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Lower visits, revenue reported as pandemic measures created unpredictable ski season

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CALGARY — Measures to control the COVID-19 pandemic made for a bumpy ride for most of the ski and snowboard industry in Canada, as revenues slumped even at resorts that were able to maintain near-normal lift ticket sales in a season that’s coming to a close.

While some resorts are reporting increases in visits thanks to local support, most were hurt by the loss of well-heeled international guests as well as COVID-19 related disruptions to food and guest services, said Paul Pinchbeck, CEO of the Canadian Ski Council.

“Across Canada, we’re probably looking at a 35 to 40 per cent decline in our total revenues,” he said in an interview, though he noted the impact varies widely from region to region.

Western resorts cater to a destination traveller who spends more money, “whereas the eastern resorts and the small resorts tend to have a local who comes all the time, but doesn’t have quite as high a spend.”

He said by far the worst-hit resorts were in Ontario, which operated for an average of only 47 days out of what’s typically a 100-day season thanks to a provincial lockdown that ran from late December until mid-February and another that began just before the Easter weekend.

“It was devastating for us. We always felt that skiing, we were part of the solution, not part of the problem,” said Kevin Nichol, president of the Ontario Snow Resorts Association.

The industry adopted new safety protocols, reduced food operations, limited daily ticket sales and invested in new technology such as online ticketing and contactless transactions but still was shut down twice without warning, resulting in thousands of layoffs and thousands of wasted dollars, he said.

The lockdowns at Ontario’s 50 resorts likely erased more than $160 million from the $420 million the industry generates in winter and summer activities in a typical year, he estimated. He added it could take five years for the resorts to recover financially.

“Provincial updates were often short notice with a lot of uncertainty about when or if the season could continue,” said Tara Lovell, spokeswoman for Blue Mountain Resorts about 150 kilometres north of Toronto. 

She said the resort had only 53 days on snow, the shortest recorded ski season ever for the hill.

Resorts in Western Canada and Quebec generally fared better than Ontario, said Pinchbeck.

In Quebec, destination ski areas like Mont Tremblant and Mont Sainte Anne suffered from the lack of tourist clients but other ski areas had strong local support and season pass sales were higher, said Sophie Leblanc-Leroux, spokeswoman for the Association des stations de ski du Quebec .

She said ski and snowboard lessons, however, were down by about 40 per cent and daily lift ticket sales fell as resorts restricted numbers, leading many to rely on federal wage subsidy programs.  

Meanwhile, on the West Coast, Whistler Blackcomb ski resort was forced to close earlier than usual in late March when British Columbia enacted a new lockdown because of a surge in pandemic cases.

But Colorado-based owner Vail Resorts, Inc., said its performance had already been negatively affected by the closing of the Canadian border. It estimated the proportion of international guests in the quarter ended Jan. 31 fell to about 15 per cent of visitors from 48 per cent in the year-earlier period.

All six ski areas owned by the Resorts of the Canadian Rockies – one in Alberta, three in B.C. and two in Quebec – have closed for the season, said spokesman Matt Mosteller.

He said the number of visitors to the hills was up this year thanks to local skiers, but revenue was down because of fewer international and long-haul skiers who tend to spend more on accommodations and other services.

The company plans to operate its chairlifts for mountain biking, hiking and sightseeing at its Mont Sainte Anne resort in Quebec and Fernie and Kicking Horse resorts in B.C. this summer, he added.

Sunshine Village Ski Resort in Banff National Park is still expecting a few weeks of spring skiing and snowboarding but has decided not to operate its gondola lift and hotel this summer because of the lack of international visitors, said spokeswoman Kendra Scurfield.

“Our numbers are down but we can’t complain when so many other businesses had it so much worse than we did,” she said.

Nearby Banff Norquay says it had more visits this season than last, while Lake Louise Ski Resort, about 60 kilometres to the north, says its numbers were the same. Both say they will operate their sightseeing chairlifts and other services this summer.

Pinchbeck said the silver lining of the pandemic ski season is that it forced ski resorts to adopt new practices that could enhance visitor experiences in the future.

Online pre-booking of lift tickets, lessons and other services, for example, give guests certainty that there will be room in the parking lot and on the hill for them, and will likely carry on after COVID-19 is no longer a concern.

Resorts have also learned a lot about how to better manage indoor food and beverage spaces and will likely continue to offer more outdoor spaces as an alternative. And there are already signs that season pass sales pushes will be more aggressive and innovative, he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 3, 2021.

Dan Healing, The Canadian Press

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Alberta

Home renovation savings prove elusive as wood prices at record highs

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CALGARY — Canadian consumers have many ways to save money on home renovations despite a pandemic-driven surge in demand that has jolted lumber and construction panel prices to all-time highs.

However, such advice usually falls on deaf ears, experts say.

Instead, customers are doubling down, switching to more expensive materials as the cost difference with wood shrinks, adding extra elements to their projects and pre-ordering lumber to lock in price and ensure supply.

“If their plan was to build a pressure-treated deck in their backyard, then a lot of people are now saying, ‘You know what? For about the same price, I can get a hardwood deck or a composite deck or a heat-treated lumber deck,'” said Brad Swanson of Swanson’s Home Hardware Building Centre in Kitchener, Ont., a family owned operation since 1982.

“They’re a little bit more (expensive) but they’re within people’s budgets. If they’re going to spend $5,000 on a pressure-treated deck and a composite deck is only $5,500, or maybe $6,000, they’re thinking, ‘That’s not a bad investment.'”

Customers are starting to have “almost a hoarding mentality,” Swanson said, adding many are ordering lumber months ahead of construction.

As home prices in many markets rise, renovations are being seen as a smart way to use pandemic-era savings from missed vacations or skipped events to enhance and preserve the value of the family’s largest asset, he added.

Two-by-four wooden studs used in framing walls are 40 per cent more expensive compared to a month ago and three times as high as a year ago, said Allan Janzen, manager of the Windsor Plywood store in northeast Calgary.

A 12-foot-long, two-by-six-inch pressure-treated wooden board for a deck costs about $27 now, up from about $12 a year ago, he said, while his most popular composite decking board is about $44, up only slightly from last year.

“When you’re comparing one board to another board, $12 versus $44, that’s a $32 spread. Today, the spread is much lower (about $17),” he said, noting that many consumers are opting to spend a little more for the look and feel of composite decking, as well as its low maintenance needs compared with wood.

The rise in the price of wooden studs has made the price of steel studs, mostly used in commercial buildings, more attractive for homeowners, said Ben Hildebrandt, one of the principal researchers with the Green Building Technologies department at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology in Calgary.

When eight-foot wooden studs were $3 or $4 each, steel studs seemed uncompetitively pricey at $6.50, he said. Now that wooden studs are around $8.50, steel makes more sense.

When Hildebrandt built a garage last summer, he paid about $15 for each sheet of oriented strandboard or OSB, he said. Now, with OSB at $53 a sheet, more builders are considering using alternatives such as exterior fibreglass-based panels that sell for about $26 a sheet.

The use of recycled material is another money-saving option that also has environmental benefits, he added, although finding and preparing the materials for reuse adds uncertainty and labour cost.

“We do see lots of people looking for those items now that it’s even more expensive to get them brand new,” said Gui de Souza Rocha, operations manager for Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore in Regina, Sask.

“All of our items, either used or gently used, are in good condition and we price them accordingly. You’ll always be saving money coming to the ReStore.”

He said he’s seeing an increase in customers looking for recycled building components and materials, which are usually sold for half or less of the retail price, but there’s also been a decrease in donated material, possibly because builders are being more cautious about worksite waste.

The current level of consumer demand for renovations amid surging prices is “completely unprecedented,” says Ralph Oswald, 61, who recently sold his Winnipeg business, Oswald Construction Ltd., after more than 40 years in the renovation industry, but still works there as a senior manager.

He said his 13 employees are very busy. In fact, this could be the most active year ever for the business.

There are lots of ways to save money on the large-scale home renovations or additions his company takes on, some contracted for $150,000, $200,000 or more, said Oswald.

“The costs of your finishes, your fixtures, your flooring, those sorts of things. You could choose to downgrade your expectations a little bit. I mean, there are $400 toilets and $800 toilets,” he said.

Some clients are ordering items from online sites such as Amazon or Wayfair to save money, he said.

But most are swallowing the extra cost and sticking with the plans they’ve made, said Oswald. Some projects were conceived before COVID-19 existed and have been awaiting final designs and permits for over a year.

He added it’s almost impossible to completely mitigate the higher cost of wood, short of cancelling or dramatically scaling back the project.

“I can buy a cheaper toilet but I’ve got to use the right two-by-fours and two-by-sixes and sheeting and joists. You can’t cheat on that.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 6, 2021.

Dan Healing, The Canadian Press

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Alberta

Three Canadian teams to play in women's hockey Dream Gap Tour in Calgary

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CALGARY — Canada’s top players in women’s hockey will finally get to play real games later this month in Calgary.

The Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association (PWHPA) is holding Canada’s first Dream Gap Tour event in over a year May 24-30 at a Calgary venue yet to be announced.

Sixty players from the PWHPA’s three Canadian hubs in Toronto, Montreal and Calgary will play to determine the Canadian Secret Cup champion.

Secret, which announced a $1-million sponsorship of the PWHPA earlier this year, and the NHL’s Calgary Flames are the financial partners in the event.

Similar COVID-19 quarantine and testing protocols established by Hockey Canada for the world junior men’s hockey championship and national women’s and para hockey camps in Alberta will be incorporated.

Alberta tightened restrictions this week in the face of rising COVID cases, but Alberta Health has approved plans for the women’s tournament, PWHPA operations consultant Jayna Hefford said. 

“They believe the protocols, the quote-unquote bubble that’s been put in place, will secure the safety of our group and Albertans,” the Hockey Hall of Famer told The Canadian Press. “There will be no interaction with the public.”

While the PWHPA’s Calgary plans were in the works before Nova Scotia’s premier pulled the plug on this month’s women’s world championship, the Dream Gap Tour now offers an oasis in what’s been a pandemic hockey desert for the majority of players in the national women’s team pool.

The last real games many of them played came in a PWHPA tournament March 6-8, 2020 in Arizona. The last PWHPA event in Canada was Jan. 11-12, 2020 in Toronto.

The PWHPA’s American chapter has played a handful of games in the United States in recent weeks, although a two-day tournament in St. Louis was postponed from early April to May 16-17.

Canada’s mandatory 14-day quarantine upon return from outside the country kept Canadian players from participating in the U.S. games.

Stricter health regulations across Canada also made skating together in groups impossible at times and planning actual games in the country a non-starter.

“It’s been so challenging,” Hefford said. “We had to try to encourage our players to be patient early on in the season, and even in early 2021 we continued to reiterate we would only host events if we could feel really comfortable about the safety of everyone involved.”

The PWHPA, which includes Canadian and U.S. national team players, rose from the ashes of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League that folded in 2019. 

The goal of the roughly 150 players is a sustainable league that offers the competitive supports and training environments the male pros get, and wages that allow them to be professional athletes.

They’ve so far refused to join the six-team National Women’s Hockey League, which recently announced a doubling of each team’s salary cap to US$300,000 for next season. The Toronto Six is the lone Canadian club in that league.

The PWHPA held a series of Dream Gap Tour tournaments and events across North America in 2019-20 before the global pandemic brought the sporting world to its knees.

The pandemic continued to impede women’s hockey internationally and domestically.

The women’s world championship in Nova Scotia was cancelled a second straight year, although Hockey Canada is committed to hosting the tournament in August in a location yet to be named.

January’s world under-18 women’s championship in Sweden was called off, while a men’s under-20 champion was crowned in Edmonton that month.

The men’s world under-18 championship in Texas concludes Thursday. The men’s world championship is scheduled to open in just over two weeks on May 21 in Riga, Latvia.

The NHL, men’s minor pro leagues and major junior’s Western Hockey League and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League all operated in some form this winter.

Calgary’s Scotiabank, Toronto’s Sonnet and Montreal’s Bauer squaring off for a trophy and prize money can help revive the visibility of women’s hockey in Canada, Hefford said.

“We represent the players and we want to see them out there,” she stated.

“We have partners that have been so loyal and committed, so helpful in this process to move this forward, get the women back on the ice. 

“It seems like men’s hockey has gone on and we continue to hit these hurdles. 

“I hope this is a great opportunity for the women to play, but also for people to see the best of women’s hockey on the ice again.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 6, 2021.

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press

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