by Todd Lewys
Winnipeg Jets fans weren’t the only ones who were ecstatic when the 2012-13 NHL lockout ended on January 6.
Heaving an even deeper sigh of relief were businesses throughout the city. In particular, businesses downtown, such as restaurants, sports bars, hotels, coffee shops and, yes, even parking garages, had profited greatly from the Jets’ auspicious return for the 2011-12 NHL season.
Then, the worst possible scenario unfolded: a lockout which started on September 15, 2012, and lasted 113 days. By the time it ended, 510 games had been cancelled, and 41.5 per cent of the 2012-13 NHL season was lost. More importantly, businesses in downtown Winnipeg had been forced to scramble to find ways to replace the revenue generated by 41 home games and two exhibition games.
That three-and-a-half-month-plus stretch was challenging to say the least, according to Peter Ginakis, owner of The Pony Corral Downtown.
“We were fortunate that we did our renovations before the Jets’ announcement, so our timing was good there,” he said. “Patronage at our downtown location was very strong through the 2011-12 season. We were sold out every week and really profited from the Jets’ presence.”
When the lockout was announced on September 15, anticipation of another profitable hockey season was replaced with a feeling of disbelief, then reluctant acceptance.
“All we could do was make the best of the situation,” said Ginakis. “Even though the Jets weren’t playing, business was pretty steady. We got through November and December in decent shape because of all the corporate parties we hosted.
“We were also fortunate that we had other locations (Grant Park, Nairn Avenue and Pier 7),” he added, “so we were able to move people around so they could keep working. Many businesses weren’t able to do that.”
Still, there was no denying that the Jets were the financial lifeblood of downtown businesses. The longer the lockout went on — heaven forbid it would claim a full season as the 2004-05 NHL lockout had — increasing amounts of revenue would be lost.
“Our numbers really started going down after Christmas,” said Ginakis. “By the first part of January, things were starting to get bad.”
Chuck Davidson, vice-president, policy for The Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce, said hospitality-based businesses could only hold the fort for so long.
“Up until October, the lockout had little impact,” said Davidson. “The hockey season hadn’t started in earnest.
“But after October, the numbers started to go down. The numbers before Christmas showed a 30 per cent decrease in business on game nights. The year before, hospitality businesses had more staff on. As the strike progressed, they had to cut corners, which meant cutting staff and the hours they worked. It was a matter of trying to keep your head above water.”
Then, the almost unthinkable happened: the players and owners somehow found common ground and came to an agreement. The lockout officially ended early in the morning on January 6.
“To say the least, we were really fired up (by the end to the lockout),” said Ginakis. “Now, with the Jets back, business is back to normal. When 15,000 people come downtown, the impact is big. Usually, people start coming in at around five o’clock for games starting at seven or so. They get together to have drinks and dinner, and talk about the game. The financial injection they provide is huge for us and other downtown businesses.”
“When the lockout was on,” said Jacques Lavergne, the Fairmont Winnipeg’s director of sales and marketing, “leisure bookings — people coming to stay overnight or for the weekend — were down significantly. Once it ended and the schedule was announced, bookings were back to normal.
“It was great to see people back in the lobby in all their Jets paraphenalia,” added Lavergne. “The impact on pedestrian traffic was also huge. It was great to see all the people walking down Portage Avenue and through the concourse (Winnipeg Square) in their Jets gear again.”
Stefano Grande, executive director for Downtown Winnipeg BIZ, said the Jets’ three-and-a-half-month absence had a profound effect on downtown businesses.
“I would say profits were down anywhere between 10 to 30 per cent, with the 30 per cent figure being felt by restaurants and bars close to the MTS Centre,” he said. “There’s no doubt that the lockout had a big impact.
“When games are on, people come down and go into restaurants and bars and visit stores — you can see something big is happening. Even parkades were hit by the lack of traffic. With less people downtown, sales were down substantially.”
With the Jets back, the financial good times are once again rolling. Not only that, but the city’s collective psyche is in much better shape than it was a few months ago.
“More people are working and the restaurants and bars are filled again,” said Grande. “With 15,000 people going to a specific area, there’s going to be trade — everyone benefits.
“More than that, there’s a great vibe downtown and around the city now that the Jets are back,” added Grande. “People love hockey here and were kind of lost without it. Over the next few decades, the team’s economic impact is going to be huge for downtown Winnipeg, and the city.”
Davidson concurred, saying: “The Jets have done a lot for the city in two respects. First, they’ve done a lot to get people downtown. Crowds now are different than the family-oriented Manitoba Moose crowds. The Jets’ fan base is more mature, and spends more time downtown before and after games having drinks and dinner, and shopping. Second, the Jets have boosted the city’s confidence. We see ourselves as a big-time city again.”