WINDSOR, ONT. -- The Windsor-Essex Tourism sector, like many others across the world, has been slammed hard by COVID-19, forcing a number of prominent downtown hotels to temporarily close.

When COVID-19 swept the nation in mid-March, the impacts were felt immediately by hotels and restaurants — with the cancellation of sporting events and conventions that typically bring tens of thousands of visitors to the region.

“The tourism and hospitality industry was hit first and hit the hardest,” says Tourism Windsor-Essex Pelee Island CEO Gordon Orr.

And it is directly reflected in hotel stays. The month of March, which saw two good weeks of stays before the appearance of local COVID cases, was down 27 per cent, year-over-year.

The decline in April was more dramatic. Occupancy for all hotels was just 18 per cent, which represents a 42 per cent drop from 2019 levels.

Many hotel chains have consolidated operations into a single site. Seven Windsor hotels are temporarily closed, including Caesars Windsor, the Holiday Inn Express, Four Points and Comfort Suites downtown.

“The hotel sector realizes that for 2020 and 2021, they won’t be rebounding anytime soon,” says Orr, who had already created a marketing plan for 2020. "We basically threw our old plan into the garbage can.”

TWEPI has launched a new, multi-stage plan to respond to the crisis, restart tourism and ultimately, work towards recovery.

“We’re still in the response stage,” Orr says. “There’s still a public health crisis, and the economy is just starting to reopen. We’re in week one of phase one, so we’ve got a long way to go. But at the end of the day, we’ve got a roadmap.”

The first phase leans heavily on local residents to have staycations. The restart phase will look to market the region for day-trippers, and the recovery phase will look to capture the traditional tourism market with new campaigns and initiatives.

Prior to the virtual shutdown of the hospitality industry, TWEPI was set to launch the Windsor Pizza Club to attract tourists to the region’s renowned pizza joints. Plans for a local food route — and a long-term visitor services strategy are in the works.

But with the border closure extended until at least the beginning of summer, Orr warns it will not be a quick recovery. He predicts it will rely heavily on when government restrictions are lifted and when consumer confidence returns.   

“There have been many losses and sacrifices in the tourism industry. There are a lot of people out of work as a result of it,” Orr notes. “The longer this goes on, the harder it will be to rebound and recover.”

Orr says prior to the crisis, hoteliers had invested millions of dollars adding capacity to the stock of rooms in Windsor. But he’s confident that big chains will hang in — and continue to provide service where possible.

“The hospitality community has always been resilient,” Orr says. “We’ve always persevered."