TORONTO — For the first time in its history, the Greater Toronto Hotel Association, GTHA, held its Annual General Meeting virtually this year on June 30th. Edwin Frizzell, general manager of the Fairmont Royal York and chair of the GTHA, welcomed members to the meeting and acknowledged the industry’s spirt of support throughout the recent pandemic.
“During these challenging times, so many of you have found creative ways to give back to our local communities, supporting the vital work of healthcare professionals and essential workers,” said Frizzell, pointing to a host of initiatives that many of its members focused on during the pandemic, “providing a safe place to stay [for those] working on the frontlines during the crisis, providing accommodation for the vulnerable and at risk, donating food and goods to the community groups or making special deliveries to local retirement homes and first responders. These actions truly demonstrate our unwavering passion and commitment to hospitality and service. Thanks for keeping the heart of hospitality alive in Greater Toronto.”
The chair then introduced Richard Anderson, executive director of Smart Serve and strategic partner of the GTHA, to provide an overview of what his company has done over the course of the year. Anderson acknowledge the challenging circumstances of the day before highlighting a few of the changes made by Smart Serve, outlining the Alcohol & Gaming Commission’s efforts during the pandemic to help operators deal with declining sales. “The Alcohol & Gaming Commission has been very flexible,” said Anderson, pointing to the decision in early April to expand retail LCBO’s hours, but also allow alcohol to be sold as part of takeout and delivery and to reduce minimum prices. Anderson also noted that the pandemic fuelled his company to offer Smart Serve training on a complimentary basis during the month of April as a way to help operators out during the pandemic’s early days. A total of 100,000 people enrolled in the courses — volume normally achieved over a year.
Moving forward, Anderson said that Smart Serve is working to create additional new tools, such as training modules on the topic of Sexual Assault — including material dealing with both assaults and harassment — as well as training materials on Mixing Alcohol and Cannabis. The group will also continue to work on re-certification efforts. As Anderson noted, “Ontario is the only province that doesn’t do re-certification.”
Frizzell then moved on to outline his Chairman’s Report, providing members with highlights of the past year and thanking the 2019-’20 board for its tireless work in an “extraordinary year.” Citing some achievements of the past year, Frizzell said the City of Toronto welcomed 45.4-million visitors with a total spend of almost $11 billion. Total hotel room nights sold was well over 10-million, with an average occupancy rate across the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) of 76.1 per cent. RevPAR was $149, while ADR for 2019 clicked in at $167 — “incredible results in growth from our previous years,” boasted Frizzell.
From an advocacy perspective, the association’s government relations yielded strong improvements. Over the past year, the GTHA worked tirelessly on its advocacy efforts to generate one of its biggest wins in efforts to level the playing field with Airbnb. “Short-term rentals are now allowed only in principal residences,” said Frizzell, adding that with a bylaw now in place, the city is working to implement a four-per-cent tax on all rentals.
Frizzell shared with members that “despite those wins, an appeal had been filed but, as of June 26, it was announced that the courts would not hear this appeal and conditions will stand as announced. “This is a great win for our association,” said Frizzell, adding that short-term rentals are now required to have a license and register with the City of Toronto.
He also noted that, as a result of GTHA efforts, premium rates for WSIB have been once again reduced, marking the fourth year in a row there have been reductions for Schedule-One businesses. “The average rate has been reduced by 17 per cent,” said Frizzell, adding “this brings the cumulative rate of decreases to 47.1 per cent.”
The past year also saw the GTHA welcome Scott Beck as new president and CEO of Destination Toronto (formerly Tourism Toronto), a group with whom the GTHA works closely. “He’s proving to be a great addition and resource for our industry,” said Frizzell, explaining that the two groups are working collaboratively to deal with what has become the biggest issue to ever impact the hospitality industry — COVID-19.
Both groups are actively involved in a panel tasked to provide advice to the government on recovery. “We’ve built a case on how the hotels in our catchment area have been dramatically impacted by COVID-19.” Additionally, the GTHA has developed its own recovery task force along with Destination Toronto to provide insight and put forth a recovery plan. The group was formed to advocate for significant stimulus and aid funding in support of the destination’s future recovery, with an understanding that there’s a long road ahead of it as it tackles challenges, such as the need for hotel closures, liquidity concerns, staffing issues, uncertainty about the continuation of government benefits, as well as a lack of clarity on booking future events and re-opening border closures.
“Your association will continue to champion our sector and leverage all resources to stay the course as we navigate the pandemic,” said Frizzell before handing the floor to Terry Mundell, president of the GTHA.
With COVID-19 overshadowing other activities, Mundell took time to point out some positive outcomes from the past year, reiterating the progress made on the short-term-rental front, as well as the cuts to premium increases on the WSIB front. “The myriad of regulations, property taxes, employment standards, WSIB premiums, can be a pretty cumbersome and complicated world when you just run a hotel, let alone conform to all the rules and regulations,” said Mundell, adding that to accomplish all that needs to be done, he meets with government ministries daily. “Our discussions with Premier Ford and Minister MacLeod are paying dividends. We’re gaining traction and a steady appreciation of what the industry needs,” explained Mundell, who was chosen recently to co-chair the provincial Government Hotel & Hospitality Panel, which provides input and advice to the government as to how to move forward in this new COVID-19 landscape.
“As chaos characterized those first few days, the government demonstrated its confidence in our industry by designating us as an essential service. Despite record losses — and real threats in the environment — you stepped up, you played an important role and earned the respect of Premier and cabinet and our hotel members who were counting on us to keep the lights on. It was no small feat. You are owed a debt of gratitude. Some 14 weeks later, here we are. We are continuing to be an essential service for healthcare workers, others on the frontline and for vulnerable populations. And, all we’ve asked for in return is to allow us to bridge from the immediate crisis and focus our attention on the recovery effort.”
For Mundell that means, government has to support the industry to allow meetings and events to occur — with accordance to provincial safety measures. “We know what it will take to attract domestic and international visitors and guests,” said Mundell. “We need to do everything possible to get our colleagues back to work. This won’t be solved by a new marketing program or a new slogan; this is real dedicated hotel-sector-specific funding that is required,” he said, adding these conversations are underway with the government. “We understand the challenge ahead, but we’re accepting that challenge. A strong unified voice is going to be essential.”
Closing off the AGM, Lisa MacLeod, Minister of Tourism, Culture & Sport, touched on the challenges of dealing with COVID-19. “I’ve had the opportunity, over the past two weeks, to travel across the province and stay at some of your properties,” said the Minister. “There are several challenges and it’s not been easy as essential services, but we’re dealing with so many things that inhibit people’s confidence in getting back to their old routines. We’ve been dealing with a triple threat: almost overnight, [we had] a health crisis, then an economic crisis and, as we get into Phase Two, we recognize there are some social issues we’ll have to confront — consumer sentiments and what people may and may not be comfortable with.”
As Minister of Tourism, MacLeod has been actively “demonstrating that it’s safe to stay and play in Ontario, given the stringent controls and protocols that have been put in place,” she said. “That’s why the government has invested $13 million in hyper-local marketing in order to demonstrate the safety of experiencing life in a COVID-19 reality,” in addition to staying in a hotel. Minister MacLeod added that, moving forward, she’s committed to continuing to consult with the industry and the association. And, though she’s confident the industry will recover, she acknowledged the road to recovery may be a long one.