Niagara-on-the-Lake's Lais Hotels is gearing up to open more of its restaurants as pandemic restrictions begin to lift.
Some hotels have been operating for about six weeks, and the weekend of July 3 was the first time all of the company's hotels were opened for the year, said Bob Jackson, chief executive officer of Lais Hotel Properties Ltd.
“The demand has been very, very strong. It's very high occupancy on weekends, pretty decent during the week, not a regular summer, but a good indicator of where things could go,” Jackson told The Lake Report.
He said the concern isn't so much the summer months, but the rest of the year, when normally much of the business would be corporate clients.
“That obviously has fallen off a great deal, as expected, and we'll see how that turns out — although there has been signals that it may come back a little quicker than we might have expected, but the transient demand is definitely there. People are looking to get out and travel.”
He said the company is fortunate to be in Niagara, surrounded by destinations and nature that draw people to the region.
“To a degree, we won't experience challenges that a major downtown metro hotel will.”
As far as the people coming to stay, he said it's not much different than other years, as much of the traffic comes from southern Ontario and the Greater Toronto Area.
About 15 to 20 per cent of business is typically from the United States, he said, “but we were able to kind of mitigate that with the Canadian guests not being able to go the other way.”
Still, he said, the hotel business really depends on a thriving local business and tourism economy.
“I think the thing for us is really just the success of the overall business community, and tourism. So as soon as they can get that border open, the better.”
He said businesses like the Shaw Festival are “so incredibly important to this town and to the region.”
“And they draw highly on U.S. guests and anything we can do to get them really humming would be beneficial. They've certainly done their part in terms of everything they possibly can to do outdoor shows and things of interest to attract people.”
“We're in it with them and hopefully we get that border open soon. That, in the long-run, benefits everybody, and short-term, there's quite a bit of need around here.”
Lais Hotel runs several establishments in Niagara-on-the-Lake, including six hotels and several restaurants.
Some of the company's restaurants have been opened for patio dining, such as Zee's and Butler's Bar and Grill. The rest of the restaurants have been doing takeout while waiting for indoor dining to resume. Chili Jiao, the company's newest restaurant, has not opened at all.
Jackson said he isn't sure when Chili Jiao will reopen.
“Unfortunately we don't have a crystal ball. It's the one that's not as centrally located as the others. So for us it's kind of a wait and see. We want to see how all the other businesses are tracking and then we'll look to open Chili, but we just haven't determined that yet.”
The company has expanded the patio at Butler's to accomodate more people in an outdoor setting.
Over the coming weeks as the company focuses on opening, he said staffing is likely the main focus.
“We're in fairly good shape. However, like you're hearing in the industry, it's a challenge every year, and specifically in areas like your kitchens and housekeeping, it's probably more pronounced.”
He said the company has been forced to get “creative” to retain workers. Government subsidies also are playing a minor role, he said.
“I wouldn't say that that's a big problem for us. We have seen cases where that has contributed to perhaps people not coming back, but it's not widespread.”
The company recently opened its Monet garden across from the Pillar and Post, along with a new snack bar tentatively called The Outpost. The outdoor space has been working well, said Paul MacIntyre, vice-president of operations.
“It's great. We planted 21,000 square feet of foliage and perennials and shrubs over the last two years and now they're all starting to come up, and the flowering of it, it's starting to look like a Roman garden. The roses are climbing and it's starting to look like what we envisioned it to look like and our guests are absolutely loving it,” McIntyre said.
“And it's a great location — safe — people can distance themselves and enjoy an open space and it's doing very well for us from that respect,” he added.
The garden and snack bar are both open every day for locals as well, except on days where there are booked functions.
Jackson said as far as some of the popular local nights, like unlimited Monday mussels at the Pillar and Post, the plan is to bring them back as soon as possible under COVID guidelines.