Bar business outlook brightens with hockey’s return

Hospitality sector will benefit, but no game-changing spike in business predicted

Vancouver Canucks’ 2021 training camp action at an empty Rogers Arena. The team’s home games will continue to be played in front of empty seats for the foreseeable future | Rob Kruyt

Vancouver’s hospitality sector will benefit from the return of Vancouver Canucks games at Rogers Arena following the provincial government’s approval of the National Hockey League’s plan for its 2021 season, but industry officials say that benefit will vary from subsector to subsector.

For instance, while local hotels are happy that teams from Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec will be travelling to Vancouver during the season, the direct impact on business will be minimal.

“Take a four-litre bucket of water and pour it into Lake Okanagan, and tell me how much that fills it up,” said Darren Simpson, chairman of the Hotel Association of Vancouver.

“I don’t want to belittle the fact that this is a great opportunity, and there are a ton of positives. However, from a room sentiment, let’s say teams travel with [their] full capacity as well as a few family members – whatever number they are allowed to travel with. We are going to have 28 home games, so with a visiting team needing around 50 room/nights [per visit] on the very high-end side of projections, you are looking at maybe 1,400 room/nights for the season. For Vancouver, our capacity is about 12,000 rooms on a per-night basis. If the NHL gives us 1,400 room/nights total over five months, that’s a bucket of water in Lake Okanagan.”

But Simpson added that the launch of a new NHL season in COVID times provides a showcase for the safety measures his industry has instituted and will play a key role in boosting public trust in Vancouver hotels.

“Just the simple allowance for any travel and the capacity for hotels to show they are safe places for people to travel is an excellent opportunity for us,” Simpson said.

Meanwhile, B.C. restaurants and sports bars have said that any sporting event that has the potential of bringing patrons to local establishments will help a sector that has been battered by pandemic-related lockdowns.

East Side Craft House co-owner Brendan Gray said the recently completed World Junior Hockey Championships increased business at his bar much more than anticipated.

“Hockey’s definitely the most important sport for us in terms of bringing in customers,” Gray said. “If there are 18,000 fans who can’t get a Canucks ticket this year, maybe we will see a few of them. The World Juniors definitely injected some enthusiasm into my customers. The previous years, we didn’t see a lot of interest in this event, but this year there’s been quite a few people coming in with their jerseys. People are dying for something to watch, and with hockey, they stay longer and their cheques are bigger on average.”

The National Football League season has also helped local bars maintain a degree of normalcy in business operations. Seattle Seahawks games regularly drive fans to fill up East Side’s allowed 50% capacity on game days.

Gray estimated his daily business reaches about 25% capacity during the winter. Combined with a robust delivery food-service demand, that has meant “things are actually pretty good,” despite pandemic related challenges, Gray said.

He added that the NHL format for the new season, with only Canadian teams visiting Vancouver during the regular season and first two rounds of the playoffs, might boost the drawing power of Canucks games.

“I’m expecting it to help if the novelty doesn’t wear off too quickly. During the previous years, we definitely saw an uptick when the 4 o’clock [Toronto Maple] Leafs games were on. On game nights with Winnipeg, you saw more fans coming with their Jets jerseys. In comparison, you don’t see a lot of Detroit Red Wings or [Arizona] Coyotes fans coming in for those games in our neighbourhood, so a Canadian division could mean an uptick.”

But Simpson is not placing too much hope on increased business at hotel restaurants and bars. He said the only development that could trigger a full-scale recovery in Vancouver’s hospitality sector would be the lifting of the current domestic and international travel bans – something that is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future.

“I wish I had a better answer, but right now, it’s quite simply no,” Simpson said when asked if there are any mitigation efforts that would reverse the business tide for hotels while the pandemic travel restrictions are still in place.

“Vancouver, based on capacity, relies heavily on international and group travel. That’s the foundation for the hotels to have any sort of sustainable occupancy rates… The hotels in the late summer and fall [2020] started to see a semblance of capacity – although still overall under 30% and nowhere near being profitable – but the minute we saw local travel restrictions in November, hotels saw immediate cancellations and now are at single-digit occupancy. Most hotels right now are just doing what they can to get by.” •