Explore Edmonton asks city to double its budget in COVID-19

·3 min read

Edmonton's tourism and convention authority is asking the city for nearly $22 million next year, up from $8.5 million earmarked in the current budget.

The group is also asking for $18.8 million in 2022 and $14.5 million in 2023 to help it navigate fallout from COVID-19 pandemic.

Explore Edmonton, a rebranded version of the Edmonton Economic Development Corporation, operates the Convention Centre and Expo Centre.

Maggie Davison, interim CEO of Explore Edmonton, presented the request to council's executive committee Monday at city hall. She said the industry has taken a huge hit with no events, concerts or festivals this year.

"COVID-19 has completely devastated the tourism, hospitality and events sectors," Davison said. "The tourism and events sectors were hit first, will likely be the hardest hit and likely take the longest to recover."

After questions about EEDC's role, council agreed last December that the organization should focus on tourism and conventions instead of the overarching economic development of the entire city.

Explore Edmonton continues to support Startup Edmonton and TEC Edmonton as they transition to autonomy by the end of the year.

To help with that, council agreed to give the group $847,500 on a one-time basis in 2020.

Council will discuss the funding request when it starts to debate the fall supplemental budget next week.

Accompanying statistics show the organization's expenses are down nearly 50 per cent in 2020 with revenues down 70 per cent.

While costs for staffing, food services and operations dropped, fixed costs for insurance, utilities and administration cannot be reduced in proportion to the decline in revenue, the report said.

Before COVID-19, Edmonton Convention Centre and Expo Centre operated with a small reserve. With lost revenue in 2020, they now face an $8-million deficit, the report said.

In 2019, the two venues contributed a combined $114 million in economic impact, the report said.

After 2023, the group estimates it would need $11.7 million a year.

Explore Edmonton's mandate is to attract tourists and events to the convention centres.

Coun. Scott McKeen said he won't anticipate whether council will approve the funding increase.

"I think we are duty-bound to give that real consideration," McKeen said Monday.

The tourist economy creates many jobs and spinoffs for the related hospitality and hotel industries, McKeen said.

"It's part of what makes a city vibrant is bringing in tourists, it kind of feeds on itself. The more vibrant you are, the more tourists you get."

McKeen said he plans to introduce a motion next week asking the province to allow the city to put a local tourism levy — called a visitor assessment — of four per cent on all accommodations.

"Four per cent on whatever you're charging per night per room, that would go into this assessment," McKeen said. "And it would go into a pool of funds."

Davison said that would raise about $12 million a year.

While hotels pay commercial taxes, short-term rentals do not contribute with levies or taxes, McKeen said.

The Northlands component

The EE is also exploring the option of integrating K-Days and Farmfair International, traditionally hosted by Northlands, into its operations.

Peter Male, CEO of Northlands, said K-Days was one of top four fairs in the country in 2019, with 986 volunteers and an economic impact of $75 million.

Farmfair had a economic impact of $28 million, one of the three largest agriculture events in the country.

Male said his team is also looking at other programs that may affect the community during and after the pandemic.

"This is not going to be an on-off switch," Male told the committee. "We don't know what capacity we can get to with the events — the events were cancelled this year and there is some risk they could be cancelled next year."