COVID-19 in cottage country, Part 3: The resort owner

TVO.org speaks with George Friedmann, owner of the Eganridge Resort, in the Kawartha Lakes, about cancelled weddings, the return of golf — and why he’s optimistic about the future of Ontario’s resorts
By Matt Gurney - Published on May 01, 2020
Eganridge Resort, Golf Club, and Spa is located near Sturgeon Lake, in the Kawartha Lakes. (Wikimedia/ Eric Marshall)

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The economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic will not be evenly distributed across Canada. Particularly vulnerable are the cottage-country businesses that depend on tourists and seasonal residents from the big cities to break even each year. TVO.org is speaking with business owners and industry leaders in rural Ontario to assess the economic toll so far and discuss what more can be done. Today: George Friedmann, president of the company that owns the Eganridge Resort, in the Kawartha Lakes.

Author's note: In Part 2 of this series, I spoke with Sherry Peel, the owner of Bigley Shoes and Clothing, in Bobcaygeon, a town where my family has a long history and that, tragically, was one of the early epicentres of the COVID-19 outbreak in Ontario. Peel mentioned that many of her clients come to Bigley’s on day trips or while they’re up for the weekend — and that they often stay at the nearby Eganridge Resort, Golf Club, and Spa, a 10-15-minute drive from Bobcaygeon. Inspired, I impulsively called the Eganridge and was connected almost immediately with Friedmann, the owner and president.

Matt Gurney: To start, I guess I’ll ask this — before we get into the pandemic, what would normally be happening for you at this time of year?

George Friedmann: April is always a slow month. It really depends on the weather. Our resort is full-service, and we stay open 12 months. We have a fine-dining restaurant, a bar, a spa, and, obviously, a golf course. The winter is very slow. But this is the time of year when we’d be getting the golf course ready and watching the weather. We’ve opened the golf course as early as the start of April and as late as June. We just have to see. So, to be honest, thus far, we haven’t really felt the impact yet in a major way. The dining room is closed, and year-round residents would always come in — especially when many of the restaurants in the nearby towns [Bobcaygeon and Fenelon Falls] are closed. They can’t now, obviously. But this is the time of year where we’d be about to start speeding up from a slow period into our busy summer period.

Gurney: You mentioned already that you have hotel rooms, the spa, the bar, the fine-dining room, and the golf course. And you also do events, weddings and corporate events. In general terms, what’s the bread and butter?

Friedmann: In the winter, it’s the spa and the dining room, obviously. Some business conferences. But it’s a slow period, as this area isn’t a skiing destination. But, in the summer, there isn’t one main thing. It all relates. People come to golf, but then they stay for a beer. Or a couple come to spend a weekend, and one loves the spa and one just wants to golf. Their needs are equal, and we want to keep them both happy enough to come back. Or people come for an event, but then stay longer for a meal. So they all really feed into each other. We honestly don’t know what would happen if we, for instance, shut down the spa but left everything else open. How many people come for the spa but then stay for a meal? That really is my approach to business: offer it up. Make sure it's done in good taste and good service level, and let the customers choose. And one customer may choose Option A and another customer may choose Option B. Or, for that matter, the same customer may change their mind from day to day. So we're all very much about offering up the facilities and letting the individual guest choose what strikes their fancy. And, also, if they're a golf guy, you know, and it's raining out, well, you don't want them to be miserable, and I can't control the rain. So, you know, we have a spa, we have a bar, and, if nothing else, you can go downstairs, get a draught, and watch TV. We offer choice. And most of our guests are repeat guests. So it’s hard to say that one part of the business is the essential one.

Gurney: I think that’s very fair, but I wonder if you’re going to find out this summer. Because I bet you’ll be able to open some of your businesses pretty soon. I could believe that, in a few weeks, your golf course is opening. I could believe that your restaurants are open by the summer. But I have no idea when your spa is open — or any other business that requires close physical contact.

Friedmann: It’s funny you called today, because just yesterday, we had a meeting about that. I think you’re right. We don’t have any guidance on this, but we’re looking at what Quebec and other provinces are doing. And we’re thinking … we could do golf. You’d limit carts to one rider each and clean them. And you’d need people to maintain physical distance. But I think we could resume golf. The restaurants, that’s harder. Even if we lowered the capacity in our dining room, the waiters need to come to the table. We can’t put a plate on the end of a hockey stick and put it on your table that way. But the pub? Could we serve up food for takeaway that people eat before they golf or while out on the course? We’d have to make some changes, but I think we could. But the restaurants are going to be second or third phase, I think. Golf is the only thing right now where we’re proceeding normally. We’re doing all the things we’d normally be doing around this time of year. In fact, right now, our problem is keeping people off the course. They’re sneaking on for free games.

Gurney: Well, I’d never do a thing like that. [laughs]

Friedmann: I’m sure, I’m sure! [laughs] But no, we actually think we can do okay this summer, especially with the golf course. We are optimistic that we can open it, and there’s another big advantage we have. Our clients are either local or come from within two hours. People are going to be really reluctant to travel long distances. I don’t know when travel by air or trains will come back. But, if you have a car, and you’re in Scarborough or Richmond Hill and Newmarket, and if we’re open … yeah, I can see people driving up for golf and a meal. So we’re spending money on the golf course as if we’ll be allowed to open.

Gurney: I was going to ask you that. Your customers, you think, mostly come from Toronto?

Friedmann: The whole Greater Toronto Area, yeah. Some locals, yes, but we get a ton of business from Toronto, and we hope people are able to come up here to enjoy us. Stay outside, be safe and sensible. But human beings need to get outside. It’s important for our health and our mental health. We can keep our distance outside, and I think people will really rediscover our Ontario resorts because travelling abroad is going to be hard for a while.

Gurney: You’re optimistic about golf. You’re cautiously optimistic about the restaurants, though that will come later. What about your events — weddings and conferences, stuff like that?

Friedmann: That’s been hard. That certainly has been a challenge for us. You know, most of our time spent in the last six weeks with prospective customers has been trying to address this. And, so, from the first moment, we developed a policy of allowing people to postpone their weddings — with no cost, no hassle. Because it's not just whether or not we can host the wedding, but also, can that bride and groom invite all the people that they want, and if some of those people are coming from far away, that’s challenging. So we've had weddings postponed two or three months, and we've had some postpone a year. I feel genuinely terrible for them. And it’s a challenge for us — I’m losing bookings this year and losing dates for new bookings next year. We’re going to lose half the revenue from events, I’d guess. It just comes down to everybody being a little reasonable, a little flexible. If everyone can do that, we’ll get through it.

Gurney: Thus far, are people being reasonable? I don’t just mean your clients, but also your vendors, the people who’d help you put on these events.

Friedmann: Guessing how people will respond is like guessing the weather! But, so far, I think most people are being really reasonable. Sometimes people have thought we have more control over circumstances than we really do. But most people understand that this is a common predicament, and we’re doing all that we can do. This isn’t the end of the world. We’ll get through this. Maybe in weeks, maybe in months, maybe longer. We don’t know. And I firmly believe we have to listen to the best medical advice on that. But, when we can, we’re going to get back to doing what we do.

Gurney: What are you able to do with your staff?

Friedmann: Most of the staff is laid off at this time of year. We don’t need many over the winter, so we’re at that low level now. We haven’t brought them back, because there’s no business yet. We do have maintenance staff, and they can get the golf course fixed up. The restaurants and spa, we could restart those quickly. We’ve been in touch with the staff, and, when we get the green light, we’ll order our supplies and be ready to go in 24 to 48 hours. The staff won’t be a problem, and I don’t think supplies will be. The challenge might be the government says the economy is good, we can reopen, and no one wants to come. People are afraid. They might stay home. People will have to get comfortable again once the medical experts say it’s safe. But we have a big, well-equipped facility. We can stock up on the supplies we need and be ready when customers return.

Gurney: You mentioned the government there. Is there any help you’d like to get from them that you haven’t gotten — or things you’d like offered that haven’t been?

Friedmann: I like to always think these things through from the opposite side. A bit of roleplay, right? If I’m the government, what am I worried about right now? What are my priorities? What more can I do for businesses like the resort? And, I mean, come on. I’m not their priority. The government is doing their best, and they’re dependent on medical advice, and the medical experts need to wait and see what happens. So you have to be reasonable. I do want to make sure that there are incentives to resume work.

A lot of my workforce is seasonal and low-wage — groundskeeping guys, dishwashers. Local students. I worry that, if the emergency benefits continue even after the medical experts say it’s safe, it will be hard to recruit workers. But I understand. They’re doing the best they can, and this is unprecedented. Right now, they’re doing what they need to do to keep people at home, which is what we need to do to stay safe. That’s what the experts tell us. I wonder if we’ll need incentives to get people working again. Even if you’re going to make more money with a job than on benefits, if there’s still a lot of fear in the public, people may just stay home — customers and workers.

Gurney: I think a lot of people will be afraid to resume normal life for a while. Staff and guests, and not just at Eganridge. Everywhere. If you opened the economy fully tomorrow, I’ll be honest, I’m still going to stay at home a bit and see what happens.

Friedmann: Right. Exactly. We don’t want a second wave of this. And it looks like the countries that locked down fast and hard did better. So we had to do this. We had to save lives. But we also need to open up again, and I guess I’m an optimist. Once people feel safe, they’re going to want to travel and be outdoors. They won’t go to the U.S. or even far from home, but we’re two hours from Toronto. Ontario’s resorts might really boom after this — I hope people know we’re here and ready for guests. And for workers, too! There will be a lot of jobs in hospitality in Ontario.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.​​​​​​​

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