

 

Besides Christmas activities, Michele says Waterloo Region is loaded with a variety of winter attractions such as Chicopee which should be welcoming skiers and tubers soon, as well Shades Mills Conservation Area in Cambridge for walking and cross-country skiing.

 

As well, Toyota Motor Manufacturing Canada has once again started its plant tours, which provide an inside look at its Cambridge facility via a motorized tram.

 

“Also, St. Jacobs and Elmira are always beautiful and magical places to visit in the winter,” she says, adding Explore Waterloo Region has been encouraging people to utilize the Ontario Staycation Tax Credit. 

 

The credit, which expires at the end of the month, allows Ontario residents to claim 20% of their eligible 2022 accommodation (cottage, hotel, or campground) expenses up to $1,000 as an individual or $2,000 if you spouse, common-law partner, or children, to get back up to $200 as an individual or $400 as a family.

 

“We’re actually lobbying as an industry to keep the tax credit in place for next year as well,” says Michele. “As you know, we were the first industry hit and the hardest hit and the last to recover, so we would love to keep this value added as part of our marketing arsenal.”

 

In terms of any potential threat from what has been dubbed as the ‘tripledemic’ (Flu, RSV and COVID-19), she remains optimistic that local tourism operators are prepared.

 

“I think everyone in the tourism industry is really good at listening to public health recommendations, and because our industry was the first hit, we’ve had to create all different types of scenarios about how to open safely and serve the public,” says Michele. “We’ve become really good at it and have a lot of practice.”

 

Visit Explore Waterloo Region to learn more.

 

A few things to check out:

  • Cambridge Winterfest – runs until Dec. 31 and features light installations and a variety of events in all three downtown cores.
  • Bingemans - Jingle Bell Rock, runs until Jan. 7 and outdoor light displays, surrounding a 40-foot dancing tree illumination. Gift of Lights runs until Dec. 31. Drive through holiday light display featuring over 300 animated and static light displays.
  • KWFamous Holiday Pop-Shoppe - Until Dec. 30 featuring more than 80 local makers and creators taking part at shop located across from Kitchener City Hall.
  • Jakobstettel – Celebrates 170 Years of St. Jacobs, featuring a series of events until Dec. 18.
  • The City of Waterloo hosts  Winterloo on Jan 28, 2023
  • Toyota Plant Tour – a 90-minute tour of Toyota Motor Manufacturing Canada’s Cambridge facility. Tours currently run Monday to Wednesday.
  • Chicopee 

 

*  With files from the Toronto Star    

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As travel levels continue to ramp up towards even higher volumes than they were before the world shutdown due to COVID-19, the Region of Waterloo International Airport is ready to handle any surge.

 

“We’re probably in the top-10 of busiest airports in the country as far as movements but we’re also in the top-20 when it comes the number of passengers,” says Chris Wood, General Manager of the Region of Waterloo International Airport, noting he expects the airport will soon see that passenger ranking move up to the 12th to 13th busiest spot.

 

Chris says the airport is expected to welcome at least 500,000 passengers in 2022, which is slightly less than its initial projection due in big part to the arrival of the Omicron variant but expects to see that number double next year.

 

“We should be able to hit those numbers, with everything being equal,” he says, adding the opening of its new 12,000 square-foot domestic arrivals building in April – part of its $35 million Airport Terminal Expansion Project – is a continued sign of the airport’s importance to the economic vitality of the Region.

 

“Every thriving community has a big, bustling airport. Why should we be any different?” says Chris. “You can’t go to a world-class city anywhere without an airport being part of that.”

 

Currently, WestJet and Flair Airlines are providing a bevy of flights from the airport to a variety of destinations including Calgary and Edmonton, AB, Cancun, Mexico, Winnipeg, MB, and Vancouver and Victoria, B.C. In fact, this summer Flair has unveiled several additional destinations including Charlottetown, P.E.I., Deer Lake, N.L. and Montreal, QC, starting in July.

 

“We do expect Sunwing to return in the winter,” says Chris. “We also have an agreement with Pivot Airlines and expect them to arrive later this fall, but we don’t have a firm date yet.”

 

He says Pivot will offer several flights daily to Ottawa and Montreal, providing a key component in building the airport’s business clientele.

 

“We’ve kind of morphed into a low-cost carrier dream airport because we have a very large and affluent population that has been starved of non-stop service for many years, and we also have a very affluent business community,” says Chris. “But we haven’t really catered as much to the business community.”

 

He’s very candid when it comes to the struggles the airport has had trying to attract more business flyers, noting that smaller business owners and entrepreneurs are more cognizant of their finances so utilizing a low-cost carrier makes sense to them.

 

“But if you’re not paying for your own ticket, it’s more difficult to get people to use the services that are currently here,” says Chris, adding frequent flights a day out of Pearson Airport offered by larger carriers like Air Canada are more convenient for many business travellers.

 

Currently, he says at least 80% of travel at the Region of Waterloo International Airport is leisured based adding the split between business and leisure travel was about 50/50 when American Airlines offered nonstop flights to Chicago from 2011 to 2016.

 

“We saw a lot of people going to Chicago and beyond for business. But if the right type of service comes in, I think the business community would definitely use it,” says Chris, adding Pivot Airlines will be a great draw and caters to the business community thanks to its multiple flights daily to various business locations.

 

When it comes to attracting airlines, he says the process is extremely difficult since airlines must be very strategic where they place their inventory.

 

“The airlines get it. They know there is an opportunity here, but they also know there is more of an opportunity at Pearson,” says Chris, adding carriers like Flair that are destination-based and not interested in connections or using a hub and spoke model, can be easier to attract.

 

“But we’re happy to talk to any airline about service and we’ve got the facility now that can handle them,” he says, crediting Waterloo Regional Council for its continued support. “We can ultimately contribute to the bottom line of the Region.”

 

Chris says the ‘gold standard’ for a regionally operated airport in Canada are Kelowna and Abbotsford, B.C., and that Regional of Waterloo International Airport is quickly approaching those levels.

 

“It’s a model we hope to achieve and we’re getting closer,” he says.

 

To learn more, visit Region of Waterloo International Airport.

 

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The forecast is looking good for the summer tourism season in Waterloo Region.

 

After two years of uncertainties, restrictions and pivoting due to the pandemic, the hospitality and tourism sector is poised for a significant comeback.

 

“Everything is coming back this summer,” says Michele Saran, CEO of Explore Waterloo Region. “There is so much pent-up demand, and it seems like the concerns about COVID-19 are receding and people are feeling a lot more confident to get out and about.”

 

Compared to last year at this time, she says tourism operators in Waterloo Region, including hotels and attractions, have already seen a higher demand in the first quarter of this year.

 

“It’s going incredibly well so far, but there are still labour shortages and supply chain issues,” says Michele. “I know some of our hotels can’t run at full capacity just yet because of these shortages which is a shame because we’ve been hit so hard the last couple of years.”

 

To offset some costs surrounding the implementation of health and safety protocols to keep patrons and employees safe, Explore Waterloo Region and RTO 4 (Regional Tourism Organization 4 Inc.) distributed nearly $600,000 to support 125 attractions, hotels, and other operators in 2020 and 2021 through the Tourism Adaption and Recovery Program (TARP).

 

“Our industry was the first hit, hardest hit and the last to recover is what we say, and we still have those impediments in a way with these labour concerns,” says Michele.

 

She says this summer Explore Waterloo Region is taking a ‘divide and conquer’ approach when it comes its marketing tactics.

 

“As we are easing out of COVID-19 we’re looking to our local operators and BIAs to market our region to local residents,” says Michele. “We as Explore Waterloo Region are expanding a little further out with our marketing focus and trying to encourage people from the GTA to get out of the city and come to a place where it might be a little less urban, but with all the amenities of the big city; close to nature where they can get out and enjoy walking and bike trails and still have incredible culinary and cultural experiences, just with a little less of the crowds.”

 

Michele says the many festivals and attractions Waterloo Region has to offer this summer will be a big draw, such as the Cambridge Scottish Festival and the Canada Day celebrations which features a parade and returns to Riverside Park with fireworks.

 

“People are feeling a bit safer in being groups but still outside,” she says, noting this should be a good summer for domestic tourism due to long lineups at major airports which has been blamed on staff shortages and COVID-19 screening.  “There is still a little bit of concern about travelling internationally so I think this is the summer we really have to take advantage of the opportunity to get people in and around Waterloo Region to come and experience everything we have to offer.”

 

For a detailed look at what’s available, visit Explore Waterloo Region.

 

A few summer highlights in Cambridge:

  • Kin Carnival (May 26)
  • Cambridge Tour De Grand (June 12)
  • Cambridge Celebration of the Arts (June 17 – Civic Square)
  • Host Springs Music Festival (June 25 – Central Park)
  • Cambridge Celebrates Canada Day (July 1 - Riverside Park)
  • Thursday Night Live Performances (July 7, 14, 21 and 28 - Mill Race Park Amphitheatre)
  • Hespeler Village Music Festival (July 9 – Forbes Park)
  • Cambridge Scottish Festival (July 15-16 – Churchill Park)
  • Forbes Park Movie Night (Aug. 18 – Forbes Park)

 

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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 sign outside the Hamilton Family Theatre in downtown Cambridge which usually is ablaze with light announcing current and upcoming productions for Drayton Entertainment has remained blank for some time.

 

But with vaccination rates rising and COVID-19 infection numbers continuing to slide downward, there is a growing sense of optimism in many business sectors, including tourism and sports and recreation, both which generate a hefty spinoff in our local economy and have been hit extremely hard by this crisis.

 

“It (optimism) permeates our industry because the pandemic has reinforced to many arts organizations about how important the arts are to so many Ontarians and recognizing the role they play contributing to a healthy and prosperous society,” says Steven Karcher, Executive Director of Drayton Entertainment. “I don’t think people realized how much they enjoy and appreciate the arts until they ceased to exist.”

 

He recalls how overnight the world changed for Drayton Entertainment in mid-March of 2020 when it was forced to cancel the run of its first show of the season Kinky Boots, which quickly led to pulling the plug on the entire theatre season at its seven stages.

 

“It was a difficult but necessary decision,” says Steven, noting how the company, which is also a registered charity, lost 100% of its revenue and had already incurred the pre-production costs of preparing 832 performances for its 2020 season. In fact, he says an increase of 20,000 tickets over the 2019 season had already been sold.

 

He says recovery will be a ‘multi-year’ effort and that for an arts organization like Drayton Entertainment, it is not something that can rebound in six months.

 

“We’re not able to just take our product and simply put it on a shelf and pivot to reopening with a notice of 48 hours,” says Steven. “We’re talking about an artistic process that takes anywhere from six to eight months in order to realize the end result that people will be seeing on stage.”

 

For sports organizations, detailed planning is also required to prepare of an upcoming season.

 

Indoor Soccer Park Sign“I think we were always optimistic there was going to be a season for our recreational league kids,” says Derrick Bridgman, General Manager of Cambridge Youth Soccer, referring to the 2020 season.

 

He says planning had started in March of last year to prepare for the upcoming season and that 1,000 children had registered to play outdoors when the scope of the pandemic became clear.

“At first we didn’t know how long it was going to last or was it only going to be that ‘magical’ two weeks, or would it be done in a couple of months so we could get our season in,” says Derrick.

 

He says thanks to a comprehensive return to play plan created by the Ontario Soccer Association, his group was able to see a limited amount of action on the field and by the end of last summer had managed to see a few games played.

 

However, that changed in the fall when new restrictions came into play and affected Cambridge Youth Soccer’s Fountain Street North indoor facility, which the group also rents to external users.

 

“We thought it (pandemic) would be behind us when it came to our indoor season but unfortunately there was such a significant impact on indoor sports,” says Derrick, referring to the indoor capacity levels which at one point only allowed up to 50 people – players included - at a game. “We had to get resourceful and creative, just like a lot of other sports organizations and try and maintain a positivity not only for our staff, but for our users. I think a lot of parents just want to get back to normal.”

 

He says there is a sense of optimism for the upcoming season, noting seeing those between 12-17 getting vaccinated has been a positive step. However, he says his group, like many sports organizations, remain at the ‘mercy’ of the province, health officials and the City of Cambridge whom they rent fields from in terms of possible restrictions.

 

“Also, there are parents that aren’t comfortable yet putting their kids back into sports until they’re confident the pandemic is over,” says Derrick, adding his organization is now looking to start its 2021 season the weekend of July 11 in accordance with the province’s three-step reopening plan.

 

“The government has been intentionally vague, in my opinion, in how it has crafted some of the wording when it comes to sports and recreation,” he says. “I think they did that on purpose so provincial sports organizations can amend their return to play documentation.”

 

Minto Schneider, CEO of Explore Waterloo Region, says the sports and recreation sector is returning a little faster than others.

 

“We’re also seeing conferences rebook as well. It’s happening, but happening slowly,” she says, noting experts are not predicting a full economic recovery until 2024. “Part of the challenge is that leisure travel will likely rebound more quickly, but business travel is not rebounding as quickly since conferences generally have a further booking window.”

 

Minto says also having the U.S./Canada border closed and seeing conferences cancelled in the GTA has also affected local tourism due to the substantial spinoff visitors bring to the hospitality industry in terms of hotel stays and restaurant visits.

“One of the things that really drives the tourism business in Waterloo Region is group business, whether it’s a sports tournament or a conference. Those are the things that really drive our visitor traffic,” she says, adding there have been limited ‘windows’ between lockdowns for potential visitors. “We’ve had to be very cautious of how we promote our region. We don’t want to be seen as trying to attract visitors from other areas, particularly at a time when Toronto and Peel were in the ‘Red Zone’. It’s been challenging.”

 

But in turn, Minto says Explore Waterloo Region has been promoting the region to its own residents, encouraging them to get out and see what exists in their own backyards.

 

“That’s been the silver lining to this whole thing. We’ve been able to, hopefully, create ‘ambassadors’ for Waterloo Region within the region itself.”

 

In the future, Minto also says more conferences will operate using a hybrid method, allowing participants the opportunity to attend in person or virtually.

 

“This will be great because never before will so many people have the have opportunity to learn more,” she says.

 

Several virtual initiatives launched in the past year by Drayton Entertainment have also helped his organization, says Steven. Among these was a virtual variety show engaging more than 40 artists using the video platform Vimeo.

 

“We were completely overwhelmed by the uptake on that,” he says, adding the show was viewed by more than 80,000 people worldwide and came away with 125,000 impressions.

 

This was followed by a cabaret series via Facebook, plus Drayton Entertainment has continued its ‘world famous’ 50/50 draw online.

 

“We’ve been able to give away significant jackpots in the three months we’ve been running that,” he says, adding having the 50/50 draw has also ensured Drayton Entertainment fans and supporters remain feeling connected to the organization.

 

And although a virtual component may still play a role for Drayton Entertainment once audiences are allowed to return to its theatres, Steven says it will never replace the feel of having a live audience.

 

“One of the things people don’t realize is how imperative a live audience is to not just a live theatre experience, but any live cultural experience,” he says, adding people crave the ‘connectivity’ of being together, even when it comes to family gatherings.

 

Minto agrees and says vaccinations and initiatives, such as the rapid screening kit program launched by the Cambridge and Kitchener Waterloo Chambers of Commerce, and Communitech, have been beneficial to the community.

 

“I think it has given people confidence that they can go to work. In our industry, we’ve had staff who’ve been afraid to go back to work because they hadn’t been working for a while and want to make sure they don’t bring something home with them to their families,” she says, adding Explore Waterloo Region and the Chambers continue to work with other partners to ensure the most up-to-date and reliable information is conveyed to all their stakeholders.

 

“I think everyone is really looking forward to a time when they can actually open their businesses and welcome people back,” she says.

 

For more on Explore Waterloo Region, visit http://www.explorewaterlooregion.com. For information about Drayton Festival, visit https://bit.ly/3z2aqop. And for more on Cambridge Youth Soccer, visit www.cambridgesoccer.ca

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