Outfitters on road to recovery
June 30, 2022 By Sandi Krasowski, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Chronicle-Journal
THUNDER BAY, ONT. — In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses were either shuttered or left in shambles while some were unscathed depending on the products and services they provide to consumers.
Alan and Krista Cheeseman, owners of Wilderness North, have been offering wilderness experiences based around hunting, fishing and adventure travel with remote outpost cabins, full-service lodges and housekeeping lodges with a variety of services for 30 years.
As they weathered the pandemic storm, they could only gaze across the closed Canadian/U.S. border to their American clientele which provided a good chunk of their business.
“COVID had a pretty significant impact on the business because most of our guests two years ago were 95 per cent U.S. based,” Alan said.
“The border restrictions basically shut down the business. We were able to survive because we had some development projects like fibre optics and other things going up north and those jobs were becoming essential. So we did pick up a little bit of business that way which helped to survive.”
The pandemic also strengthened them with opportunities to change up the organization to encompass an entirely new clientele from the industrial sector.
“We have our goals to make the tourism side of it successful,” Alan said.
“We now have other business streams that help grow our tourism business and that’s where aviation expertise comes from the bush line. It’s all about developing the business and further developing jobs and tourism in Northern Ontario.”
Wilderness North operates its own air service out of Nakina that stayed busy with freight delivery to remote communities through the pandemic.
“It wasn’t as impacted by COVID as tourism so that’s helped with different revenue streams to survive in the last couple of years,” he said.
Organizations such as the Ministry of Natural Resources are using their lodges to accommodate firefighters while researchers and prospectors are accommodated in their outpost cabins to stay close to mining exploration sights.
“Fishing and adventure travel was our primary stream,” Alan said.
“We’ve pivoted to these other accommodation sectors for companies working for the mining sector and for other far north developments. A lot of those environmental assessments and helicopter services are moving around up north and they’re staying in our facilities to be closer to their job site than they are at some of the communities — so it actually makes financial sense to stay at our lodges.”
Earlier this month, the federal government provided $8.7 million from the Federal Economic Development Initiative for Northern Ontario (FedNor), through the Tourism Relief Fund to help stabilize the tourism sector. Wilderness North received a portion of that funding and Alan says the funds will help them start out on the right foot on a solid foundation as they emerge from the pandemic restrictions.
“We’ve been starving (for two years) on the tourism side and feeding from the other business streams so with that support, even going into debt was worthwhile,” he said.
“As our customers return they will see that we are making improvements and that we are in good health. That’s an important piece of growth.”
For now, Cheeseman says they are close to being back to pre-COVID levels with business. He says they will continue to market and extend their tourism wilderness experience by reaching out to the overseas European adventure market as well.
“Fishing is one of the differentiating values that we offer in Northern Ontario compared to other locations and even if they’re not coming for fishing, specifically, they end up choosing this kind of vacation because of those natural resources that we have — the pristine wilderness, the fishing resource — and those types of things are what differentiates us from other locations in the world,” he said.