Hit hard by COVID, backcountry ski operators optimistic for future

·5 min read

West Kootenay backcountry ski operators say though it’s been a “brutal” past few months, they are optimistic for the future.

Most say planning early for a reduced season, enacting careful protocols, and government support helped them weather the economic storm created by the pandemic.

The Valley Voice checked in with operators last week, after interviewing them for their predictions for the 2020-21 ski season (see ‘With winter looming, West Koot ski tour operators say they’ve adapted,’ Valley Voice, October 8, 2020).

“Super-relieved it’s over”

Six months ago, Shelly Glasheen of Valkyr Adventures said they had lost six weeks of spring skiing earlier in the year, and expected a big drop when border restrictions blocked US customers from accessing their three Valhalla range lodges.

“We stayed open, and allowed the people who felt they could travel to fulfill their weeks, and then we just kept our staff, our lodge open – because it’s a big operation to close them down and reopen,” says Glasheen. “Our plan seemed to work.”

Glasheen says they’re closed for the season now, and while they lost about two-thirds of their regular business, she still calls it a success.

“Though I’m super relieved it’s over,” she says, laughing. “We don’t have anyone in our care; we don’t have to worry about our customers. The year worked as well as we hoped it would.”

She says they have begun taking bookings for the summer hiking season, and the future looks great – all COVID things being equal.

“We are fully booked up for 2021-22, and we’re almost booked solid for ’23 for all three lodges,” she says. “We’re getting books into ‘24, ’25, and even ’26.”

Hyper-local

An even more restrictive operating plan worked well for the Ice Creek Lodge, a backcountry operator based in Slocan City. The lodge announced it was going to run ‘hyper-local’ groups this winter – only accepting guests from the Slocan Valley and immediate area.

“Because we decided early on that we weren’t going to have a winter season, that decision was crucial,” says Courtney Hulbert, who co-owns the business. “We set ourselves up for a season of zero revenue, so we were prepared for that.

“We did generate a bit of revenue, so that was great, but mostly we were doing maintenance and providing some employment for some of our staff.”

The lodge invested in a new guest house based in Slocan, and did other improvements to their operations. She says the company has come out of the year better than expected, and the future is looking good.

“We’re fully booked for 2022, and we’re halfway booked for 2023,” she says. “Our programming is going to be busier this summer than the last few summers.”

While revenues were impacted greatly, and spending up as the company invested in maintenance, support from government to their industry helped their bottom line.

“We accessed all the federal grants, and some provincial ones, and we have applications out for a few smaller ones. We’re trying to use those opportunities,” she says, “Because of them we’ve been able to move forward with summer, and our renovations this year – we’re putting in bedrooms in one lodge – that’s fantastic.”

In fact, the industry-government initiative helped more than just Ice Creek Lodge.

Valhalla Mountain Touring operates a full-service lodge from the north end of Slocan lake, near Nakusp.

Owner Jasmin Caton says the BC Tourism Resiliency Network program has played a role in helping her forge ahead. VMT has been able to access funding through the Canada Emergency Business Account (CEBA) and the BC Small-and-Medium-Sized Business Recovery Grant Program.

“We are hanging in there,” said Caton, noting that, like other operators, they saw huge reductions in guests this year. “As the sole operator, I have been stretched, so the support of the Tourism Resiliency Network through Kootenay Rockies Tourism Association, has been nothing short of positive – providing information, ideas and helping me access grant funding that has provided me some assurance that things will be okay.”

Caton spent the season focusing her marketing efforts on the local population, pivoting to summer hiking opportunities and hosting retreats. She thinks the opportunity for people to get outdoors and get active has brought some relief from the COVID mental fatigue that many are experiencing.

Nakusp hit hard

One company that didn’t try to operate this season was CMH Heli-Skiing & Summer Adventures, one of the largest high-country operations in the West Kootenay. As the operator of The Lodge at Arrow Lakes in Nakusp, CMH is a major employer in that community year-round. A company spokesman told Valley Voice in October the were expecting a “normal season.” But they decided not to operate at all.

"With COVID-19 travel advisories in place, we decided to do the safest thing for our staff, guests, and the communities in which we operate and move our guests' heli-ski bookings to the 2021-22 season," said Rob Rohn, CMH General Manager & Director of Mountain Operations.

CMH officials were proud of the work they had done last summer to prepare for a pandemic ski season. While the protocols and precautions the company planned weren’t used, the exercise wasn’t a waste, Rohn says.

"We're really proud of the protocols we established – especially a 30-person trip simulation we ran that was the largest of its kind in the industry,” he says. “Although we didn't have the chance to use our protocols this winter season, we'll adapt some elements to use during future seasons."

Despite the loss of a whole season, things are looking up for the future, he says. The company has “limited spaces” available for the 2021-22 winter season, though there are still some trips available.

"Heli-skiing is in demand,” says Rohn. “We're seeing an interest level that's unlike any other season. It's incredible to see people's excitement."

The company is also planning to start operations again this summer, providing heli-hiking tours in the East Kootenay.

John Boivin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Valley Voice