TORONTO — CHIC Digital 2020, produced by Big Picture Conferences, kicked off yesterday with a new format reflective of the COVID-19 reality.

“These past eight months are unmatched in our history, who would have predicted a year ago that the word Corona would refer to anything other than a beer, and that social distancing and the new normal would be phrases we use every day,” said Stephanie Gadbois, managing director, Big Picture Conferences, in her opening remarks Monday. “As the global pandemic prescribed our lives and paralyzed our movements, the hospitality industry emerged as one of the most impacted sectors. With hundreds of hotels closed across Canada in the spring — and dramatically reduced travel placed on much of the world —the short term forecast for industry seemed grim. But we’ve seen incredible acts of resilience and kindness through trying times. And we know that when the scientific community brings this pandemic to heel, our business — the business of hospitality — will return robustly.”

Susie Grynol, president of the Hotel Association of Canada (HAC), opened the program with an overview of what the association has been doing to help the industry since COVID-19 brought it to a virtual standstill in March.

“Who would have ever thought that we’d be here where we are today, with the industry fighting for its survival in the middle of the world’s most severe global pandemic,” she asked. “[There is] very exciting news out this morning about another vaccine candidate, which we’re all desperately hoping is the case, and that we can get back to some sort of normalcy this summer. But in the interim, [HAC] has been focused on making sure that you can pay your bills, that you have as much support from government as humanly possible and that our industry survives and make it to the other side.”  

When the pandemic hit, she said the HAC board of directors set up a sub-committee of the board that met every day, “sometimes multiple times a day, in those early moments of the pandemic, to get a handle on what was happening to the sector. We also had an executive group of owners come together and triage the issues for us work with us so that we could understand what did we need to focus on first, what were the what were the key drivers that programs that government needed to launch and in which order, we also worked with our provinces in our cities to ensure that you had the right support at all levels of government as we worked through this pandemic together.”

HAC also bolstered its internal team, bringing in financial-sector experts, banking experts, crisis communications and government relations to help it reach the highest levels of government in a snap of a finger and be able to influence decision making. “This is the kind of representation that you needed during this pandemic and so we mobilized this team [and] got them into place very quickly. I will also say that it’s not just been [HAC] — there’s obviously been a deep movement of sectors that have come together, including the airlines and the broader tourism industry — and that coalition is alive and well and was instrumental at securing the wage subsidies. It’s really been incredible to watch the leadership of this industry come together in an unprecedented way.”

The next session, 2020:  A Real Oddity, Its Time for Back to The Future! Facts and Emerging Trends for Recovery, moderated by, Carrie Russell, senior managing partner, HVS Vancouver, painted a grim picture of the 2020 market.  “There is no doubt that we are experiencing a dreadfully bad 2020,” said Russell. “Normally in these sessions, I would spend quite a while going through facts and stats, looking back and carving the market up into various different provinces and regions. [But] 2020 was painful — we don’t want to spend too much time looking back.”

Russell was joined by Brian Flood, VP and practice leader, Cushman & Wakefield; Danièle Gadbois, VP and head of sales for CWT; and Russ Atkinson, director, Air Service Development & Strategy, YVR to discuss real-time hotel-market intelligence and provide an overview on key economic indicators in Canada today. Panelists also dissected what the next 24 months may look like for business, group and leisure travel.

Day one’s keynote address came from Chris Cahill, Deputy CEO Hotel Operations, CEO Luxury Brands at Accor, who spoke with CBRE’s David Larone about how Accor’s portfolio and pipeline have been impacted by COVID-19 and what strategies the company has in place to not just survive, but thrive. 

“The reality is when things start going again, the customers [will be] increasingly more demanding because the pricing is generally growing much faster than inflation and so they’re looking for more value,” said Cahill.  “The changes we’re going to come out of this particular crisis are very different than what we’ve experienced in the past. I think each one of the last three, four, five downturns have all given us something different to think about [and] this one is going to be similar. Understanding the impact that this extended period of lockdown or restricted mobility — what the impact will be and the customers psyche — is important. Will it be different by segment, by the age group or psychographic? I don’t know exactly what that’s going to look like. But I do think we’ll have to refine our offerings. The key is going to be really understanding the customer and that’s going to be one of our big challenges as we get past this current phase.”

The CHIC Digital 2020 program also including a number of virtual networking opportunities, a virtual tradeshow and a series of interactive roundtables covering topics such as finding hotel debt solutions,  sales and marketing strategies and tips for running post-pandemic meetings and conferences.

Stay tuned for Hotelier’s coverage of Day 2 of the conference. 


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