If you can’t change the direction of the wind, as the saying goes, adjust your sails to reach your destination. These past few years, the Ontario Restaurant Hotel & Motel Association (ORHMA), and its president and CEO Tony Elenis, have been onboard tacking, jibing and rigging almost non-stop to ride out the storm that has been COVID. And for their steady steering and guidance, the industry has emerged stronger, wiser and more resilient than ever.
“Tony has worked tirelessly to ensure that the hospitality industry was able to stay alive and supported throughout the course of the pandemic,” says Hani Roustom, CEO of Friday Harbour Resort in Innisfil, Ont. Both Tony and ORHMA are very well-deserving of the award, not only because of their efforts over the last two years, but for the many years before.”
Elenis has been an industry leader for more than 35 years, experience which has given him the wisdom and foresight necessary for navigating the particularly tough times the industry endured over the last few years. “[ORHMA has] played a key role supporting the industry and advocating on behalf of all of us to make sure that we got the support and the programs needed from the government so we could survive and endure this very challenging period for us collectively.”
Some of the key programs implemented under Elenis’ leadership include the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy and the Canada Emergency Rent Subsidy, both of which kept the lights on for struggling hospitality businesses.
ORHMA also lobbied for fixed cost supports for restaurants and meetings, which helped alleviate some of the revenue lost when eateries closed and conventions were cancelled. The sale of alcohol with takeout and delivery orders, which further boosted flagging sales, as well as expansion of restaurant patios so customers could feel more comfortable dining outside, were also important initiatives that supported the industry.
“Tony and ORHMA also worked on a comprehensive electricity plan so the province now funds a portion of renewable energy costs,” adds Roustom. “Also, property and business-education tax reductions have allowed the creation of a small business sub-class to further reduce taxes.”
The organization also advocated for addressing the industry-wide labour shortage with several initiatives, including recognizing skilled occupations such as cooks; collaborating with the federal government on international workforce reforms and overseas recruitment; hiring people with disabilities; and implementing a virtual job fair.
Under Elenis’ leadership, the organization consulted with others in the industry to compile guidelines, tools and tips for re-opening safely using the DineSafe platform, not just for dining, but for meetings and events, takeout and delivery.
With so many workers struggling with stress and anxiety brought on by the immense challenges of this period, ORHMA launched a mental-health support portal that provides members with access to confidential information, such as who to call, tools to use, webinars delivered by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, and even free online therapy.
The work, the demands and the pressures during the height of COVID could have crushed a less nimble, flexible and resourceful organization. “Being adaptable is what really helped us through,” says Elenis. “We’ve talked to members and non-members who have been supportive through this. Also, every single employee at ORHMA has worked in the hospitality industry before, so they are very much rooted in being part of that service delivery and able to switch gears in the ever-changing landscape that we are experiencing today. If the industry was not hospitality-service focused, and all of us not coming from the industry, perhaps we would have had a harder time adjusting to it.”
He says going forward, front of mind for most members is solving the workforce challenges. To address that, he points to the Passport to Hospitality program, which brings in people from outside the industry to train for 11 weeks in a virtual classroom with the eventual goal of having them work in the hospitality business.
He’s also building on the Temporary Foreign Workers program through direct relationships with a multitude of countries that connects skilled workers with employers in Canada, and studying Saskatchewan’s “Hard-to-Fill Skills Pilot Project,” which clears a path for eligible entry-level and low-skilled workers.
Tourism strategies ORMHA advocated for include ensuring the Ontario Staycation tax credit remains an annual incentive; reviving meetings and events; and coordinating with the federal government to allow businesses to expense restaurant meals at 100 per cent from the current 50 per cent of on-premise dining.
Casting an eye to even younger recruits, ORHMA will re-launch its OHI initiatives to include elementary-school outreach to introduce hospitality to younger generations as a career option. Through video supports, parent and guidance counsellor tool kits and a mentorship program with seasoned industry members, OHI will be an even bigger conduit between student and employer.
Amid the accolades for his and ORHMA’s accomplishments, Elenis is quick to point out that no one person is responsible for all that was achieved over these past two years, adding all hands-on deck helped in big ways and small to weather the whirlwind of the last few years.
“We don’t believe any organization can be successful today without the right people, but also the right people that are supporting the expectations of the organization. It’s all about employees. They are our biggest asset and it’s all about how we work with them, how we empower them, how we allow them to make mistakes sometimes, because that’s how they develop. The same qualities demonstrated by those in the industry dealing with the pandemic really are the qualities the ORHMA team has. The employees that we have here are working for the good of the industry. This award broadens that and ensures others of the quality of work that ORHMA does. So, we thank you for that.”
BY ROBIN ROBERTS | PHOTOGRAPHY BY JASON GORDON