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B&Bs in doldrums as closed borders keep guests away

Aug 29/16 John McFadden/NNSL photo Faith Embleton, owner and operator of Embleton House Bed and Breakfast, wonders why she is paying to have a legitimate, registered business when anyone in the city can rent a room in their home to tourists. Embleton said it is not about losing business to the website Airbnb – she said she just does not understand why the city is not concerned about unlicensed and unregistered bed and breakfast operators.

The lifting of some Covid lockdown restrictions in the NWT has been of little help to bed and breakfast (B&B) accommodations in Yellowknife, which are facing economic gloom from a lack of customers.

While hotels weren't among the businesses advised to close by the chief public health officer in late March, they were already feeling the economic pain from the tourism downturn before the NWT's first confirmed case of Covid-19 was announced.

RELATED REPORTING: Virus-related tourism dropoff slams local businesses

The situation has only worsened for the accommodations business since then, as visitor numbers plummeted after the NWT border was closed as a pandemic health precaution.

No more bookings

The owners of Embleton House B&B decided to stop accepting bookings in mid-March when the border was shut.

"We put on our website that we were closed. Our last guests from South Korea left on the March 20," said owner Faith Embleton. "We’ve been in business for 21 years and this is the worst I've ever seen." 

Faith Embleton, owner and operator of Embleton House Bed and Breakfast, stopped accepting bookings when the NWT border was closed in March as a safeguard against the spread of Covid-19.
NNSL file photo

With no income from customers, Embleton and her husband have been able to access some funding through federal assistance programs such as the Northern Business Relief Fund (NBRF), offered through the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency.

RELATED REPORTING: Yk businesses relieved at CanNor fixed costs assistance offer

"The programs are tiding us over. It might be different when the fall comes, but the assistance will help pay the bills. Whatever was available I applied for. We were eligible for two or three of them, and the wage subsidy, too."

If the funding doesn't carry on beyond the fall, Embleton might consider renting out her B&B suites to tenants or close the business and sell it.

While she acknowledges the economic pain facing the accommodations industry, she's in no rush to see the border restrictions lifted, even if that could help return the NWT to business normalcy.

"No business is worth the lives of other people, in my mind. In the United States, some states are just opening (their restrictions) and I'm thinking ‘really?’ In Yellowknife we’re the barrier between the outside world and the small communities. I know that if the virus gets up there it will be really serious."

In Old Town, the owners of the Bayside B&B have had only two guests since late March when the border was closed.

"We’re completely empty. We’ve lost thousands of dollars," said co-owner Debbie Doody. "At the beginning of March everybody just started cancelling all their reservations. A lot of them are cancelling into the late spring and summer. A lot of canoe trips are cancelled. A lot of people who would stay here before they head out (on canoe trips) have cancelled. Folk on the Rocks has cancelled. I think even Ramble and Ride is going virtual." 

Like other business owners, Debbie and her husband John have received some relief from the federal assistance programs and they've deferred their mortgage.

They're also trying to keep afloat by selling baked goods in their Dancing Moose Cafe, on the ground floor of their B&B.

"I'm doing some fancy cakes and that’s been quite good at this angle. (And) we have a small contract with the Day Shelter for breakfasts," she said. 

John Doody, left, and Debbie Doody, owners of the Bayside Bed & Breakfast have had some success during the pandemic downturn by selling baked goods out of their ground-floor restaurant, the Dancing Moose Cafe.
Blair McBride/NNSL photo

The Dancing Moose could restart dining once the NWT reaches the second phase of Emerging Wisely, possibly in mid-to-late-June when dine-in restaurants will be permitted to open with limited capacity.

But Doody is losing patience with the situation and is eager to see the restrictions relaxed.

"We’ve only had five cases (of Covid) and it’s really time to get going again. And people need to be exposed a bit so they can develop some immunity.  After you’ve put so much work and money and time into your business (and) we’ve been operating this place for 12 years now, you just think, ‘Is this my imagination or this is real?’ We just want to start up again."

Little reason for hope

Jenny Qu, who owns Aurora Jenny's B&B, admits that the economic downturn could be the end of her business.

Since the border closed, she has had no visitors from outside of the NWT and only a few guests who came from NWT communities to shop in Yellowknife.

"I have almost no income, but I have to pay my bills. I have my fixed costs: the property tax, insurance. It’s a really tough time. And I don't think it will be better in September because I don't have bookings from travellers," she explained. 

In normal times, her rooms would already be booked for September but she hasn't received any reservations, and she expects the bookings that were already made will be cancelled.

She said the cancelled bookings since March represented at least $10,000 in lost revenue. While she received about $5,000 from the NBRF, it won't be enough to recoup her losses.

"If it continues like this I might have to close my business and find another job. If they keep the border shut how can I run my business? Many of my customers come from outside of Canada. Even if the border opens I wonder if it’s safe to host people from other countries. How can I protect my family?"

Long road ahead

The loss of revenue in the accommodations industry isn't just from fewer tourists coming in, but also from reduced business and government travel.

Business and government conferences at larger hotels, which normally bring in dozens of guests, can't be held because of physical distancing constraints, explained Cathie Bolstad, chief executive officer of NWT Tourism.

"This is a very difficult time for the accommodations industry. They have no one to accommodate. If you can't have group meetings you're limited in what you can do. While borders are closed in the NWT and while meeting sizes are kept small it's going to be a very long and difficult challenge for the accommodations industry," she said.
As an example of the dollar value of business travel, Bolstad pointed to a report from the Department of Infrastructure, Tourism and Investment on visitor numbers in the NWT. For 2018-2019, the most recent period for which data is available, $79.4 million was spent on business travel alone, more than other forms of travel such as aurora tourism, which accounted for $67.7 million, and "general touring" that came to $17.8 million.
Before the borders reopen and more guests and travellers return, Bolstad believes the flexibility of relief programs that can help hotels "keep their lights on" is going to be very important. She said Tourism NWT has been pushing the government to relax some of the constraints of relief programs and added that threshold expansion to up to 100 employees "will make a difference."
Larger hotels in Yellowknife such as the Explorer, Chateau Nova, Days Inn, Super 8 and Capital Suites all had vacancies as of Monday, but efforts to contact their owners for this story were not successful.


John Doody, left and Debbie Doody owners of the Bayside Bed & Breakfast have had some success during the pandemic downturn with selling baked goods out of their downstairs restaurant the Dancing Moose Cafe. Blair McBride/NNSL photo