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Winter Price Meltdown
by Brad Aubin
One of the sectors hardest hit by COVID-19 is the tourism industry, as operators grapple with forced closures and uncertainty as to when – or if – their season will even start. West Nipissing relies heavily on this sector, and local MPP John Vanthof believes tourist operations are falling through the cracks when it comes to financial assistance.
"The vast majority of financial aid programs are from the federal government,” Vanthof notes, adding “I believe they've done a fairly good job at reacting to the situation.” But there are cracks, he points out. “A lot of tourism businesses in our riding, as well as throughout Northern Ontario, the Mom and Pop shops, where the kids help out, and they have little to no part time help… well, they don't fit in any government programs. For most of them, they are not eligible for any programs whatsoever. There's no transitional funding, or federal loan program, because they don't qualify for that. They aren't a corporation, they don't specifically pull a wage. They're falling through the cracks, and they're hurting."
Vanthof likens their sector to farming, which was his vocation before politics, and says he can relate to their struggles. "Their business is a lot like farming; in farming, you have a season. If you don't have that season, you sure don't make it up in the wintertime. You grow your crops in spring and summer. I really feel for them. Their business is very time sensitive.” And while timing is crucial, no one can predict when the current COVID-19 restrictions will end, meaning no bookings now, and perhaps none all season.
Even once they are allowed to open, there are new realities to grapple with, Vanthof points out. “The ones I've spoken to, they've all said the same thing. They want their businesses to open… but they're also very concerned about safety. It's their job to make sure, as clients come onto their premises, that one they have a good time, and two that they stay safe (…) No one wants anyone to get sick after leaving their premises; they're in the hospitality industry. It's the last thing they want.”
Vanthof hopes governments at all levels will do more to assist this beleaguered industry. “The federal government is doing ok and their part; our province, however, has not. They haven't really done anything substantial on the financial end, for individual businesses, and I want to push for those businesses. These people are our local economy, and our local culture. I don't want to think of a time when the economy opens back up, and these camps aren't there. (…) Those people, at least a lot of them, are not sitting on gold mines. They need a steady income."
Vanthof hopes that longer term, there will also be more people choosing to vacation in Ontario to support local operators. “I'm hoping we recognize what we have in Canada more than we ever have before. The people I talk to in Toronto… they know more about Costa Rica than they do about West Nipissing, about northern Ontario. They fly down there all the time, but they never drive up here. Maybe when this is all over, they can come closer to come, stay closer to home, and have more appreciation for the great things we have here. I'm hoping that can make a difference in the long run. But for that to happen, for them to survive, we need to do something for the short term," he states.
Local operators face hard times
Linda Miller, co-owner of Camp Horizon in Field, certainly agrees. "It's a tricky situation, that's for sure. The bank deferred our mortgage another couple of months… but we still need to pay our taxes. We still need to pay our insurance on our property. Right now, honestly, we're living day by day. That's it. We've dug into personal assets to pay bills, and we're even draining our retirement fund. Right now, I'm not too happy," she shares.
The business has been in her family for over 40 years, and she admits that its future now hangs in the balance. "We've lost so much business right now. We lost our bear hunters, we lost our bookings for the summer, we've had to give deposits back to people… I mean where do you get the money for that? (…) We have signs posted that we're closed because nobody can come onto our property and stay because we're told if they do, both them and we can get fined. We're not taking any chances.”
Even if restrictions are lifted, things won’t be easy, she adds. “If they decide to let us open under strict guidelines, it's not just a matter of going in and doing regular cleaning on our cottages; we have to sterilize from top to bottom and that's going to take a lot of time before I let the next batch of people in. We've talked to everybody including Vanthof, our Mayor, we've e-mailed Doug Ford, nobody's got an answer about what's going to happen to us mom and pop resorts. There's an option to get $40,000, that gives you 10 grand free, but how are we ever going to pay the $30,000 back with nobody coming into camp? We're draining ourselves."
Miller stresses that the banks will only defer mortgages for so long, and the situation is not sustainable long term. "If we're closed all summer, we're gone. We can't financially do it. We've already lost thousands that we're not going to make up. We have a short window, May to October, and we need business during those months to survive. After October, through the winter months, just because we're closed it doesn't mean the bills stop coming in. Why do all of us mom and pop outfits have to dig into our savings? Our retirement funds? It's a shame. We need help before it's too late."
Rodney Wolf, owner of Joli Voyageur campground in Lavigne, echoes Miller's sentiments.
"The situation we're currently dealing with is most probably the same as any small mom and pop shop, not just campgrounds, but hairdressers, or corner stores… anything like that. Most of my employees are contracted for the summer. There's no payroll, per se. I'm not big enough to have 20 or 40 grand worth of employees, and pay myself through dividends of the company. I don't pay myself, I just upgrade my place. So there is zero funding available for us, other than a bank loan we can get at a high interest. They're not giving us any other solution or options on what we can do. There's not much help for seasonal people. I have 6 months to make my money for the year, if we don't make it, we starve."
Wolfe’s business is also his home. "It's my livelihood. This is everything to me. If we can't pay our bills, we lose everything we've built. […] It's not like I'm just losing a storefront, or a business. I lose everything I've worked for, including my home. That's the most frustrating part. The government is giving money to businesses to keep them going, and afford their storefront, but there's nothing for us. They can tell us to stay home as much as they want, but if they take our home away from us, we can't stay home. Our customers are understanding, and have paid their lot fees, because we're still hopeful that we'll be able to open in a timely fashion. We're really hopeful… with the recent opening of provincial parks that this might give us a chance.”
Contrary to Camp Horizon, which relies on cabin rentals, most of Wolfe’s business comes from lot rentals for trailers, which he believes can be operated safely. “I wish they'd ask us to make a business plan, and we can prove how we can provide social distancing for our seasonal trailer park. Every lot is a couple of meters apart, so it wouldn't be an issue for us.”
So far, though, he has no idea what the season will bring, and costs are not abating. “No one is calling me saying "hey, I understand the situation you're in. Don't worry about this year's taxes. Don't worry about your hydro bill. Don't worry about the satellite."
Larry Malette of Big Oak has had his business for over 42 years and is looking forward to opening up, but he has some concerns.
“It’s scary you know... for a lot of folks. I see that the province is opening up provincial parks so that’s a good sign. If we can get through this, if we can open up soon enough, we will still be in good shape. If they let us open in May, we can recuperate. It doubles down because last year, we had such a rough start to our year because of that flooding. And now this virus.”
On top of the financial worry, there is the concern over safety. “I’m kind of scared of opening myself, actually. I’m looking forward to letting my seasonal people in, but I think it will be awhile before I let overnighters stay. This is my home, my backyard, I have family here. People off the road, driving cross country, you never know where they’ve been or what they’re going to bring, especially if the boarder opens from the States. It’s so bad down there, the situation with the Americans.”
The uncertainty is hitting him as well. “I hope we’re not shut down all summer. I got my mind set on this month… and if it goes longer than that, it might get real bad. I’m glad we’re not opening up long weekend. I’d like for them to prolong it another couple of weeks. I’d feel safer. Everybody’s hurt with this, I guess we have to take our lumps too and protect our families. They have a program that they lend you 40 thousand... but you got to pay that back. It’s not helping much, you know? You postpone the inevitable if we’re not allowed to open in time. All we’d be doing is kicking the can down the road.”
Jay Byers, owner of Deluxe Camp in Lavigne, agrees that survival will depend on when the season can begin. “It’s a scary thought for a lot of people. (…) Without the influx of new business coming in, it’s not that you’re going to have a bad year, it’s that you’ve dug yourself a hole that you can’t recoup from. I’ve had a few cancellations already. My customers are great and are sticking with me as long as they can. I’ve adapted a 0-day cancellation policy, meaning if you’re sick the day before you show up, I don’t want you here. So I’m keeping my hopes up until I’m told I can’t open. I have bookings middle of June that are sticking with me. If I can’t open for June... then what? Either I push it back, or carry it over to next year. I’ve done what I can for my customers, and there’s not much else I can do. I have to take it on the chin. Can we take a little hit? Sure. Most of us can handle a little hit. If it goes past July or August, and we take a huge hit... I don’t know.”
For Marijke Rusch and her husband Tom, owners of Okimot Lodge in Crystal Falls, the situation is a little different, as they operate throughout the winter season. “I can see lots of folks being in a tough spot, but our personal situation is, we’re doing ok. We close down around this time of year to get ready for our spring season anyhow. Our winter season closes on the 15th of March, and we open up on the third Saturday in May. So we’re not losing money, yet. Obviously some folks have cancelled, but we’ve also had a lot of calls of people excited to come up and have booked. Lots of reservations for June. We are a smaller outfit now, we’ve been at this 19 years, and my husband and I are basically retired. We only have 6 cottages. We have not had one single cancellation for the summer time yet, other than a couple of American bookings. The good thing for us is we don’t depend on many Americans, which helps.”
Still, they are depending on an open season by July at the latest. “We measured out our plexiglass this week and are setting up the store to be safe. Our way of thinking is there’s no better self-isolation than what places like ours offer: a cabin, your family, a boat... However, if we can’t open for months – if by late July or August we can’t open... then we’re in trouble. Because the costs go on. Right now we remain positive, and are fixing up the place to be able to open when we’re allowed to. We want to be able to open on short notice. So for now we tighten our belt, hold off, and we hope to open by June. If we cannot, then we hope for July... or else we’re getting into trouble. We live off of July and August all year round. But I believe the government can find a way – if folks don’t mingle, stick to their campfire, stick to their camps, tell the kids to leave other visitors alone, then we should be ok. We’re already used to it by now, we’ve been living like this already for weeks. It’s possible!”
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