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Devastated by the pandemic, Canada’s hotels make plans to reopen

Canadian hotels are tightening up their cleaning protocols and hoping to welcome some pandemic-fatigued guests desperate to get out of the house for a few days this summer.

Lights in the rooms of the Hilton Hotel in Toronto are lit to honour front line health care workers. Canada’s hotel sector is making cautious plans for reopening.

Last Thursday, the Hotel Association of Canada and the American Hotel and Lodging Association (AHLA) released joint health and safety protocols to help the industry adapt to new pandemic standards. “We felt it was important to have a North American guideline at a time when both of our economies are reopening,” said Susie Grynol, president of the Hotel Association of Canada.

“These enhanced protocols might include [more frequent disinfecting] of common touch surfaces like door handles, light switches, remote controls, faucets. And in a room where we have surfaces that are difficult to clean, like throw pillows, bedspreads, the pen and pad of paper, the magazines — some of these items might be removed altogether.”

250,000 layoffs

The industry is trying to find ways to reopen safely after being pummelled by cratering revenue and massive layoffs since the pandemic began.

“We had a large percentage of hotels that did shut down across the country in a matter of 10 days. We laid off 80 per cent of our workforce, which represents north of 250,000 job losses,” said Grynol.

Brookstreet is a Canadian-owned and independently-run hotel in western Ottawa. Before the pandemic started, it had 340 employees; it has since reduced its staff complement to 19. As the hotel prepares for a planned reopening on June 1, it has been slowly bringing staff members back.

“We hope to get back to about 60 employees and then we’ll continue to grow as services come back online,” said Nyle Kelly, Brookstreet’s general manager.

‘Tumbleweeds’

Brookstreet has 276 rooms and 30,000 square feet of meeting space. Its average occupancy in normal times is 75 per cent; Kelly said it’s expected to operate at less than 5 per cent capacity for at least the next two months.

Nyle Kelly, general manager of the Brookstreet hotel in Ottawa, says he expects lasting effects from the pandemic on the hotel sector.

“I see tumbleweeds flowing through the lobby,” he said. “It’s quiet. It’s a little eerie, I guess, to see the hotel empty like this.” Kelly said the hotel sector has been crippled by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and will be one of the last sectors to fully recover — because many hotels rely on renting out spaces for meetings and nobody’s in a hurry to arrange meetings right now.

“We don’t expect that part of the business to come back for quite a long time. So everything from trade shows to corporate conferences, to weddings, to galas, to fundraising type events — that’s all pretty much cancelled,” he said. “It hurts us massively because that also represents a lot of our guest room bookings too, as they’re associated with the conferences and banquet business.”

Long-term effects

And not all of the pandemic’s effects on the hospitality industry will be short-term, he said.

“We are also going to see a major impact on business travel,” he said. “I think people are changing the way they do things. People will start doing more video calls and those types of things. So we’ll see less business travel moving forward.”

Brookstreet only has a handful of reservations for the month of June. It’s already making preparations for those few guests.

“Even before you arrive at the hotel, we’re going to have new technology to allow a guest to check in over their devices. They’ll have their keys emailed to them in advance,” said Kelly, adding that guests can open room locks with their phones. “They touch their lock and they can go directly to their room.”

New rules for cleaning

Rooms at Brookstreet will stay empty for 48 hours at a time, he said. While empty, they will be cleaned, disinfected and inspected before accepting another guest. The Hotel Association of Canada is recommending that, unless a guest requests otherwise, rooms be cleaned only once per stay — when the guest checks out — to limit possible exposure for housekeeping staff.

The joint health and safety protocols also recommend the installation of acrylic shields at hotel front desks, the provision of personal protective equipment to staff as required, clear social distancing markers on floors and sanitation stations in all public areas.

When restaurants in hotels are ready to open again, they’ll have to find ways to maintain physical distancing. Brookstreet  is cutting the number of available tables in its restaurant by half; other facilities are spacing tables out. Some hotels will continue delivering room service by leaving the food at the guest’s door.

Many hotels, Brookstreet included, are also purchasing electrostatic sprayers for disinfectant. Along with more frequent cleaning, mobile check in/key technology and the installation of UV lights at the entrance to disinfect keys and phones, the Novotel Toronto Centre has also purchased bedlifts to help housekeeping staff clean underneath beds.

The Hotel Association of Canada says all of these extra precautions represent a heavy cost for an already ailing industry. It’s calling on the government for financial help.

“One of our key recommendations to the government is that there would be forgivable portions of the loans that have been made available for amounts that have been paid toward capital investments to keep people safe,” Grynol said.

CBC/MS

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