Cancelled bus tours push focus to other travellers

Bus tours for international travellers have been a boon to summer business in Sun Peaks. File Photo

The village is quieter this summer as sweeping cancellations and travel restrictions hamper international bus tours which contribute to the bottom line of many local businesses. 

As borders and ports were restricted and closed in the spring in reaction to the spread of COVID-19, operators began to cancel or alter their offerings, said Mike Macleod, director of sales and marketing at the Sun Peaks Grand Hotel. 

“What most companies did was just cancel what they knew would be cancelled and hold onto reservations in hopes things could change quickly or the port would reopen, then the closure was just to July 1 so the initial cancellations were just until then but since then they’ve extended it,” Macleod said. 

While the majority of the trips have been cancelled, some operators have inquired about rooms as they try to pivot their offerings to appeal to a Canadian or B.C. market. 

“I think we had one very small group, like a group of 10 travelling together…for the most part it’s going to be nonexistent unfortunately.” 

The impact of the cancellations is already being felt as Macleod said tour bus traffic makes up at least 40 or 45 per cent of their summer business. 

“Losing probably 4,000 room nights over the course of summer is going to be significant,” Macleod said. “And then it trickles down to food and beverage, most of the tours have a dinner and breakfast component so that compounds the revenue loss…then of course the ones that aren’t scheduled [at the hotel] for dinner are out in the village enjoying somewhere for dinner. 

“From an operational perspective it just means reduced staffing levels, we just don’t need to have as many people around.” 

Colin Brost, director of market development with Tourism Sun Peaks (TSP), said the Grand Hotel is one of many accommodation providers and other businesses grappling with the cancelled tours. 

“Overall for all accommodation it’s a massive hit,” he said. “The accommodators and we will see the occupancy really significantly impacted by the lack of bus tours, but the village restaurants, retail and souvenir shops and even activities will definitely feel that as well.”

But, Brost said, some much smaller groups may return to the resort this summer. He pointed to operators that bring guests from Asian markets to Canada who are now trying to attract Asian-Canadian guests to the same experiences. 

He said a large number of those who had booked for 2020 have since rebooked for 2021, giving some hope that next year could make up for some of the losses should borders reopen and people feel comfortable travelling. 

“It could be very busy all over Western Canada because you will have some who have rebooked, some pent up demand and the usual traveller already planning on 2021.”

Both Brost and Macleod referred to a gradual decline in bus tours over the past few years. Some of the decline can be attributed to difficulty booking rooms and running into crowds in the Rockies in addition to changes in how people are choosing to travel. 

“I think the biggest thing that’s come out of this is that over the past couple years, pre-COVID, we were seeing declining numbers in tour busses anyways for a variety of reasons,” said Macleod. “But it gives us an opportunity as a hotel but also the resort to pivot a bit and think, if tour buses really decline, think what do we do going forward.

“I think that’s where the real work needs to happen going forward as a resort and as the community is how do we do things differently? What does this look like when we come out of it in future summers? Because I think there’s probably an argument to say that it may never come back to the level we’ve seen before. I think it’s an opportunity for the resort to pivot the summer a little bit and really focus on some of the other aspects we’re known for.” 

In an effort to capture independent travellers Macleod said they are continuing to focus their efforts on promoting golfing in Sun Peaks and encouraging families who are including the community in their trip to stay two or three nights. 

“I think coming out of this we’ll double down on those efforts,” he said.

Brost agreed and confirmed TSP will continue to focus on attracting fly and drive international guests in the summer months. 

“If we look at all of our international summer business I’d say 65 per cent is the traditional bus tour and 35 per cent would be either those smaller family pods, fly and drive itineraries, mature couples…and that’s a good thing as we’ve seen that increase because they’re more likely to spend a couple nights in Sun Peaks or three nights as opposed to one,” Brost said. “Yield for a hotel is better because they don’t have to flip a room every night, and obviously if they’re here for a couple days they’re more likely to spend more in terms of restaurants and activities while they’re here. It’s more benefit to the resort, so it’s a good sign and that’s where our focus has been and will continue to be.” 

Brost said another bright side despite the challenges is that TSP was able to halt most of their 2020 international marketing campaigns at the beginning of the pandemic and will be able to use those funds for campaigns when the market rebounds, hopefully next summer. 

He said they’re hopeful that those dollars, spent in partnership with Destination Canada, will also be at least matched as government agencies may assist destination marketing to enhance summer of 2021. 

Macleod said the hotel has also altered their marketing plans for the summer, targeting potential B.C. guests and partnering with local influencers. 

“It will affect everyone but I hope and I believe that our regional efforts, marketing and some of the things we’re doing, will help offset the loss,” Brost said. “There’s a good sentiment out in the market to support local and explore British Columbia,” he said.