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How the hospitality industry survived the pandemic

We spoke to drivers, restaurateurs, hotel and cinema staff about how they weathered lockdowns and dramatically came back from the brink this year.

We spoke to business owners and staff from four corners of the hospitality industry, from Laval to Houston, about how they weathered pandemic lockdowns and this year’s dramatic comeback.

Whether it’s cab drivers, limos, Ubers, buses or even ambulances, drivers of all stripes tend to be the keepers of important knowledge. The best drivers know their own cities like the backs of their hands, and most drivers these days are two or three other things, too. I’ve recently had drivers with master’s degrees, who are graduate students, engineers, amateur conspiracy theorists, philosophers. If you need to know anything, ask your driver.

The pandemic was particularly difficult on drivers. A tight, enclosed space was the last place anyone wanted to be with a stranger as international travel came to an almost complete standstill. It is surreal to recall after a comparatively normal summer in 2022 that the previous two years crippled the travel industry — an industry that Montreal relies heavily upon to support our sense of momentum. With nobody going anywhere, no one needed a ride.

Immediately following the curfew in Quebec in January, I decided to travel to Toronto, Houston and Edmonton to get back to some feeling of normalcy, as well as to see what travelling was like amidst the tail-end of the coronavirus crisis. On the road, I got to speak with people directly affected by their various industries’ mandatory restrictions.

hospitality industries pandemic Charles Limousine
Charles Limousine (How the hospitality industry survived the pandemic)

“Business literally went from 100 to zero,” Georges Ahmarani told me on the ride out to the airport. That’s not a good thing for a driver. Ahmarani, who owns and operates Charles Limousine in Laval, managed to weather the pandemic by scaling down his workforce to a staff of one: “I was driving mostly myself for a good year,” he conceded. “We’re at 85% pre-COVID levels now. The 15% that’s left is the big conventions that are not happening quite yet, but a lot of people are starting to travel again.”

It wasn’t just drivers that were sidelined into survival mode in 2020 and ‘21. Hotels, restaurants, all forms of entertainment — everything was forced to shut down or pivot dramatically. Even enormous hotels like the Fairmont Royal York in Toronto needed to adapt, as well as to act responsibly for their communities during an unthinkable global event. 

Jennifer Séguin, the Royal York’s Director of Marketing, told me about a GoFundMe campaign the hotel set up for their staff, as well as the “Rest Safe” program, which opened up strictly sanitized suites to healthcare workers after long shifts on the frontlines. 

“Fairmont Royal York has stood for 91 years as a safe harbour in the heart of Toronto in times of need,” said Séguin, “notably operating as a hospital during World War II.” The coronavirus crisis posed an entirely new set of challenges, though, with NHL hockey bubbles and quarantining travellers replacing traditional guests. “It was a pivotal moment in our city’s history,” Séguin recalled. “Our team aimed to do everything we could to contribute to our community’s recovery.”

Fairmont Royal York Hotel Toronto
The Fairmont Royal York Hotel Toronto (How the hospitality industry survived the pandemic)

Specialist scenes like arthouse cinemas were hit hardest by the pandemic as theatres sat empty and screens went dark. Following a 16mm screening of Warhol films in February at Rice Cinema in Houston, the chief projectionist, Dr. Tish Stringer, spoke about how their Museum of Fine Arts navigated the shutdowns with livestreaming programs and outdoor events. “As much as I enjoyed hosting outdoor screenings for organizations throughout Houston, I am thrilled to be back inside theatres,” Stringer said. “It’s not just a big screen and sound system that makes going to the movies a thrill; it’s the collective experience of being swept away by a story together.”

Despite the isolation COVID-19 posed, unlikely success stories emerged from restaurants like Dalla Tavola Zenari in Edmonton, which inauspiciously opened just as restrictions were going into place. “The bank financing and all these things started moving, and they didn’t stop,” owner Elisa Zenari said of their dining room’s discouraging debut, “so, it was like, I guess we’re going to have to figure out how to make this work, which is what we did.” 

Zenari, who had just relaunched her family’s namesake restaurant in a new downtown location, described the feeling of slogging, shuttered, through the prairie’s winter months. “Every day just felt like Groundhog Day. You could not see the future, you could not see an end, you had no idea.”

Dalla Tavola Zenari, Edmonton pandemic hospitality industries
Dalla Tavola Zenari, Edmonton (How the hospitality industry survived the pandemic)

A cautious sense of optimism has returned to the hospitality industries in 2022, as travellers everywhere this past summer came back with a vengeance. “We got a lot of bookings for cruise ships,” Ahmarani relayed on my drive home, “so we’re almost there.” Major festivals and conventions took place all season long, but a spectre of uncertainty hangs over every business that bore the brunt of the coronavirus crisis. Those ghosts will take time to exorcise. 

Still, creative change seems to be the only constant — and hospitality’s driving force. Business, like everything in life, is never static, as Zenari reminds me. “Maybe we’ll be a takeout restaurant next week, and we’ll just have to do that. Having to do this with a gun to your head, in a weird way, it makes you realize that you are in charge of your own destiny.” ■

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