David Prystay is general manager of the Penticton Lakeside Resort and Convention Centre, the largest private employer in the South Okanagan.
At this time of year, the Hooded Merganser restaurant, overlooking Okanagan Lake, is ordinarily a hub of activity. On Wednesday, it was empty. The bar was closed and the hotel’s lobby wasn’t bustling as it usually is.
RPB Hotels & Resorts, which operates the Lakeside, also owns the Ramada by Wyndham Kelowna Hotel and Conference Centre.
In his first interview since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Prystay spoke with Okanagan Newspaper Group valley editor James Miller about the economic impact on tourist cities such as Penticton.
OKANAGAN WEEKEND: Before we begin, obviously the loss of human life and public safety is more important than the economy. Would you agree?
PRYSTAY: Of course.
OKW: With that said, how damaging has this been to the hospitality industry in the Okanagan Valley?
PRYSTAY: I’m sure it’s going to be a fatal blow for a lot of small operators, and it could be a fatal blow for a lot of big operators if it goes on too long. This city relies heavily on the tourism industry for a lot of people’s livelihoods.
OKW: At what point did you realize this crisis was serious?
PRYSTAY: Right from the get-go, but when they cut the people to under 50 for a gathering, I knew that was the first major sign that people are taking this really seriously now — which is good, because they should be.
OKW: Do you feel the health authorities are handling this crisis well?
PRYSTAY: I do, and my resources for all our decisions made here at the hotel are the Canadian federal authorities and provincial authorities and the WHO (World Health Organization). Those are the only three organizations that I’m listening to. I’m not listening to all the Tom, Dick and Harrys on the internet, spewing their own interpretation of what’s going on. I will listen to the three health authorities we can rely on — provincial, federal and world.
OKW: How have the various levels of government been?
PRYSTAY: I think (Justin) Trudeau and (John) Horgan have both done an excellent job. Locally, I’ve spoken with (MP) Dick Cannings and Dan Ashton (MLA), and they have both been extremely helpful. At Penticton City Hall, (CEO) Donny Van Dyk always gets back to me and answers all my queries. He’s very informative and up to date.
OKW: Do you support self-isolation for at-risk people?
PRYSTAY: Yes. As a matter of fact, we have four staff members in self-isolation right now who were away on vacation and have not come back to the hotel but immediately went into self-isolation.
OKW: Are you aware of anyone having tested positive for the novel coronavirus?
PRYSTAY: None of these people have tested positive. I must reiterate, they were not at the hotel, they were on vacation and they did not come back to work.
OKW: Have you had to lay people off?
PRYSTAY: We have surpassed the 125 mark (layoffs). That is over half our workforce right now. Those people are from all areas of the hotel, from housekeeping, because there’s no rooms being rented, to the Barking Parrot (bar), because the Barking Parrot is closed now. They’re from the Hooded Merganser, because we are now limited to drive-thru service only. They are from maintenance, grounds, the events department, because there are no banquets anymore.
OKW: Will they be able to apply for EI compensation?
PRYSTAY: As far as I’m aware, they can apply immediately for the federal EI program. Many of them have never been unemployed before. They said, “I’ve worked ever since I was 18.” They’re all very devastated, but many of them saw it coming.
OKW: The B.C. hospitality industry survived 9/11 and SARS, although that was more an Ontario issue . . .
PRYSTAY: (Interjects) SARS did affect B.C. We were down about 10% at the time, and it took easily two years before we got back to where we were.
OKW: And forest fires . . .
PRYSTAY: (Interjects) Thank God for our firefighters.
OKW: And floods. Can the industry survive coronavirus?
PRYSTAY: I’m not sure if this is going to set the tone for the future, for the next 10 or 12 years. I think people are going to be very conservative as to how they spend money and people are very cautious, even after the virus is declared isolated. They will be cautious of large gatherings because they’ve lived through this. It will be the next generation that won’t really know about it.
OKW: Has this been the most challenging crisis you’ve dealt with?
PRYSTAY: By far. The economic impact and personal impact is huge. We have a lot of staff that’s really worried about being unemployed and hoping this will soon come to an end. It’s an emotional issue and it’s a financial issue for those who don’t have a lot of money. Even for our company, we’ve lost over $1.2 million in cancellations, and that’s worse than the fires and floods.
OKW: Prior to this crisis, what was the biggest challenge?
PRYSTAY: The smoke and the fires a few years back. We had over 1,000 cancellations in our restaurants alone as well as our rooms.
OKW: What strategy do you have for bringing the tourists back once this ends?
PRYSTAY: What we lost was our convention business from that first part of March right through until middle of June so far. That’s easily $1 million in business as between small meetings, banquets and conventions we’ve had more than 25 cancellations.
What we’re trying to do is give people the opportunity to experience a little staycation. You can’t go to the States, you can’t go to Europe, you don’t want to spend a lot of money, so come to Penticton, enjoy our outdoors, stay in the hotel and explore your own backyard.
OKW: Once it ends and the pandemic is over, will people start spending again because they miss the Barking Parrot or they want to visit their favourite winery or craft brewery?
PRYSTAY: No, I think people are going to be pretty tapped out. I think spending will be way down. I don’t see the government dropping $5,000 cheques in everyone’s pockets. People are going to be broke, but we’re ready to help out. We will have the Parrot open again, back to $5.95 menu. The restaurant will be up and running, but in full swing.
OKW: What additional precautions are you taking to prevent the possible spread of coronavirus?
PRYSTAY: We’ve tripled all our sanitation. We have a team of four that all they do is continuously walk through the hotel and wipe off doorknobs, counters, you name it, whatever is touched by humans. They are sanitizing five, six times a day. All our staff has been instructed to wash their hands numerous times throughout the day. Our staff is well aware if they have any signs of illness to report off duty and go home.
In the restaurant, we were allowed to stay open if there were fewer than 49 people inside with tables set six feet from one another. That’s now changed and we’re allowed drive-thru service only. So, beginning Tuesday, from 11:30 a.m. until 7 p.m., you can pull into our parking lot and the hotel will have a barbecue available. We are playing by all the rules and following all the guidelines.
OKW: Are you confident B.C.’s travel industry will bounce back?
PRYSTAY: Yes, we will, but it will take a while, many years. We are a resilient industry, we are a resilient society, and we value life and we value what we have to offer the world. B.C. is an amazing place with so much to offer, and the rest of the world knows that, so let’s get it going.
OKW: Has the media overkilled this story?
PRYSTAY: I think it’s the excitement of a big story. There are so many media people involved, it does get a little overblown, and for a lot of people this story is overpowering. But, where else do you get your news from? You need a trusted news source (smiles), like the Penticton Herald.
OKW: How do you stay positive at a time when everyone’s depressed, scared and worried?
PRYSTAY: I’m very optimistic. Have a positive attitude and surround yourself with positive people. I have a very tight crew here and our management team is awesome. Let’s move forward, let’s make things work and let’s get it going.