Tourism program helps Island businesses navigate pandemic

They were supposed to be hitting their stride right now along the shores of St. Mary Lake on Salt Spring Island.

Any other year, the 65-year-old Cedar Beach Resort would have been humming with guests playing on the water and staying in its cabins, campsites and RV lots on the May long weekend.

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Instead, the resort sat idle while its owners continued to stitch together recovery plans and contemplate when, or if, they can reopen this year.

“We are closed until we can figure this out,” said Ellie Young, president of the resort’s board of directors.

The co-op of owners has yet to make a decision on whether it will open this year with new guidelines to ensure the safety of resort staff and guests. That’s likely to come by the end of the week.

Young said while it’s been a difficult and gut-wrenching start to the year, it’s been made a little easier by a new program run by Tourism Vancouver Island.

The Vancouver Island Coastal Tourism Resiliency Program, launched last month in collaboration with the Island Coastal Economic Trust and Tourism Vancouver Island, has managed to answer questions, fill gaps and for some operators just be there on the other end of the phone during trying times.

“Tourism Vancouver Island has made it personal and that is so needed right now,” said Brooke Fader, owner of Wild Mountain Food and Drink restaurant in Sooke. “You need to feel taken care of. All of us, no matter what we’re doing, need to feel taken care of and need to feel heard.”

Fader said the program, which provides an adviser who works one-on-one with tourism operators to help navigate the various aid programs available and offer advice and information, takes the time to treat the business owner as a person.

“I can’t say how much we need that [personal touch]. All of this can be quite overwhelming for everyone, and it’s quite an emotional time, but they help you sift through it all,” she said. “You have a case worker who gets to know your business and tailor the information for you.”

The program, which launched in April with funding from the trust, was designed to help the tourism sector with rapid recovery in the face of economic and operational challenges due to COVID-19.

Initially, the program focused on guiding operators through the various support and financial assistance programs, as well as offering digital resources and online discussions tailored to the region’s needs.

Now it’s helping to guide operators through reopening and adhering to the new safety guidelines.

“I feel like we’re doing something tangible every day,” said Anthony Everett, chief executive of Tourism Vancouver Island. “I feel like we’re contributing in a meaningful way.”

The program was designed to last six months, but Everett said it could carry on for another two years, and they are still hiring new advisers to deal with the more than 260 companies that have signed on.

Everett said no one has an answer for everything — especially when it comes to when international visitors will be allowed to return to Canada.

“But this is about helping businesses understand the things they need to do to allow them to reopen if they meet the guidelines,” he said. “And it’s about finding out who their market is now.”

What Young knows at this point is that reopening Cedar Beach Resort will not be easy or cheap, as it will require physical changes and extra staff.

It will also require balancing the economic imperative of running a business with health implications for a place such as Salt Spring Island, which does not have the facilities to deal with a large visiting population.

“This is not about flipping a switch — it will not go back to normal,” she said. “Our normal is very different now. The resiliency program has actually managed to give me some peace of mind, knowing I’m not the only one out there.

“All tourism operators are feeling the same way.”

Andrew Jones of Kingfisher Wilderness Adventures in Port McNeill said it’s been overwhelming for everyone, from the stresses of a pandemic to the rapid-fire string of government programs and announcements, many with little detail or direction.

“It does become quite draining, and with so much happening and so little detail, it can be overload and you can miss things,” he said, noting the resiliency program has helped ensure companies stay on top of what is happening and what resources are out there to help. “I tend to be on top of things and still I find this overwhelming, so what about the smaller operators?”

Jones said the adviser program has been helpful to bounce ideas around, while webinars on topics such as legal advice, reputation management and communication with customers have offered useful tools.

Kingfisher, which is now in its 22nd year running high-end kayak tours from the North Island to Hadai Gwaii and the Great Bear Rainforest, would normally be taking bookings for 2021 at this point in the year.

Instead, Jones and staff are processing refunds and rebooking.

“Usually, before February, we have 80 per cent of our year’s bookings done,” he said.

This year, they have cancelled all eight-day, 10-day and 15-day trips to Haida Gwaii and the Great Bear Rainforest, and are considering salvaging the season with day trips and small-group overnight trips.

That decision will come this week.

Fader, whose Wild Mountain restaurant specializes in sourcing local and seasonal ingredients, is expecting to be open within a week or so.

The Sooke destination restaurant was closed for six weeks, but opened recently to do a small takeout business in picnic and heat-at-home food.

She said the resiliency program has made it possible to navigate the sea of information and guidelines and plan next steps for individual businesses, rather than a blanket solution for a category.

She said that tailored kind of help is important, given tourism on the Island covers a variety of experiences and operators.

aduffy@timescolonist.com

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