COVID-19 slows launch of Iqaluit’s new Aqsarniit hotel, conference centre

Five-storey building now about three weeks from completion

The Qikiqtaaluk Corp.’s new Aqsarniit conference centre and hotel on Iqaluit’s Federal Rd. is nearing completion, says Sheldon Nimchuk, the manager for Qikiqtaaluk Corp.’s $70 million project. (Photo by Dustin Patar)

By Jane George

If you were to pick a time to finish construction on a new hotel and conference centre in Iqaluit and then plan its grand opening, this past spring would not have been ideal.

When the COVID-19 lockdown closed construction on the new Aqsarniit complex in Iqaluit, it was “devastating” to the construction timeline and launch, said Sheldon Nimchuk, the Qikiqtaaluk Corp.’s director of project development and partnerships.

Nimchuk is also the manager of the Aqsarniit project, which is owned by QC, the business arm of the Qikiqtani Inuit Association.

The $70-million legacy project was bankrolled largely by equity from QC, he said.

When the ground was broken for the project, Iqaluit suffered from a longstanding lack of hotel rooms.

But then COVID-19 caught the entire hotel and hospitality industry off guard—and not just in Nunavut, Nimchuk said.

“Initially, we were looking for occupancy in June, but of course COVID hit in March and it obviously had an impact on many fronts,” he said.

Overall, COVID-19 has been challenging for the construction industry, he said, and, for the QC’s ambitious Aqsarniit project, “it certainly slowed things down and had financial impacts.”

Many workers headed south in March and wouldn’t return until June, leaving only those from the Iqaluit-based workforce to chip away at the 95,000-square-foot building.

“Everything was in flux in terms of knowing how things would play out,” Nimchuk said.

Starting in June, southern construction workers were able to head back to the site, but only after first passing through a required two-week quarantine in one of the isolation hubs for travellers heading into Nunavut.

This requirement led to delays and extra costs, because about 60 workers had to be paid for their two weeks in isolation, during which they could not work.

It was definitely a logistical challenge, Nimchuk said, “but once we understood how the process was, it was a process we were able to work with.”

But finding workers willing to do isolation once and then do it again after a second rotation of six to eight weeks proved demanding.

Throughout the construction, Nimchuk has worked with its construction manager, Bird Construction.

Bird also handled the 2019 shipment of the hotel’s 94 rooms and 12 suites, which were pre-constructed and assembled in Shanghai.

In these modules, everything from beds and chairs to televisions and microwaves were already set up.

The five-storey building is now only about three weeks away from completion.

Sometime in October the Aqsarniit Hotel should be ready to receive its first guests. (Photo courtesy of the QC)

Aqsarniit has been hooked up to the city’s piped water and sewage system, thanks to a $1.6 million contribution from CanNor, the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency.

And Nimchuk said it’s going to be an energy-efficient building, with plans to draw on more renewable energy sources in the future.

A soft opening is planned, he said, with a grand opening some time in the future.

Aqsarniit’s next hurdles to overcome are operational.

“The reality of the anticipated business pre-COVID is going to be affected,” Nimchuk said.

So that plan now involves “projecting and adjusting how we will weather the storm.”

The spacious lounge at the Aqsarniit will be able to operate only at a reduced capacity, until after Nunavut eases its COVID-19 restrictions. (Photo courtesy of QC)

The hotel was built to include a restaurant with capacity for 80 to 86 people, and a lounge with capacity for 150 to 170 people, pending a liquor licensing assessment.

But under COVID-19 restrictions, that occupancy is reduced by 50 per cent.

The conference centre as a whole was intended to hold 550 to 600 people, and be capable of being divided into three smaller spaces.

But large gatherings are still not permitted in Nunavut.

Meanwhile, conferences throughout Canada have been cancelled due to COVID-19 restrictions: Aqsarniit also saw the cancellation of the fourth annual Arctic Indigenous Investment Conference, scheduled for June.

But Nimchuk said “we’re certainly optimistic that if travel within Nunavut and Iqaluit is permitted that there may be an opportunity to host as much as possible of some of the Nunavut-centric type conferences.”

“You have your best plan and you try to juggle.”

This week the giant Palais des Congrès conference hub in Montreal said it would focus on a hybrid model for conferences with new studios where conferences could broadcast sessions online to people who would not physically attending.

But, of course, in Nunavut that would take better internet services.

That’s something QC is working on with SSi Canada, formerly known as SSi Micro, the operator of Nunavut’s Qiniq and SSi Mobile network.

The SSi-QC consortium plans to pursue improvements to Nunavut’s existing satellite-based internet services.

Once up and running, Aqsarniit was to have had about 60 full-time employees.

While that number will be less for now, there will be a high percentage of Inuit, some who have been training with QC’s Qikiqtani Industry Ltd., Nimchuk said.

The goal is for Aqsarniit to offer Inuit careers in hospitality, he said.

Holloway Lodging Management Services, a Nova Scotia-based firm, which also manages hotels in Yellowknife, such as the Super 8, and in Whitehorse, including the Sternwheeler Hotel and Conference Center, will run the business side of Aqsarniit.

A second hotel, under construction by Jam 2016 Investments Inc., is also under construction in Iqaluit, located next to the patient boarding home.

The four-storey, 86-suite hotel, with a restaurant, covers two parcels of land at the intersection of Queen Elizabeth Way and Niaqunngusiariaq Road in Iqaluit.

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(11) Comments:

  1. Posted by Artie on

    Looks like a really nice hotel. QIA has their act together. Doing great! things for Baffin. Sheldon N. perfect to run this project. Smart.

    • Posted by Right on! on

      Yeah, this looks like a really sleek addition to what was up until unforeseen events, something that was really lacking in Iqaluit.
      .
      For everyone simply dividing cost by the amount of rooms and saying this was a terrible project, you’re forgetting that not every summer will be like the most recent one, as well as the fact the cost also means the addition of a new restaurant/lounge in town, which will be a great addition to those needs as well.
      .
      It is nice to see long-term planning from an inuit org, especially when it didn’t sacrifice any details to do so. The result is a beautiful new building that will be in town for decades and decades, making profit for an all-inuit organisation! I am sure the doubters will run out of things to worry about as time goes on, because this seems like a very successful project given the logistical constraints of construction in Nunavut as well as Coronavirus affecting tourism for the time being.

      • Posted by Starry eyed and laughing on

        Your naive, starry-eyed view of the Qikiqtaaluk Corporation runs counter to the experience of just about everybody in Iqaluit.

        I hope this hotel is a success, but the problem is, this QC company has a recent track record of total business failure. Remember Frobuild Construction? QC bought Frobuild from Mr. Jacques Belleau, who ran it for many years and in no time, QC ran it into insolvency. Same thing with Baffin Deli, which had to close after QC bought it. Same thing with that Starbucks coffee shop in the Plateau, they had to shut that one down too.
        The article says that QC hired a company from down south to build it and they will hire a company from Nova Scotia to manage the hotel for them. So with southern companies who know what they are doing, maybe this will be a success if QC stays out of the management.
        I’ll tell you one thing though, the Inuit employment at this place will be low, and the Elders are going to be completely against that new bar.

        • Posted by polar bear on

          So well said by Starry “maybe this will be a success if QC stays out of the management.
          … the Inuit employment at this place will be low, and the Elders are going to be completely against that new bar.”

  2. Posted by bamboo on

    How is $70 million for 90 rooms a well spent money… I am sure they are spending more than that so how is $1 million per room ever going to be repaid? Not buch business sense to me…
    How is building 75% of hotel in Shanghai helped our people with jobs here in Iqaluit? Look forward to seeing Inuit folks getting those manager jobs away from this South company … wasn’t it supposed to be 100% Inuit owned and 100% Inuit operated so we start building hospitality within the community?
    There is no way so many new hotels (2) will survive as there is no need for that many rooms in town – except during mining symposium but that is once a year.
    Good luck and hope QC is creating the right legacy …

    • Posted by Occcupancy on

      It’s all about occupancy rates. The new hotel accross from the boarding home will most likely work as the overflow for medical travelers from the Qikiqtani, so no worries about their business model. If the Frobisher, the Discovery and the Aqsarniit will be able to have a 75-80 % occupancy rate, I believe they will be OK. Due to its location the Frob still seems to be #1, but guest who are curious about the new hotel and it’s modular structure surely want to stay there. However, the funds spent on this project surely will require many guest, conferences and a full lodge on a daily basis. Time will show where this will go, but I hope Inuit employment will be high in both new hotels, as long there will be a consistent work ethic. The sky is the limit

      • Posted by truth on

        There is a BIG (massive) IF in what you wrote: “If the Frobisher, the Discovery and the Aqsarniit will be able to have a 75-80 % occupancy rate, I believe they will be OK.”…
        Where is this 75% occupancy going to come from? I heard last year Frobisher and Discovery had about 70% … now you add two more hotels …
        They are all doomed long term if we don’t start creating demand for Iqaluit … adopt the Iceland model… have cheap flights …

  3. Posted by pissed off on

    $70millions for 95 rooms.
    Give your head a shake . This is never going to be paid back.

    Also it is strange that the Feds $1.6 millions to connect the hotel to the municipal water and sewer lines is given out to benefit 1 company and nobody else.

    What if that money did not fall from the sky at the miraculous perfect time. ?

    What was the original plan for water services ?

    Other projects had to jump through so many hoops to get the City to work with them to get water and sewer service. And they had to pay the full price of the work themselves.

    How nice it is to so well connected

    Thanks

  4. Posted by The Irony on

    The joke is that these inuit orgs and NTI will publish rants and raves about lack of inuit working for GN projects and then they go ahead and assemble something made in China. I think the GN minister even said they can’t do the same thing to solve housing crisis because the Inuit orgs will be up in arms. The irony!

    • Posted by Why? on

      Why are you talking about facebook rant and raves in a newspaper comments section, rather then the groups in question?
      .
      Not everyone likes people spreading all that facebook drama, so why are you adding to it and putting it on here when that has nothing to do with the story?
      .
      You hate facebook rant and raves so much, tell them, or delete facebook. Don’t spread it all to NN comments where everyone across nunangat sees it rather than your specific community groups?

      • Posted by Before Facebook on

        Saying “ranting and raving” doesn’t mean “Facebook”. It means making a bunch of complaints and whining without substance, which is what the poster means. It is a completely legitimate newspaper comment to ask why QIA/QC/NTI are hypocritical about Inuit labour when it comes to them spending their own dollars.

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