What's next for the hospitality and tourism industry in Alberta?

Leaders from Alberta’s hospitality and tourism sector discuss its road to recovery and the talent needed to lead the way.
Leaders from Alberta’s hospitality and tourism sector discuss its road to recovery and the talent needed to lead the way.

COVID-19 suspended normalcy around the globe, taking lives, threatening livelihoods, shuffling priorities, stifling interactions and reining in everyday expectations. The food, tourism and hospitality sectors have taken a particularly hard hit. They’ve been clobbered really, by the pandemic and by the measures imposed to curb its spread. What a difference six months can make, and now — six feet apart.

SAIT’s President and CEO, Dr. David Ross recently invited several business leaders to Zoom-in for a physically distanced roundtable discussion about what’s changed for food, tourism and hospitality as a result of COVID? What opportunities exist looking ahead?

Who is most likely to participate? To thrive? And how SAIT can help hone the calibre of talent needed to advance recovery and beyond.

The impact

It was a timely conversation with so many businesses shuttered forever and other business owners still tingling from the residual burn of COVID’s enormous economic impact, both globally and here at home.

Travel Alberta’s VP of Destination Development, Shelley Grollmuss provided a snapshot of that impact. “Before the pandemic, Alberta tourism was a $9 billion a year growth industry, fuelled by 22,000 businesses and supporting nearly 73,000 jobs around the province,” says Grollmuss.

The provincial government's ambitious pre-COVID growth target of $20 billion by 2030 will be re-evaluated. Preliminary provincial forecasts coming out of Destination Canada point to a lengthy period of recovery. Their best-case scenario (virus contained) for Alberta is to see our travel spending rebound to 2019 levels in 2022. If the virus remains uncontained, that recovery period stretches into 2024. Airport authorities in the province are estimating three to six years before air service returns to pre-COVID levels.

“Tourism is facing its biggest challenge yet and it will be a long road, moving in step with the provincial recovery strategy,” says Grollmuss. “We are taking on a phased approach to help minimize the impact on the tourism industry so we’re in a position to move forward together to accelerate recovery and rebuild the visitor economy.” 

The industry’s leaders are cautiously optimistic, primed and already thinking about their next moves. As government restrictions slowly lift and things start to reopen, they know they’re returning to business — but not business as usual.

Supporting local safely

The customer base has changed significantly, for starters. With international travellers in absentia, it will be locals and people from the region that stop in to eat, shop, stay or play.

“It has to start local,” says Arjun Channa, General Manager of The Westin Calgary. He mentions the term “glocal”, stressing the need to keep thinking global but to act local. “Customers are going to come from within the region — from within driving range.” Then gradually things are expected to build up to include a national demographic as renewed interest in travel from neighbouring provinces spawns back-and-forth visits across the country.

“There’s a lot of pent-up demand,” says Aodhan Sheahan, hospitality executive and SAIT School of Hospitality and Tourism Dean’s Advisory Council member. “Everywhere they’ve tracked this, as things have opened up, there’s immediately been a strong response and demand from the consumer.”

Tourism Calgary’s Senior VP of Marketing, Jeff Hessel concurs. “People really want to get back out there, experience things, go back to their favourite restaurants. As soon as they feel they can travel safely, that pent-up demand spikes.”

Building consumer confidence is going to be critical for moving forward and those who do it well will distinguish themselves. Health and safety protocols and hyper-cleanliness are now a big part of a business’ value proposition. Communicating that value is key.

“At Tourism Calgary we’re talking about it in all our content and putting everybody in masks when we take pictures to show people that there is the dedication to keep them safe,” says Hessel.

People have varying levels of risk tolerance. Service delivery options will be key to capturing the largest possible customer base. Over the past few months, we have seen traditional sit-down restaurants and grocery chains jump online for orders and deliveries to sustain and grow their businesses. Pop-up retail stores have appeared in restaurant foyers. Hotels have been introducing digital check-ins so guests have the option to bypass the front desk. It’s no replacement for a face-to-face welcome but for now the focus is on safety first.

High calibre talent a necessity

Proactive businesses with an entrepreneurial culture and adaptable mindset have demonstrated leadership during this crisis and their customers aren’t the only ones paying attention. Employees experienced the benefits of great leadership, or the fallout from a lack of it, up close and personally. As things begin to open up again, an employer’s reputation in terms of how they value and support their staff will influence whether they attract and retain or repel good people.

“I think we’re seeing that the ones [employers] who did it really well are coming out at the top of this whole thing,” says Casey Miles, VP Culinary Operations, JOEY Restaurant Group. “The ones who didn’t do it well are not.”

In a new world order characterized by disruption, having the ability to launch a calculated response quickly is key. What the sector needs most in the way of talent moving forward — what business leaders are looking to SAIT to provide — is versatile leadership to sustain, keep growing and get through anything.

“I think even more now than ever a program at SAIT is important, because if you're given a number of candidates you're going to be looking for the one that has those critical thinking skills, the one that has the most knowledge to be able to help you fine tune that selection,” says Sam Ross, Director of Operations at Fairmont Hotels and Resorts.

Fearless but measured risk takers with strong technical skills, adept problem-solving skills, an entrepreneurial spirit, creativity, intuition, and supple, cat-like reflexes to help ensure that, come what may, the business will always land on its feet. SAIT’s hospitality and tourism programs are built on those customer service, critical thinking and pivoting skills. It’s why we’re the only Canadian school recognized on both the CEOWORLD Magazine and QS World University Rankings. This year, SAIT ranked as the 21st best hospitality and hotel management school and 29th best hospitality and leisure management school in the world respectively.

“Right now, the customer experience is hyper-local, but the employee mindset has to be hyper-global. So there has to be this truly global awareness that we foster in students in order for them to bring that perspective to guiding the experiences of customers in the local market,” says Sheahan, who is aware of SAIT’s impressive roster of instructors who have worked all over the world.

It’s this mindset and attitude that inspired SAIT Travel and Tourism grad Sydnee Bell’s hyperlocal Alberta road trip guide. “My instructors have really helped me break out of my shell. Their knowledge and passion came through when they’d share their worldwide experiences with us, and it gave me the confidence to do the same,” says Bell. “Now that I have the background in both domestic and global tourism markets, I’m comfortable in my skills to recommend and send people places, especially locally right now.”

The human experience

The advanced technology piece will undoubtedly become increasingly important to support a variety of applications and service delivery modes for a competitive advantage, but it definitely won’t replace the human experience that tourism and hospitality are so firmly grounded in.

We’ve all been required to physical distance during this pandemic. That six-foot gap separating us can sometimes feel like a giant chasm. As a replacement for human interactions, tech gadgets and robots can’t even come close. There was consensus on this point around the table.

“Customer service rarely exists in a digital form,” says Kelly Black of local BMeX Restaurant Group. “It really is a one-on-one interaction with people, it’s incredibly palpable and I don’t think that will be lost.”

“Whatever the environment is,” says Sheahan, “Our industry will find a way to bring a sense of hospitality — an experience of hospitality into all of our interactions.”

Learn more about why SAIT’s School of Hospitality and Tourism is recognized globally.

Interested in exploring and supporting local businesses? Visit some of the websites we’ve included, along with our SAIT Alumni Business Directory.

This story is part of our summer content series, highlighting SAIT's connections with community and industry and how we're championing change in our local economy.