'A tough pill to swallow': Ottawa-area ski hill operators slam Ontario shutdown

Ski lift
Editor's Note

This story has been updated with comments from the provincial tourism ministry.

With a provincially mandated shutdown putting their industry on ice during the busiest time of the season, local ski resort operators on the Ontario side of the river say they can only watch with frustration as customers head to resorts in the Gatineau Hills to get their powdery fix.

“Twenty minutes from my doorstep is Quebec, and they’re skiing,” says Jim Hemlin, chief operating officer of the Calabogie Peaks Resort about an hour’s drive west of Ottawa. “It’s a really tough pill to swallow.”

All ski hills in Ontario were ordered to shut down as of Dec. 26 under new restrictions imposed in a bid to curb the spread of COVID-19. The rules are slated to remain in effect until at least Jan. 23, but Premier Doug Ford said Friday they may need to be extended as cases continue to rise across the province.

Hemlin says his resort, which normally operates 40 runs, typically brings in a third of its annual revenues over the Christmas holidays. He says the latest shutdown, combined with last year’s closure during March Break, dealt a massive blow to the business.

Calabogie

“We’ve pretty much lost $2.5 million of potential revenue,” Hemlin says, adding he’s been forced to lay off more than 120 full-time staff in addition to about 100 contractors who teach at Calabogie’s ski school. “It’s devastating. It cost me a million bucks to put snow on the hill and I haven’t paid salaries yet.”

"We’ve pretty much lost $2.5 million of potential revenue. It’s devastating."

Over at Mount Pakenham Ski Resort some 60 kilometres east of the capital, director of operations Andrew Burns says the business had to hand 250 employees their pink slips.

“No one would want to be in those shoes and have to tell people that this was going to be their last day of work right before Christmas,” he says. “That’s not the Christmas gift you want to be giving people that count on you for a paycheque.”

Burns says he can’t understand why his resort has been forced to close its gates while his counterparts on the Gatineau side of the river are still allowed to operate. 

“We definitely have had a lot of people reaching out for refunds so that they can go ski in Quebec,” he says.

Hemlin and Burns say they feel their industry has been unfairly singled out while other outdoor activities such as cross-country skiing and tobogganing are allowed to continue. Both have tried to contact Nepean MPP Lisa MacLeod, who oversees the provincial tourism ministry, to get a better sense of when the restrictions will be lifted but say they haven’t received a reply.

'Left in the dark'

“Nobody’s talked to us,” Hemlin says, adding ski resort operators from across the province were supposed to receive an update from tourism officials on Thursday but were told the meeting was being rescheduled to next week. “We’re left in the dark.”

In an email to OBJ Friday night, Dakota Brasier, a spokesperson for MacLeod, said the ministry "continues to work closely" with the industry. Brasier said MacLeod hosted a meeting with ski hill operators last week, where she "committed to establishing a working group with officials and industry experts to facilitate a safe return post-lockdown."

Meanwhile, resorts on the Quebec side of the river are dealing with stricter new measures of their own after the province imposed a curfew starting Saturday that will force ski hills to close at 8 p.m.

“It sort of cuts the night skiing short,” says Peter Sudermann, the co-owner of Camp Fortune in Chelsea, Que.

The longtime resort operator says skiers seem to be hitting the slopes earlier in the evening this season than in years past, so he doesn’t think the earlier shutdown time will put a big dent in lift ticket sales. 

Business down 50%

“Everyone’s at home, so I guess it’s just easier getting everyone together,” he says. “It’s like, ‘All right, calls are done, classes are done, let’s go skiing.’ Everyone’s out the door at 3:30 to come to the hill.”

Still, Sudermann says the Ontario resort closures haven’t been a huge boon to his business. Some skiers on the Ottawa side of the river have been reluctant to cross the border, he explains, hurting a venue that attracts more than two-thirds of its customers from Ontario. 

Overall, he says, business is down about 50 per cent so far compared with last season, due in part to a huge drop in food and beverage sales and the closure of the ski school. The resort is also limiting lift ticket sales to keep its 10 open runs from getting overcrowded. 

While an on-site food truck has helped recover some of those losses, it’s nowhere near enough to make up the difference, Sudermann adds.

Back at Mount Pakenham, Burns says his resort shelled out $800,000 to pay for upfront costs before the season even began. 

Unless he hears some good news from the province soon, he says, the odds of earning it back aren’t good.

“I don’t know how we’ll (recoup) any of that at this point.”