A trio of hotel leaders get candid about facing down pandemic challenges

By Amy Bostock

At the recent 2022 Hotel Summit, themed Recharge Refuel & Rebuild, held June 8 at the Hilton Toronto, Hotelier magazine’s editor/publisher Rosanna Caira led a trio of industry leaders in a discussion of the state of the hospitality industry through a leadership lens.

Titled The Leaders Perspective: Pre and Post Pandemic, panelists included Andrea Torrance, senior vice-president, Guest Experience, North & Central America, Accor; Kenneth Gibson, president, Sunray Group; and Christiane Germain, co-president and co-founder, Germain Hotels

“The last two years have been tumultuous for everybody,” Caira said, “and the hotel industry in particular. It’s been a roller coaster of activity, a lot of highs, a lot of lows — mostly lows — and the industry has been tortured in many ways. But where do we stand today?”

According to Torrance, global travel is back. “What we’re seeing now is people travelling before the summer holiday. So, the shoulder months are picking up greatly…and we’re very optimistic. We’re super excited and can’t wait for the summer.”

In Quebec, which was hard hit through the pandemic in the early days and took a long time to recover, Germain said although travellers are returning to the province, “it’s not as it used to be.”

“We’re still standing, which at this time is probably the most important thing,” she said of her company. “When the pandemic hit, we didn’t know where this was going to take us — it was a nightmare for a few months. And now we’re still there, we got help, as you know, from governments and we got supported by our investors, which was crucial in times like this. And thank God business is coming back. We are in seven provinces right now and [business is returning] at about the same speed everywhere. I would say we’re going to have a very busy summer.”

Gibson said he’s feeling “pretty good about the business,” as he starts to see a return of business, particularly in some of Sunray’s larger hotels that have meeting space. “Our concern going forward, and we’re very optimistic again, is getting meetings and corporate business back on the books. That’s a big challenge going forward,” he said, adding the company is also keeping our eye on how gas prices will impact hotel stays. “We haven’t seen any effect from that yet in our drive-to markets, but we’re keeping a close eye on it. So, we’re phenomenally optimistic, we’ve come out of this on the right side and don’t think we’re going to go backwards.”

At Sunray properties, Gibson said “we’re probably seeing more business on the books this summer than we have in pre-pandemic times and the markets we’re seeing most of the demand is in our resort business,” he said, adding the company is seeing a tremendous amount of demand in Montreal. “In Montreal, we expect to have a gangbuster summer and we see signs of that in Toronto as well — summer is going to be back to better than pre-pandemic [business].”

With increased demand comes discussion around rates, and the panelists were very candid on the issue.

“It’s very important to talk about the rates,” said Germain, “because some of our guests may think that the rates are high because we want to balance out the money [lost] last year, which is not the case and it’s important for people to understand that. If you go back to our 2019 rates, [rates are] lower now than it was then in real dollars. It doesn’t have anything to do with making up the money we lost — it’s because of inflation that the rates are going so high.”

Despite higher rates, all three leaders agreed that guest pushback has been minimal.

“It’s part of the revenge-travel concept,” said Germain. “People are [eager to travel] and we have to be careful not to abuse that.”

Gibson agreed that although the lack of resistance to higher rates may make it tempting to raise them even more, there’s a point where you reach a ceiling.

Following insightful discussions on the importance of increased cleanliness standards, labour challenges and the use of technology to help run a more efficient hotel, the three leaders got personal and talked about their biggest takeaways from the last two years living and working through a pandemic.

“I think it is the human connection,” said Torrance. “Whether it’s the human connection with us and our guests, us and our place, or us and our owners, everyone has been very understanding all the way through this. And that level of respect, continues. And so again, it keeps coming back to connecting and building those relationships, helping each other and understanding each other.”

As a family-owned company, Germain says her biggest takeaway has been the confirmation that the business she founded with her brother is in good hands with the next generation.

“Our children are involved in the company — my brother has five and I have one — and we knew that they were good [at their jobs]. But through the pandemic, we realized how good they are. I mean, there’s life after us, right? I don’t know if my brother and I would have been as successful if it was only the two of us [through the pandemic]. It’s nice to see that your family is there to take over.”

The value of support was Gibson’s biggest takeaway coming out of COVID.

“As we went through the pandemic, we got support from pretty much everybody — from lenders, to brands and employees. The resiliency of our employees, and their willingness to do other tasks than what they were hired for, shows that our business is very much a family business, and the hotel business is very much a family business. The amount of support from all levels was just phenomenal.”


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