John May has been in the hotel business for 25 years, but he fears his career won’t survive the summer.
The manager of the Bowden Hotel blames recent provincial legislation related to smoking, and to driving while under the influence of alcohol, for cutting business at his bar in half. Other small town hotels are under similar financial pressure, said May, pointing to the closure of hotels in Didsbury and Crossfield, and of the Empress Hotel in Lacombe, as evidence.
“The small town hotels are going the way of the elevators.”
May estimates that the prohibition against smoking in public places, implemented on Jan. 1, 2008, reduced business at the Bowden Hotel by 30 per cent. And since Sept. 1, 2012, when it became an offence to drive with a blood-alcohol level in excess of 0.05, the hotel has suffered a further 20 per cent loss in revenues.
He also complains about high taxes on alcohol.
“They take away 50 per cent of my business and raise the prices on the booze I’ve got to sell.”
The changes have the greatest impact on rural bars, said May, explaining that such establishments have a smaller population base upon which to draw, and their customers often don’t have access to cabs or public transit.
He wishes the province had left control over smoking in the hands of municipal governments.
Warren Haag, who owns the Elnora Hotel, shares May’s frustrations.
“It certainly has been a negative, and some of the rules are just silly,” he said.
For example, said Haag, patrons at the Elnora Hotel can’t light up on its outdoor patio. And many have no idea how much they can drink before they risk running afoul of the law.
“If 0.08 is impaired, then why would you be harassing people at 0.05?”
The nearest taxi company that his customers could call is in Delburne.
“So a cab ride one mile will cost you $30.”
Haag pointed out that almost all of his staff over the years have been smokers, and that there would be plenty of food-service jobs in Alberta for anyone adverse to working in a bar where smoking is allowed. Although the Elnora Hotel is not in danger of closing, the new smoking and driving restrictions have probably taken a 25 to 30 per cent bite out of its business, said Haag.
“It certainly has a negative effect.”
The loss of a community’s hotel can be devastating, he and May agreed.
“It’s almost a kiss of death for a town,” said Haag, describing how residents go elsewhere to socialize, and end up eating and shopping there as well.
In addition to serving as a local gathering place, hotels provide jobs, generate taxes and produce other economic spin-offs, added May.
He thinks the Alberta government should compensate hotel owners for the losses they’ve suffered. He’s spoken with a lawyer and would like to bring a class action lawsuit against the province.
“We’re trying to get that organized right now, but we’re a small hotel. We can’t afford to take on the government all by ourselves so we’re trying to get other small hotels to contact us.”
Innisfail-Sylvan Lake MLA Kerry Towle, who is a member of the Wildrose Party, has been sympathetic, said May. But the Conservative government doesn’t seem willing to talk.
“Maybe they’ll take a look at things if they see like 50 or 70 hotels.”
A spokesperson with Alberta Justice told the Advocate he couldn’t comment on the issue because there’s the potential for legal action.
Haag isn’t optimistic the hotel owners will find relief through the courts.
“It would probably be to some extent deserved, but I can’t believe it’s going to happen.”
But he expects the Elnora Hotel to remain for some time to come.
“We’re doing pretty good, but not as well as we should be doing,” said Haag, who is seeking to sell the business because of health reasons.
May isn’t as optimistic about the future of the Bowden Hotel, which has operated since 1930. However, he’s not ready to give up on the hotel where he’s spent most of his working life.
“After 22 years, you kind of feel for the place. It’s home.”
May can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.