Health & Safety
Staff up now, or stay lean and wait? Hospitality sector facing COVID-19 dilemma
By Salmaan Farooqui
When Stephane Prevost planned to open a second restaurant in Banff this winter, he at least thought he’d have a busy summer to look forward to.
While businesses in town were hammered by the first lockdown in 2020, they eventually benefited from a relatively busy summer season when COVID-19 cases dropped and domestic tourism skyrocketed.
But the chef and managing partner of Block Kitchen and Bar and the newer Shoku Izakaya said the third lockdown comes at a particularly difficult time when he’d usually be preparing to ramp up his staffing.
Industry analysts say the timing and severity of COVID-19’s third wave presents a unique challenge for tourism destinations around Canada, as businesses weigh whether to staff up and support a bloated workforce during the lockdown, or to stay lean and risk struggling to attract workers one or two months from now.
“What you have is a situation where business owners are trying to predict the future and plan and scale their businesses so they can operate during peak season, while getting through an unknown length of time for current restrictions,” said James Jackson, president and CEO of Tourism Jasper.
Beth Potter, president and CEO of the Tourism Industry Association of Canada, said businesses were counting on a boom in domestic travel over the next few months to get them through the tail end of the pandemic, and both management and employees are now left to make hard decisions.
“Just 6 weeks ago we were looking at summer in a very different way,” said Potter, who is based in Toronto.
“Now we’re not sure what to expect. It makes it very challenging for businesses to plan.”
In Jasper, Jackson said businesses have always had trouble with attracting enough workers and the pandemic has only made things more difficult.
With the third wave putting even more pressure on businesses, Jackson said business owners are essentially having to make a gamble in their next move.
“What happened last summer, was Jasper was devastated by COVID with our economy so reliant on visitation, however we were surprised by the level of visitation we eventually did see,” said Jackson.
“Because of that, there was a lot of pressure on the labour market, because a lot of folks had gone back to Eastern Canada, and obviously some international workers weren’t able to physically get into the country.”
Jackson said he’s concerned tourism workers are getting fed up and leaving the industry because of the boom-bust cycle of each COVID-19 wave — a sentiment that’s mirrored by hospitality advocacy groups in larger cities like Toronto and Vancouver.
But he’s still optimistic for the longer-term, and points out that many Canadians have amassed large amounts of cash during the pandemic.
“My interpretation of that is, when you have high disposable income and you add high deprivation, you’ll see is a high degree of sort of hedonistic spending,” said Jackson, saying that it’ll translate to spending on tourism.
Prevost, the chef in Banff, agrees and said he expects that domestic tourism will return with a vengeance once restrictions are eased.
Both of them say that also means there’ll be a surplus of jobs available in tourism sites like Jasper and Banff as the third wave ends, vaccinations increase and the pandemic winds down.
“As frustrating as it is right now for everybody, it’s about being able to have that little extra resilience and creativity to try and make it until the lifting of restrictions and to enjoy a better summer,” said Prevost.
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