Robson merchants expect another lean summer

Business picking up, but pillars of retail corridor's economy will still be missing

Business along Vancouver’s Robson Street retail corridor is starting to improve, but it is still miles from its pre-pandemic pace | Chung Chow

On a warm sunny day in June, Robson Street is busy with shoppers and the afternoon lunch crowd. Things appear to be almost normal. But “normal” is still many, many months away yet.

“Traffic is getting to a higher volume for us right now, so we are hiring more people,” said Emma Chan, assistant manager at Steve Madden Shoes on Robson. “We are planning for more people to come in on busier days. Things are slowly progressing, definitely. We’ve seen a rise in our numbers, but it’s been a slow rise.”

“Definitely it’s catching up,” said Maya Saoud, owner of The Candy Room, who had to cut back her store’s hours of operation during the pandemic.

Chris Cheung, manager of the family owned Canadian Crafts, which is heavily dependent on tourism, expects he may have one good month in August before the usual seasonal drop-off in the fall.

“I’m down 95%,” he said, adding that he had to lay off seven of his 10 staff and cut hours of operation nearly in half. He has managed to keep the shop open thanks to government supports and “a very understanding landlord.”

While shop owners along Robson Street are expecting business to be more brisk this summer than last summer, as some provincial restrictions are relaxed, they’re under no illusions that it will get back to anything resembling “normal” this year, in terms of foot traffic and sales.

While some are making cautious plans to rehire or hire new employees or extend hours of operation, once business starts picking up, the reality is that four pillars of Robson Street’s commerce will still be missing in 2021: international tourists (notably cruise ship traffic), conferences, summer festivals and a downtown office workforce.

Some business owners are taking a wait-and-see approach before they start making any plans for extending hours or rehiring.

While the B.C. government has set phased restart and reopening dates for July 1 and September 7, business owners have seen dates like these come and go before, only to be extended or reinstated through “circuit breaker” restrictions. And the federal government has yet to announce when Canada’s border with the U.S. will reopen to unrestricted travel. It’s hard to make business plans with all that uncertainty. It’s particularly hard for hotels.

The Blue Horizon is one of several hotels on Robson Street, but the only one officially in the Robson Street Business Association’s (RSBA) district. It is very quiet inside. Its restaurant is closed throughout the week and opens only for weekend brunch.

Hotel manager Andrea Kynoch is hoping to see an uptick, now that British Columbians are permitted to travel more freely within B.C. But the reality is that half the hotel’s usual business – international travellers – will be absent again this summer.

“Fifty per cent of visitors in years past were international, and a significant number of people cruised Alaska,” Kynoch said. “I think that has an impact on the entire city and all the businesses downtown.”

The federal government banned cruise ships from making Canadian port calls until February 2022. And even when they are allowed back, there’s now some question whether some cruise ships may skip Vancouver or Victoria, thanks to changes made in the U.S. allowing Seattle-to-Alaska cruise ships to bypass B.C.

“Having a plan in place from the federal government about how the border will reopen would be helpful,” Kynoch said.

Even when things do pick up, Cheung worries that he will have a hard time finding employees. International students used to make up a lot of his hires. With minimum wages going up and restaurants competing with retailers for staff, he thinks it could be a challenge.

“They [restaurants] are having an extremely challenging time finding workers, because all those people have left the industry,” he said.

There are 150 businesses in the RSBA, which covers Robson from Burrard to Jervis Street. Like other downtown commercial districts, it was devastated by the restrictions imposed during the pandemic. A number of businesses went bankrupt or otherwise closed and moved.

While many storefronts along Robson still have “for lease” signs in the windows, a few new shops have opened along Robson, including Paul, a French bakery that opened in May, and Hello Nori, a new Japanese restaurant.

“The initial closures of businesses were COVID victims, and I would say the businesses that did close were on the verge anyhow,” said RSBA executive director Teri Smith.

But she added that business in general has picked up, and lower lease rates may be attracting some potential new occupants.

“We had a really strong quarter three,” Smith said. “For us, that’s the fall – so October to December – where we saw quite a lot of positive leasing activity and businesses open. I connect quite frequently with the commercial realtors in the area, and they’ve never been busier. There is a lot of interest along Robson.”

As of July 1, limits on group sizes and restrictions on hours of serving liquor will ease, and nightclubs can reopen, with capacity limits. As early as September 7, companies will be allowed to bring workers back to the office.

But another summer will pass without cruise ships, and another important part of summer commerce for Robson Street merchants – festivals and celebrations like the Pride parade, Festival of Lights fireworks and Vancouver International Jazz Festival – have all been cancelled again this summer.

“This is one of the things we sure miss: the cruise ships, the fireworks, the festivals,” Saoud said.

Worse, even local customers in the form of office workers are still largely absent, and may never return to pre-pandemic numbers, even when they are allowed to this fall, because some business are expected to adopt permanent hybrid work options. Downtown office workers provided year-round business for coffee shops, restaurants and retailers.

“That’s something that we’re going to continue to see because we’re not anywhere near even 50% capacity in the offices,” Smith said. “I think it’s going to be a longer process to get offices back in place as we once we’re pre-pandemic.”  •