On Aug. 5, a bus pulled up to a helipad at Parson, B.C., southeast of Golden. A group of about 30 individuals, all wearing masks, were decked out in ski gear, complete with helmets, gloves and boots – under the blazing sun, in 27C weather.
Crazy? Not really. The group was made up of employees of Canadian Mountain Holidays, the heli-ski tour operator. And this was a dry run to see how safe the company could operate in the COVID-19 world.
“2021 looks very different for sure. CMH is very much a social program, and we’re going to have to change the way we interact with one another,” says Suzanne Belke, CMH’s director of hospitality, in a video promoting the company’s operations this winter. “So the physical distancing is the biggest change in the program.”
The company says the exercise helped refine every aspect of its operation. Each ‘guest’ underwent a thorough questionnaire about their health. They wore masks in the bus, the flight up the mountain, and in the lodge; they sanitized their hands, ensured equipment handling didn’t spread the virus, and remained separated from each other by the now-familiar two-metre rule.
As far as CMH is concerned, the two-day simulation of travelling from bus to mountain, handling ski gear, and lodge living was a success, and a green light for the months to come.
“At present we are planning for a ‘normal’ season, interviewing and preparing accordingly,” says Salina Reimer, a spokesperson for CMH.
For Nakusp and area, that’s good news. The CMH-owned lodge there is a major year-round employer.
Several winter tourism operators in the West Kootenay contacted by the Valley Voice say they’ve prepared for, and are cautiously optimistic, that they can have a successful 2020-21 season.
But not everyone is forecasting a solid season for their business. Some winter tour operators say they were hit hard by the pandemic.
“We’re looking at an 80 per cent decrease in business,” said Kaslo-based Stellar Heliskiing owner Jason Remple. “Only Canadian guests will be able to reach us.”
Stellar usually employs two helicopters and 35 staff in the winter. That’s not going to happen this year.
“We book small groups of four and will have annual visits up to 1,400 guests,” says Remple. “Things are scaled way back.”
It’s the nature of the business – catering to mostly American skiers – that has proven to be the industry’s Achilles’ heel.
Just south of Nakusp, Valkyr Adventures operates three lodges in the Valkyr mountain range.
“We were fully booked at the three lodges for 2021,” says Shelley Glasheen, co-owner and Valkyr’s office manager. “Probably close to half our groups were from the US.”
When the national shutdown was taking effect, Valkyr suspended operations, losing about six weeks of spring-skiing revenue.
Those U.S. tourists – and tour operators – have been left in limbo with the border closure to non-essential traffic.
“And their replacement trips aren’t likely going to happen this year, either,” Glasheen says. “It’s really tough on them.”
Like CMH, Glasheen says Valkyr and other companies got their protocols in order, and sent out information packages to people who had booked trips. “Just to see who was staying, who was not coming,” she says, noting they changed their deposit and refund timeline to give wary customers some confidence. “We had an adjusted cancellation policy, staggered dates.”
Guests were offered either to keep their booking, to transfer their deposit to another season, or have a refund. Giving clients the chance to assess their own risk tolerance has allowed them to rebook their lodges, she says.
“We do have holes, but we have refilled,” she says.
While all the lodges have gone through similar exercises to CMH, Glasheen notes that meeting public health measures can be a challenge at high-elevation ski-touring lodges.
To meet new COVID-compliant regulations, Valkyr has spent tens of thousands of dollars this summer to add running water and a bathroom to one of their more basic lodges.
“It just provides the ability for people to have a higher degree of hygiene,” she says. “And we really appreciate the grants that have been made available by the federal government that enable us to do these things, they are super helpful.
“We have a plan that we can still operate and conform to the provincial health guidelines, and to our association protocols. We’re doing the best we can.”
A different approach
The Ice Creek Lodge, a backcountry ski and snowboard operation in Valhalla Park, has decided to tackle the border issue a different way. They had fully booked this coming winter back in December of 2019 – but 95 per cent of their groups were from the U.S.
They could see the writing on the wall, and with delays developing a vaccine, ongoing travel restrictions, and rising infection rates, they decided several months ago to change their strategy by going back to their roots.
“We will be running ‘hyper-local’ Kootenay groups this winter to keep the place dug out and warm, as well as keep our team involved,” says Courtney Hulbert, Ice Creek’s co-owner. “We’ve decided to keep this winter simple and tentatively schedule a modified season, limiting the use of airports.
“This helps to ensure the financial well-being of our business, and more importantly the health and safety of our groups, team, family and community. These actions align our business with government recommendations as well as our risk-management process and resiliency plan.”
The lodge caters to about 150 people a year, and employs 10-to-15 people in a normal year. This year is not normal, of course, and Hulbert says they won’t be able to provide any steady employment to staff this winter.
Despite the challenges facing their industry, operators say they’re feeling good about the upcoming season in the West Kootenay. “We are optimistic,” says Hulbert. “We are going to come out of the 2021 winter season on top. We have our resiliency plan in place and we are on track to a great future.”
This isn’t the year to try and pull a season off. It is the time to step back, regroup, and plan for the future.
“Oh yeah, we’ll figure it out,” adds Valkyr’s Galsheen. “Everybody is just trying to adjust, but everyone is kind of struggling … to make a go of it.”
Even Stellar Heliskiing, facing such a dramatic decrease in their business this year, says it will weather the storm.
“We will be here and ready,” says Remple. “If it becomes safe to have guests from other places we will be ready. We are doing a lot of booking for 2022 as well.”
– Valley Voice