Recently, Rosanna Caira, editor and publisher of Hotelier, spoke with Christopher Bloore, president and CEO of the Tourism Industry Association of Ontario (TIAO), about the work his association is doing to re-build Ontario’s tourism industry and become more resilient in the future.
Rosanna Caira: At the beginning of the pandemic, TIAO shifted to become more of an advocacy group, working with government to secure COVID-19 relief programs. Do you feel the government provided the kind of supports that you were asking for, or was there a lot more that you wanted?
Christopher Bloore: To be frank, everyone has been working without a net. I don’t think anyone on the bureaucratic side of government or the elected representative side of government has ever been through something that can compare to this — shutting down the entire economy while facing a chronic health crisis. It’s fair to say that we have been successful with many government initiatives, but some of the programs haven’t had the financial envelope that we’d hoped for on the provincial side. However, the open line of communication between TIAO, the Ministry of Tourism and the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development has been there from day one, and in many cases, the provincial and federal governments have listened to us and delivered programs that have been important for the survival of the industry. We could do more. There’s going to be a need to do more in the coming months as we enter what we hope is a recovery period.
RC: Based on your surveying, can you highlight the impacts COVID-19 has had on the 180,000 tourism businesses you represent?
CB: At the peak of the pandemic, about 141,000 jobs were lost within the industry. Many of those people have gone into other sectors because of the start-stop nature of our industry and ongoing health protocols and restrictions. In terms of revenues, nine out of 10 businesses have been severely impacted, with roughly 67 to 70 per cent revenue losses. Some businesses in northern Ontario have reported revenue losses of 93 per cent. Last year, in our regular survey research, 81 per cent of businesses said they would have permanently closed if they didn’t have the rent and wage subsidies. These economic impacts are going to live with us for some time.
RC: Tourism encompasses many different businesses. Is it challenging to represent a group with an eclectic mix of needs and demands?
CB: It has been challenging. In the most recent re-opening periods in Ontario, some businesses feel penalized because they haven’t been included in eligibility lists for revenue support grants. However, I think we’ve managed to keep a good equilibrium and businesses have worked together to ensure no one gets left behind. At this moment, we’re all facing similar challenges on slightly different scales, and we need to maintain a flexible approach to deal with these problems moving forward. If we work in our silos, we’ll never been able to get extended and increased economic support from governments because there just won’t be that conformity and unified message we’ve had over the last 20 months that has served us so well.
RC: Now that we’re past the two-year mark, what are you doing to help the industry move forward? How are you focusing your energies on bringing people back to Ontario?
CB: This year, I’d like to focus on international travel. We need to change the messaging surrounding travel and the risk associated with travel. One of the most frustrating things for our industry over the last two years has been the suggestion that travel is dangerous and it’s the reason for having high case counts. As soon as we make it out of this recovery, we need to think about how we can make Ontario as competitive as possible.
RC: Labour is still a major challenge for the industry. If the industry doesn’t have enough employees to provide the service that travellers so desperately need, that’s going to be a huge problem. So, what do we do?
CB: Our industry has struggled to build a good reputation and attract workers. One in 10 jobs within our industry were left unfilled in 2019, and this issue has only been enhanced by the pandemic. We need to address wages, working conditions and opportunities for advancement. We need to repair our reputation and communicate that people can earn a fantastic living within our industry. We also need to think about how we can sell ourselves to workers who haven’t considered us as a potential destination for employment. Currently, TIAO is working on a few projects to drive career awareness. We’re trying to get into the schools and encourage students to consider our industry using testimonials, digital presentations and social media content. We’re also working on projects about subsidizing potential employees to job match with employers. We’ve got to grab the bull by the horns on this.
RC: What are some of the other challenges threatening the industry’s recovery?
CB: The unevenness of our industry’s recovery is what keeps me up at night. Some sectors and regions are doing well while others are left behind, and that worries me. All levels of government are going to have to make some difficult financial decisions moving forward. We need plans in place for sustained investment to grow our sectors. Pre-pandemic, we were contributing $5 billion to the Treasury at Queen’s Park and we will be able to double that over the next 10 years with the right investment and the right supports.
RC: What important lessons have you picked up over the last two years?
CB: This is an important question because we focus so much on professional lessons and sometimes we forget the personal ones. I’ve learned how to make decisions quickly because you never quite know what’s around the corner, whether it’s an illness, a pandemic or a work-related problem. I’ve also learned that family and friends matter more than we realized. This lack of interaction took an extreme toll on relationships. I want to instill this in my team as well. During the pandemic, my wife and I had our son, but we hadn’t really discussed starting a family prior. Then we thought, ‘what are we waiting for?’ and it has been the best thing that’s ever happened to us. We often forget the personal sacrifices we’ve made and we need to remember that family and friends are key to everything we do.
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