Owning and operating a small business isn’t for everyone. Ups and downs are inevitable, but the challenges of COVID-19 have been unprecedented in their scale and scope, possibly changing the way we do business for years to come. It has been no different for small business owners here in the valley, many of whom depend largely on the summer tourist season, which was pretty much non-existent this year, leaving many people scrambling to pay the bills.
“I don’t know the exact numbers yet but it has been a wreck,” said Leonard Ellis, owner of Bella Coola Grizzly Tours. “If next year is the same we will go bankrupt.”
Ellis said that while September picked up a bit it was nowhere near the numbers they saw 2019, which was really a banner year given the launch of the Northern Sea Wolf and the notable absence of natural disasters such as forest fires. Ellis said they managed to keep open through this summer by serving essential workers such as BC Hydro and Telus staff.
“It’s been hard, really hard,” he shared. “We’re all in the same boat here, tourism is a flash in the pan, but we depend on it to stay open and now we’re facing a long winter ahead.”
Jayme Kennedy, owner and operator of Bella Coola Mountain Lodge, said they made changes almost right from the beginning.
“We’ve really changed our business model to focus more on long term rentals and essential workers in the Valley,” she explained. “We kept a small staff on and we were really lucky to receive some of the government supports so that really helped.”
Kennedy said they focused on rearranging their suites to rent for longer-term stays, and that this enabled them to stay open.
“Last year was so good it’s been a huge adjustment to deal with this year,” Kennedy said. “We’re also trying to address some of the rental issues in the valley by turning to longer-term stays, we’ll be fine but it hasn’t been easy.”
Tourism is a major jobs creator in B.C., supporting over137,000 jobs in 2017. This includes $9 billion in GDP (in 2012 constant dollars) contributed to B.C.’s economy and $4.9 billion in tourism wages and salaries. Tourism businesses were eligible for a number of government supports such as the federal Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS), and emergency grants and loans.
Despite the financial assistance, Bella Coola Valley Tourism President Tom Hermance said overall it has been a “devastating” season for local operators.
“Tourism during September picked up slightly over August but all-in-all, it’s been a devastating season with only a few exceptions,” said Hermance. “Campgrounds outperformed other types of accommodations and overnight stays in Tweedsmuir Park remained steady. Tour guides have been hit hardest and many were forced to close before the season ended (mostly due to overhead costs and too fewer visitors).
“The remaining guides who stuck it out have been successful but again, with half the season over by the time the valley re-opened, success is measured in relative terms. Hopefully we’ll have a longer, more predictable season next year, even if it’s only B.C. residents.”
Stephen Waugh, owner of Bella Coola Vehicle Rentals, said his business has suffered considerably.
“We’re crushed,” he said. “ In April we did three percent of our average for the past two years, by the end of June we were at eight percent, at the end of August it was 14 percent.”
Waugh owns a fleet of 25 rental vehicles and is based out of the Bella Coola Airport. He started the business in 2010 but made a heavy investment six years ago, buying a large number of vehicles to rent out. Waugh said that last season from July to October he had nearly every vehicle he owned rented out and employed three people.
“Last year we needed all 28 vehicles, now I’ve got half the fleet parked and I’ve had to sell three already,” he said. “And we’re going into winter.”
Waugh said there was a small increase in July and August but nothing near the last two years, and since the confirmed cases were announced he seen a jump in cancellations from workers who were planning to come in. While he’s weathered some significant storms over his nearly four decades as a businessman, he said he’s not certain his business will survive this one.
“I’ve been through some really tough times in different recessions over the years, but the biggest challenge of this whole event is that you can’t plan for it, it changes daily,” Waugh said. “To come up with a business plan that a financier would look at is virtually impossible.”
Waugh said that whether or not his business will survive another season may come down to funding.
“It depends, to be perfectly honest, on the ability to get some assistance,” Waugh said. “It’s all destination-based companies that are hurting because no one can travel.”
While tourism and accommodation have certainly suffered, other aspects of business community have, so far, managed to weather the storm. John Morton, owner of Kopas Store, which has been a staple in the community for over 80 years, says that these unprecedented times have shown how important local businesses really are.
“For decades, the core customer base of Kopas Store has been the people who live here. The growth in tourism in recent years has been very beneficial for our community economy and for our business as well,” said Morton. “However, this year has really demonstrated how important our local business is. That, and the commitment of our staff to stay open as much as possible, has meant that we have been able to maintain the service we provide to our community.”
Morton said that they have been fortunate not to have experienced a huge downturn in sales due to the pandemic, with their business remaining steady throughout. Kids crafts and games, shoes, and fishing tackle were particularly popular items that flew off the shelves.
“We reduced our hours initially but we are almost back to our normal 54 hours per week,” Morton said. “I have to hand it to our staff, Lorrein, Cheyenne, and Jennifer; they also felt it was very important to stay open for the community.”
Local restaurants are also having to redesign their business models. Nola Mack, owner of the Phoenix Spirit Cafe, said that the lack of tourism did hurt her business but that demand for food sales from locals hasn’t really decreased, it’s just harder to figure out how to meet it.
“We are still doing takeout only and we are trying to come up with a good model of delivery,” said Mack. “It’s been really challenging, it’s too hard to open the sit down portion of our business just yet and I am still struggling to find enough staff.”
The other two downtown eateries, the Bella Coola Valley Inn and Freddy’s Restaurant, also remain closed to sit down dining. The Inn’s hotel portion is also closed to tourists, only providing accommodation to essential workers.
Waugh said he’s hoping for an upturn, but that he can’t sustain at the level of sales he’s at right now. There is no other transportation service in the Valley, so Waugh feels his business is a quasi-essential service. But the reality of losing it all is very real.
“I’m absolutely at risk of losing my business,” Waugh said. “I’m thinking watch and wait, but it’s kind of hard to keep going when you know you’re going over the cliff.”