Mandy Farmer is an upbeat, outgoing, happy-go-lucky B.C. hotel chain owner. She creates fun promotions like ‘The Nooner’ at her Hotel Zed locations in Kelowna and in Victoria every Valentine’s Day.
There were no signs of that happiness on Friday. Instead, it was full of fear, dread and heartache. The COVID-19 pandemic is absolutely decimating her family-run business.
“We are basically down to minimal revenue coming in,” Farmer said from her Victoria home.
Farmer, along with her father, uncle and second cousin, owns the Accent Inns hotel chain, which also includes the aforementioned Hotel Zed locations. There is an Accent Inns and a Hotel Zed in Kelowna, and an Accent Inns in Kamloops, and right now they have between 0% and 10% occupancy rates. Normally at this time of year their hotels would be 70% to 80% full.
The company laid off approximately 65% of its 250 employees across its eight B.C. properties, all spending has been halted, and Farmer has taken a 50% salary reduction. The Hotel Association of Canada reported Friday that 4,100 hotels across the country have closed their doors and that more than 250,000 workers had been laid off.
“It’s really hard to keep a room attendant on your payroll when there are no rooms to clean,” Farmer said.
Accent Inns will take advantage of the federal wage subsidy and any other government aid, but Farmer is worried because it is supposed to last until only June. In addition, the temporary leave for her workers lasts only 14 weeks. After that she would owe severance packages to her former employees, some of whom have been with the company for 25 years.
“That scares me, because that alone could put me under,” Farmer said. “(Employee loyalty) actually now becomes a detriment, a risk to the sustainability of our business. It’s actually something that we’ve been lauded for. Now it’s almost a bit of a burden.”
The company’s principal mortgage payments have also been deferred for three months, but, once again, it’s only three months.
“In three months time I’m going to be saddled with so much more debt and all of these initiatives run out after time,” she said. “I am worried about what is going to happen after three months.”
Accent Inns recently teamed up with the United Way for a program that gives health-care workers a free place to stay during the COVID-19 battle, and the only other people staying in her hotels are people—and their families—whose surgeries have not been postponed.
Other than that, it’s tumbleweeds. Accent Inns will have to continue paying for heat, water, security and its remaining employees despite having hardly any revenue.
The good news for Accent Inns is signs of the real Mandy Farmer couldn’t stay contained for the entire interview. She is ready to get off the mat and do whatever it takes to enjoy the boom that is sure to happen once the pandemic passes.
“We’re fighters. We’re scrappy,” she said. “I think we’re gonna get through it.”
The pandemic arrived late enough in March that it didn’t negatively impact the month’s home sales in the Okanagan Mainline Real Estate Board region.
April, of course, will be another matter.
The number of residential sales across the OMREB region, which covers Revelstoke to Peachland, increased from 435 in February to 551 in March. That number is six more than the 545 homes that were sold in March 2019.
“While the market remained steady in March, this will likely slow down as the economic impacts of COVID-19 continue to develop,” OMREB president Michael Loewen said in a press release. “In the meantime, real estate professionals are still able to utilize technology-driven solutions to help accommodate these transactions during self-distancing precautions.”
The benchmark price of a single-family home in the Central Okanagan increased 2.3% to $667,700, and it jumped 4.7% in the North Okanagan to $488,200. The benchmark price is neither the average nor the median price, as it represents a dwelling with “typical attributes” to those traded in the area.
The number of listings in the Okanagan Mainline region jumped 45% from February to March, but the 3,341 active listings is actually 6% down from this time last year.
A comprehensive survey of B.C.’s small business owners found more than 30% of them aren’t sure their business will survive the pandemic.
Insights West conducted a poll of 580 small business owners across B.C., asking them a variety of questions in regards to the COVID-19 crisis. Most of them believe it will be a three- or four-month event, but 31% aren’t sure they will still be operating once it subsides. More specifically, 9% said it will “definitely” or “probably” force them to close for good.
On the other side of the coin, only 7% of respondents said they are not worried about a negative financial impact on their business.
“As the implications for the COVID-19 pandemic continue to unfold, small business owners have been thrust into the spotlight at a provincial and federal level because of the serious negative financial impact that this is having on this particular segment of society,” Insights West president Steve Mossop said in a press release. “Our poll measured the extent of the negative impact, and it appears to be as bad or worse than what we’d anticipated.
“The disastrous financial effect is being felt deeply at a personal as well as a business level among small business owners, and it’s likely to result in an unprecedented level of possible permanent closures unfortunately.”
Of the 93% of business owners who are worried about a negative financial impact, 65% are “very worried” and another 28% are “somewhat worried.” The survey also found 43% of small businesses had already shut down.
The poll found 41% of small business owners are concerned about financing, 43% are worried about the ability to pay salaries, and 38% believe they will have difficulty paying their rent or lease. Only 55% think the emergency federal aid will be effective.
The B.C. Wine Institute is welcoming back BC Wine Month this month, with people celebrating from home during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The B.C. wine industry is doing what it can to stay strong during these unprecedented times, so the Wines of British Columbia promotion is encouraging people to buy local, all while practicing proper social distancing.
“Communities all around the province continue to rally together by supporting local businesses and choosing to buy B.C. products,” minister of agriculture Lana Popham said. “Many B.C. winemakers depend on sales within our province to keep their businesses running, and our support for them and all B.C. farmers and businesses during this pandemic will help the resiliency and future of food and beverage production in British Columbia.”
With 929 vineyards in B.C, the wine industry is working hard to protect more than 12,000 jobs that wineries support. More than 175 wineries have stepped up along with retailers and restaurants to make it easier for consumers to enjoy B.C. wines, through free shipping, delivery, virtual tastings, charitable donations and curb side pickups.
Since these promotions have come to life, the BC Wine Institute has launched a webpage, giving wine lovers a simple way to engage with their favourite local wineries from home.
“It is more important than ever to support local,” BC Wine Institute president and CEO Miles Prodan said. “While tasting rooms are closed for visitation, wineries remain open for business and are taking necessary precautions to make B.C. wines accessible for British Columbians while ensuring the safety and well-being of their communities, staff, families and customers. We invite wine lovers to experience B.C. wineries virtually in honour of BC Wine Month.”
Save-On-Foods is a key partner for BC Wine Month.
“By partnering with more than 175 B.C. wineries and producers, Save-On-Foods offers the world’s largest selection of B.C. VQA Wines in 21 Wines of British Columbia at Save-On-Foods stores,” Save-On-Foods director Steve Moriarty said. “We take immense pride in the sale and promotion of more than 1,200 different wines produced right here in British Columbia. Our customers have grown to appreciate the distinct quality and unique freshness that comes from local wineries, and we continue to grow and support the industry.”
Save-On-Foods will feature in store signage and displays in support of BC Wine Month. BC Wine Month billboards will also be displayed throughout B.C. and Alberta during April.
To learn more about supporting BC Wine Month click here.
Being ordered to stay home doesn’t bode well for the tourism industry.
A significant number of businesses in the Okanagan rely on the tourism surge in the summer months to stay afloat, and they may not get that chance this year. Dr. Bonnie Henry, the provincial health officer, has informed the public that social distancing and other health instructions will likely be in place until the end of the summer.
Motels in Penticton are already facing a large number of cancellations and ski resorts like Kelowna’s Big White, Kamloops’ Sun Peaks and Vernon’s SilverStar were forced to close early last month. The closures and travel restrictions have been a huge blow to the tourism industry.
“The thing that worries me the most is the airport,” said Michael Ballingall, board member of the Thompson Okanagan Tourism Association and Big White senior vice-president. “People driving here probably won’t be an issue, it’s the money we’ll lose from people not flying that I’m worried about.”
On Thursday though, Dr. Henry urged all British Columbians to avoid all non-essential travel within the province.
Future losses aren’t the only thing the tourism industry is facing; the current losses are hurting it as well.
“It hurts me to see snow on the top of the mountains, knowing the ski hills are closed,” Ballingall said. “But we have to keep on trucking and hope this thing clears up sometime soon.”
The second annual OKGN Angel Summit was another sign that the startup community is growing substantially in the valley.
Even the winner of this year’s $155,000—Minga founder Jason Richards—seemed more excited about the future than he did about the oversized cheque he was holding during one of the last public events in Kelowna before the COVID-19 pandemic struck.
“No one’s going to ever say that winning’s not great, and I’m super excited to put the W in the column for this event,” Richards said. “As a long-time Kelowna tech entrepreneur, it’s a community win. We’ve spent years without an angel network with only a small number of companies in town.
“It’s a double win, and I love that. It’s a huge win for the community, and I’m pretty happy with the win for us.”
Minga, an education communication app, bested 44 other startups in the months-long contest. Thirty-six Okanagan investors put up $5,000 each to become an angel, and they whittled the field of startups from 45 to 24 to 12 and then to the final six, who presented their cases on March 12 at Kelowna’s Innovation Centre.
“It was a very different process this year,” OKGN Angel Summit fund manager Drew Shaw said. “This year was much more competitive. The quality was incredible. It was down to two companies, and it was a dead heat. There was a lot of debate.”
Shaw didn’t say which company finished as the runner-up, but the five who didn’t win the grand prize will likely still end up receiving seed money from the angels through connections made during the process.
In fact, last year’s winner, Trellis, ended up with less money from investors than some of the startups it beat in the competition. Essentially, everyone wins.
Richards sure is looking forward to having all of those angels in his corner.
“We’re going to bring in 30 successful business people from our community that now have a vested interest in seeing us be successful,” he said. “So that’s a huge component when you have those people in your corner as part of an event like this. That’s arguably probably long-term a bigger help (than the money).”
Minga was born out of Richards’ frustration with communication at his children’s schools. He came up with the idea three years ago, and he started selling it one year ago. He announced earlier this week that he is offering it to schools for free during the pandemic.
“Right now we break all this communication up into different places, and a lot of it is archaic tools,” he said. “Like, they’re still e-mailing kids. As parents, you’ll get a permission slip dragged out of the bottom of the knapsack, right? And that’s how I went to school.
“Minga’s about bringing all of that into one place, whether it’s the basketball team, the book club, a classroom or a whole school conversation. Everything’s in one place.”
Tenants and landlords alike are frustrated this month as the COVID-19 crisis keeps many businesses closed and people out of work.
Simon*, a Penticton commercial renter whose business has been closed due to being non-essential at this time, said that his more than $15,000 a month in rent that came due on April 1 is just not feasible without customers walking through the doors.
“My business is 100 per cent shut down,” Simon said, adding that he reached out to his landlords at Locke Property Management last week looking for help.
“I sent them a letter last week asking if they were going to do any discounts or anything. (They) called back and said they are not going to be doing anything for us other than saying we can pay our rent at a later date before the lease is up if we want to.”
His lease ends a year and a half from now, and while government regulations at this time mean landlords can’t enforce evictions during the pandemic, Simon doesn’t think he will have the cash to pay once the deferment period ends.
“I think it’s insane that people are paying rent when your business is completely shut down,” he said, explaining government subsidies for his business loss likely won’t be enough.
“At the best I’m going to get $10,000 from the government one time. It’s only going to take a couple of months and we’re done. We were hoping they would cut the rate in half or something since we’re not using it.”
Phillip Locke with Locke Property Management has no plans to forgive or cut rents, just to defer, explaining he has his own business to run and expressing frustration with the situation.
“The provincial government seems to have dumped this on to landlords. There are enough restrictions now about rent increases and no eviction notices, and the City of Penticton that supplies electric power is not going to disconnect,” Locke said.
“So we see this costing landlords a substantial loss of income. It makes it very difficult for landlords to accept the losses in spite of the virus.”
Premier John Horgan urged citizens last week “if you can pay your rent, you should pay your rent,” but Locke is skeptical.
“We probably have some tenants who are saying, well, we don’t have to pay rent for three months,” he said.
“We’ve had some commercial tenants who say ‘We’re closed. We have no money. What are you going to do about it?’ So we have deferred their rent money until they are up and running again. But if this goes on for three or four months I foresee some commercial tenants saying ‘I’m not going to open up again. Goodbye. God bless you.'”
That revenue loss, he said, would have a major impact on his operations and his 28 employees.
“We’re going to try and survive. This is even worse than the 2007/2008 recession because then we didn’t have any trouble collecting rent,” Locke said. “We have two gyms. They are closed down. We have some restaurants. They are closed down. A couple of yoga places, closed down.”
Greg Bickert of Inspire Property Management said his company, which mainly offers strata management, has not yet had anybody unable to pay their rent but is dealing with a different facet of the COVID-19 crisis: Social distancing.
“We had an owner come home from out of country and in that building that owner refused to go into self-isolation right away. Neighbours even offered to go pick up their groceries, and they said ‘No, we’re fine,’ and decided they wanted to go about their day,” Bickert said.
“So that leaves the strata in a place where they need to step up their sanitization, inform the owners that there’s someone who is supposed to be in isolation that isn’t.”
Bickert is also seeing his managers struggle to show vacant units at this time, grappling with whether to continue the service at all.
“So I think landlords are going to really suffer if they have a vacant unit. It’s going to be months before they can find someone to go in,” he explained.
“I think what people often forget in this whole thing is landlords usually have only one or two investment properties … Most of the rules to protect tenants are to protect them against the big company that has 1,000 units and if 100 of them are vacant, they are going to survive no problem.”
Local MLA Dan Ashton said he has concerns all around for residential and commercial tenants, and landlords.
“Tenancies are two-way streets, and they both have obligations,” he said, explaining he has already been hearing from landlords and renters among his constituents complaining.
Some tenants, he said, appear to be refusing to pay either after getting bad advice or misunderstanding the government-ordered freeze on evictions as a free month of rent.
“I know of landlords already that are talking about legal means, which is that if the tenants are not paying them they will be subject to small claims court … they are deriving a benefit for something they have a record of paying for,” Ashton said.
He has also heard stories from landlords whose tenants won’t leave.
“A tenancy was given to somebody in a home while the people were away in their vacation home. They rent it out. The people were coming back, and the tenant said ‘I’m not leaving because the government said I don’t have to leave,'” he said. “They are on their way back, they have to quarantine, and they can’t even get into their own house to quarantine.”
Ashton said he hopes the provincial government will take a “sober second look” at how to handle things, and recommends landlords and tenants working together in the meantime, taking into account the hardship of businesses that are closed, while not giving unnecessary slack to those still employed.
“We’re all in this together, and we have to figure this out together somehow, and it has to be fair for both parties,” Ashton said.
“If you have income still coming in, there is no reason you shouldn’t be paying to keep that roof over your head.”
* Simon’s name has been changed to protect his identity
One of the few ways for businesses to communicate with their customers during the pandemic is through social media channels.
If that wasn’t something that your business focused on before COVID-19 arrived, the Penticton & Wine Chamber of Commerce has a webinar coming up that will help you navigate the social media world.
Managing Social Media is a free webinar that will take place on Thursday, April 16, at 1 p.m. It is presented by HEK Yeah Media and will cover a wide range of topics as it relates to companies adapting to this new way of doing business.
Even though the event is free, the chamber is asking businesses to register here.
Grocery stores are taking measures to protect their staff and customers.
As panic shopping fills stores more than ever, Vernon grocery stores are among those implementing new steps to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
At the Vernon Square Safeway, a new one-way aisle system has gone into effect to help with social distancing.
And at Superstore, plexiglass barriers have gone up between the cashiers and customers.
At Walmart, staff were seen wiping down shopping carts with disinfectant on the weekend.
Shoppers in all three locations appeared to be courteous in keeping their distance from one another.
Several local stores have taped lines on the floor at the checkouts to stop people from crowding.
In a statement shared on Safeway parent company Sobeys’ website and social media, CEO Michael Medline said: “The world is facing an issue of enormous scale and uncertainty. It has never been more important for our company to ensure the safety and support of our customers, teammates and communities.
“We view our stores as an essential service. We are working around the clock to serve you. In the 113-year history of our parent company, we’ve never seen so many customers visit our stores. That makes sense. Canadians have never faced anything like the coronavirus outbreak before. And the first thing anyone thinks about in uncertain times is keeping their loved ones safe. I have great confidence in the incredibly robust grocery and food supply chain in Canada. We are working hard to keep our shelves stocked in the face of unprecedented demand for products.”
The company is also installing plexiglass cashier shields across the country, and has reduced store hours from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. to allow more time for extra sanitization and restocking. Staff are also asked to wash their hands every 15 minutes.
“I’m incredibly proud of our 123,000 teammates across our family of brands. Their efforts over the last few weeks have been incredible, and we know there is much more hard work ahead,” Medline said.
Several other stores have also instituted early shopping hours for seniors and the health compromised only, including Save-On-Foods, London Drugs, Shoppers Drug Mart and more.
A couple of Kelowna restaurants are finding some success with their take-out and delivery options.
Last month, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry ordered the closure of in-house dining at all B.C. restaurants, due to lack of physical distancing available. As a result, some local restaurants have temporarily closed, while others have tried shifting their business model to solely take out and delivery through services like Skip the Dishes and DoorDash.
Jack’s Pizza & Liquor and Salt & Brick, which share ownership, teamed up last weekend, offering food and alcohol to go. And so far, so good.
“It’s obviously not as good as being open could be, but Friday night was really good, Saturday night was really solid, and Sunday night was way better than our last Sunday,” Jack’s general manager Brian Atkinson said.
“When Salt & Brick came over, that was a big change for us. Chef James Holmes (at Salt & Brick) is well known in this community, and some of his staples, like the Brussels sprouts, the Smash Burger, mac and cheese, heirloom roasted carrots … people go to Salt & Brick for those items.”
Jack’s and Salt & Brick were forced to lay off most of their staff last month, as did most restaurants in town. Atkinson said they’ve been operating with one chef and one front-of-house staff member, on a rotating basis, while they’re open for delivery and pickup Wednesday through Sunday.
“Because there is no real other alternative, this is viable and we’ve got to just keep pushing forward with that,” he said.
Last weekend, about 60% of the restaurants’ sales were deliveries. Atkinson says he expects more deliveries moving forward as people become more used to self isolating.
Last month, the provincial government temporarily amended the Liquor Control Act to allow liquor deliveries from restaurants, but the alcohol is not allowed to be pre-mixed into cocktails. Atkinson say they’re working to put together to-go cocktail kits that abide by the new rules and he’s hoping to have them ready for this coming weekend.
“Keep supporting local,” he said. “Supporting the community and independent business is going to go a long way to having these businesses around when everything goes back to the way it was.”