Destinations around Canada that rely on the tourism industry to fuel economic growth have been one of the hardest hit sectors due to the COVID-19 pandemic in the past year or so.
And retail in those areas have felt the blow.
Andrew Siegwart, President of Blue Mountain Village Association a former Senior Vice President of Membership Services for the Retail Council of Canada, said it’s been a challenging year for the area.
“First and foremost with the drop in visitation level that’s going to dramatically impact the retail scene in a place like ours for sure,” he said.
“In the earlier days of the COVID-19 reopening (last year) capacities were a little more liberal and as such retail stores managed okay. They were able to put some adapted protocols in place and to have guests come through.”
But later stricter restrictions became more challenging for them with 15 per cent customer capacity.
“It was pretty hard to operate a viable business with those restrictions in place. They pivoted to curbside but in destinations like ours curbside is more difficult because we have a mix of local shoppers but predominantly we’re tourism driven,” he said. “If tourism isn’t humming, it’s harder for our stores to pivot to a curbside. People kind of shop when they’re here. Shopping is an ancillary part of the experience. So that was challenging.
“2019 was really a crest of a year. We were really riding high on many years of cumulative growth and investment but really are going to be starting from a much smaller place going forward.”
Blue Mountain Village is a premier four-season destination in southern Ontario, known for its iconic ski facility, with significant hotels, attractions, restaurants, retail stores and services.
The role of the Blue Mountain Village Association is to represent all of the stakeholders and owners of the Village and it operates marketing, animation, events and experiences throughout the year.
“We have quite a retail assortment. I would say it is really based on our core destination model. So you’ll have some experiences like a world-class spa with an adjacent store. A lot of outdoor adventure related to skiing, hiking, cycling, all that kind of product lines and categories. And a lot of experiential and home categories as well as gift and fashion apparel,” said Siegwart. “And a bit of food as well.”
He said there are about 25 retail outlets and another 25 food and beverage outlets. Most of them are small and independent run with a few franchisees who operate as well.
Siegwart estimated that businesses lost anywhere from 25 per cent to 75 per cent of business during the pandemic. Sectors like aviation or transportation are “down massively.”
“There were no permanent closures. They were able to hang on. Because we work as a collective, we can be very creative together,” added Siegwart.
For example, last fall the area was heading into a season when it knew that group business was not going to return to the conference centre and the hotel. So it pivoted to an attraction strategy for fully independent travellers and more leisure. An experience was created such as a mountain light trail and that was tied into the retail sector.
The flip side of the pandemic was that many people were leaving the urban markets and coming to live in more rural communities with perhaps second properties and Siegwart said there was a slight uptick in that activity.
Moving forward there is a sense of optimism in the air.
“But there’s still a lot of still don’t know what’s going to happen with the next phases of the reopening. So it’s really hard to plan. There’s optimism. We’ve been through this enough. We know we can react quicker and we know how to react and respond and I think we’ve let go of our obsession with hyper planning ahead like we had before and we’re learning to cope with responding in the moment,” said Siegwart. “I don’t think that’s going to be the new normal but it’s the more short-term normal. We’re primed for that. We’re ready.”