Business Climate: Wildfires and climate change have turned up the heat on B.C.’s hotel industry

Some local hotels, like Prestige Beach House Kelowna, are still reeling from the effects of the pandemic and wildfire season

When the McDougall Creek fire jumped Okanagan Lake, Tanya Stroinig knew things were serious.

The chief operating officer of Prestige Hotels & Resorts was at her home in Lake Country—one of the areas where hot embers from West Kelowna began landing—trying to reach members of her staff and corporate team to ensure they and their families had safe places to go. Meanwhile, vendors were calling her in search of shelter for their employees.

Within 48 hours, the B.C. government had declared a state of emergency and imposed a controversial ban on non-essential travel to fire-affected areas—even though most hotels had already emptied out as tourists left. “There were no evacuees being put into our hotels, and no firefighters,” she remembers. “So we went from a full house to single-digit occupancy.”

The effects of the fires and travel ban lingered long after the flames were extinguished. Because of the uncertainty, groups that had booked for September and October cancelled en masse. At the same time, much of the national and international media coverage didn’t clearly define which areas were affected, so travellers cancelled bookings in locales across the province.

Tanya Stroinig, chief operating officer, Prestige Hotels & Resorts
Tanya Stroinig, chief operating officer, Prestige Hotels & Resorts

“The stories were that ‘B.C. is burning’—not that certain areas were,” remembers Stroinig. Prestige has 15 hotels across B.C.—from Cranbrook to Sooke to Prince Rupert—and Stroinig says guests cancelled stays across the Interior and as far away as Smithers. With the exception of one small group in Kelowna, they did not rebook. As a result, Prestige experienced a whopping 30-percent drop in company-wide revenue in 2023—a big blow, especially after the lean COVID years, and one that was felt by everyone from students working summer jobs to hotel restaurant operators.

“Hospitality is so seasonally dependent at the best of times,” says Stroinig, pointing out that some hotels are only open in the summer. “To be coming out of COVID, and then to have this in the middle of peak season—there was just no recovering.”

It’s a pattern that’s emerging around the world. Last July, tourists were sent packing after heat waves scorched parts of Europe, Asia and the United States. Fires also broke out in the Swiss Alps and in Greece, where temperatures reached a sweltering 45 degrees Celsius, and officials evacuated tourists from major attractions. In Ca-nada, the 2023 wildfire season was the worst ever recorded, burning an estimated 18.5 million hectares and sending smoke to holiday destinations across North America.

According to Ingrid Jarrett, president and CEO of the British Columbia Hotel Association (BCHA), hotels are struggling to navigate the effects of a shifting climate, from fires to heat waves to floods. Unless they’re located at ski destinations—which are experiencing their own climate challenges—hotels rely on peak summer season for the lion’s share of their revenues.

Ingrid Jarrett, president and CEO, British Columbia Hotel Association
Ingrid Jarrett, president and CEO, British Columbia Hotel Association

“The winter season is very quiet. In spring and fall you kind of limp along and make a bit of money. But really, it’s the summer high season when you have to make up for your winter losses,” says Jarrett, who adds that occupancies can go down to 30 percent or less in winter. “Now we’re really seeing people questioning coming to British Columbia because of the fires, and that’s a problem for us.”

August is traditionally the strongest month for B.C. hotels, but in recent years that has started to shift, with more vacationers booking in July and September in hopes of avoiding extreme heat, smoke and fire. They’re also booking shorter trips, and more last-minute. The B.C. industry is working to attract more business in the shoulder seasons and to reduce its own carbon footprint, says Jarrett, but operators are feeling a heightened sense of concern, especially since international travellers have yet to return to the market.

“The danger is that the reputation sinks in. We don’t want the Okanagan, or the Kamloops area, or eastern B.C. or Vancouver Island to be known as the August fire destination,” says Jarrett. “That would be absolutely terrible, and we don’t deserve that.”

READ MORE: Can the Okanagan wine industry survive climate change?

According to Destination BC, tourism is one of the province’s primary economic drivers, and if steps aren’t taken to address climate challenges, the risk of revenue downturns, closures and layoffs will be amplified. At the same time, tourism is one of the world’s biggest emitters: according to a 2021 report by the World Travel and Tourism Council, travellers are responsible for an estimated 11 percent of global emissions.

In response, Destination BC  has introduced the BC Tourism Climate Resiliency Initiative (BCTCRI), which is pairing businesses with climate change and sustainability experts to help them adopt more sustainable practices and adapt to a shifting climate through FireSmart practices, communications systems and other measures. The organization is also examining what other jurisdictions are doing to mitigate climate impacts.

—Erica Hummel, director of destination development and stewardship, Destination BC
Erica Hummel, director of destination development and stewardship, Destination BC

“We’ve been told about these risks for years and years, but unfortunately, it’s come to the point where we just can’t look away,” says Erica Hummel, director of destination development and stewardship for Destination BC. “Everyone is in clear alignment that we need to do something—and it’s just over the last few years, I think, that that agenda has been truly understood.”

Stroinig is looking ahead to the 2024 summer season with a mix of optimism and caution. Prestige is working to beef up its shoulder season and lure back international travellers, who tend to stay longer and spend more. She would also like to see more destination marketing both domestically and internationally to get a different message out.

“It really comes down to adapting and finding different opportunities, and changing the model a little bit. We just can’t depend solely on that peak season to really drive our peak revenues,” says Stroinig. “But as an industry, we are resilient. We’re about people, and people are amazing when times are tough.”