The Covid pandemic stacked the odds against Blachford Lake Lodge over the summer, yet the decades-old fly-in resort defied them.
Like many tourism operators and hospitality outlets in Yellowknife, Blachford has come to rely on international and out-of-territory Canadian guests for most of its customer base during the year.
While Covid halted the flow of those travellers from overseas and NWT border restrictions closed off Canadian visitors, Blachford owner Mike Freeland saw an opportunity.
“Why let a good disaster, like Covid, go to waste?” he asked wrly. “I think a couple of words come to mind: innovation, flexibility, change. And it was a challenge for us back in March to look at it and realize that the North was our only market. So, let’s (make) a go of it and we’ll see if we can get to at least a break even (point) of… higher volume and lower prices. This is Covid times.”
And that’s exactly what the lodge achieved.
In a regular summer, Blachford would have 300-350 guests. This past summer the site hosted 500-600 guests, marking its best summer ever by volume, Freeland said. Discounts for stays at the lodge went as high as half price, said Katherine Johnson, director of sales and marketing.
Most guests were fishers, couples, corporate groups and families who enjoyed canoeing, kayaking, boating and hiking.
The summer outcome might look like a soft landing from the vantage point of October, but when Covid hit the NWT in March it was hard to know where things would go.
Freeland closed Blachford to international guests on March 19. He had already been booked up until the third week of April. He had to send back lots of booking deposits, including for many international and Canadian reservations for the summer, fall and even this winter.
“This is a rough guess, but we would have lost at least a couple hundred thousand dollars,” he said, coming to an overall loss of about 75 per cent of business compared to the same period for last year.
The lodge had to lay off about one-third of its staff.
Freeland said he greatly appreciated the Covid assistance the lodge received from the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency (CanNor) and long-term, low-interest loans from the NWT Business Development and Investment Corporation (BDIC).
“Without that federal and territorial assistance, I don’t think we’d be operating today,” he said.
It took the lodge “many weeks” to complete its Covid operational plan and to get it approved by the chief public health officer. Once it was ready, Blachford reopened for guests on June 21 – three weeks later than usual – and the business tried its hand at catering to a market that was overwhelmingly North-only.
While the effort succeeded, Freeland said the summer upswing won’t make up for the loss of international and national guests.
Still, his goal is to keep operating and if he can break even or make a little profit, he would be satisfied with that.
And, he acknowledged, the pandemic was a reminder that the Northern market has always been here.
“When we started in the early 1980s, Yellowknife was our main market. And then with the start of the aurora business in the late 1980s and early 1990s we took full advantage of that and became quite successful as a world leader in aurora watching facilities – certainly a higher-dollar market.
“We focused on that and, in some ways, we kind of neglected our Northern market because we were focusing on the quite lucrative national and international market. In a way, (Covid) made us go back to our roots and refocus on the Northern market.”
He sees the “staycation” campaign promoted by tourism operators and offering stays at discounted prices as ways of giving back to the Northern community.
“It exposed us to a wide variety of Northern markets and we’ve been pleased to get people from Nunavut as well because they’re in our bubble, and people from Inuvik and the small Dene communities. And we’ve had people from Iqaluit and Paulatuk and Tuktoyaktuk,” he said.
Johnson attributes Blachford’s success in drawing summer visitors to NWT’s Tourism’s staycation campaign and the appetite that Northerners have for travel.
“We’re an all-inclusive wilderness resort. I think it’s appealing for anybody that’s looking to get on a plane and get away,” she said.
With icy puddles on Yellowknife streets signalling that winter is just around the corner, Johnson said she’s happy the lodge has made it this far and she’s hoping Blachford’s summer success carries on into the snowy months.
By current indications it may well, as bookings for Christmas, New Year’s and even March break are filling up.