This is the first instalment in a four-part series on cottage-country businesses and COVID-19. Watch for Part 2 on Thursday.
In the spring, TVO.org spoke with business owners across Ontario’s cottage country — rural areas home to many businesses that rely on a seasonal influx of tourists and part-time residents to survive. Pandemic-related travel restrictions, as well as the overall economic shock of the crisis, were a real and present danger to many of these businesses. With August drawing to a close, the pandemic at least temporarily contained in Ontario, and schools set to reopen, TVO.org has been checking in with those communities again. Today, we speak to Kim and Jim Krech, of Temagami Marine, a marina an hour north of North Bay, on their Summer of COVID — and their surprising good news.
Matt Gurney: Guys, thanks for doing this. Again. The last time we spoke, your summer was a gigantic question mark. You were still trying to get clarity about what exactly you were even legally permitted to do. It’s four months later. How’s it going?
Kim Krech: When we spoke before, we were concerned. Business was down 86 per cent. We thought we’d lose the year. But then — well, we don’t know what happened. But things took off. Recreational businesses across Canada started booming, from what we have heard. Our business here did. We have about 100 boats in storage that we couldn’t put into the water, because their owners are from abroad. Most of those are Americans, but there’s some from Switzerland and Germany, too. They can’t get here, so their boats stayed in storage. But even so, our business is 15 per cent up this year.
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Gurney: Wait … you’re doing better than normal?
Kim: Yes. All the Canadians who couldn’t travel abroad started spending their money here. No vacations means people spending their money at home.
Gurney: That’s obviously wonderful news. But that’s also not what I was expecting. So even though you’re cut off from some of your regulars, you’re still busy? A smaller group of people spending more money?
Kim: No, it’s more than that. We have new customers. Most of our boat sales this year have been new boaters. We’re selling a lot more small motors, too.
Gurney: Where are they coming from?
Kim: From all over, including some from your area, Toronto. But mostly local business. People are buying boats and using them in the local lakes. First-time buyers and first-time boaters. And this cleared out our inventory, so our interest payments are down. The way it works is that we borrow money to buy a boat and pay interest on that loan, but when the boat sells, the loan is repaid, and we keep the profit. When a boat takes a long time to sell, we have to carry that interest, and that eats into the profit. But they moved so fast this year that our interest payments were much lower than normal. It made a big difference.
Gurney: So sales are booming. But I know you guys do all kinds of other stuff. You do servicing and repairs, you gas people up. How has service been?
Kim: Service is down, but it’s held its own. We knew it would be down because of those 100 boats that stayed in storage. Getting them out of storage and into the water is part of what our servicing is, so that was down and we knew that would happen. But we’re still busy. It’s going to be a good year.
Gurney: Based on what you guys can see, with people coming in for fuel and supplies, how busy are the lakes around you guys? Or, I mean, just by eyeballing it. What can you see?
Kim: The lakes are packed. It’s so busy. We talk to cottagers as they come through by boat, and everyone agrees. People are talking about it. It’s busy up here. Crowded. Boats are all over the water. The provincial park across the lake from us is full, too. It’s booked up until late September.
Gurney: I don’t mean to deputize you into the local chamber of commerce, but I’m guessing that other local businesses are benefiting from this, too.
Kim: Everyone we’ve talked to has said the same thing. Grocery stores, restaurants, everyone. It’s extremely busy. It’s a good year for everyone.
Gurney: When did you realize it wasn’t going to be a disaster of a summer? We first spoke around late April, early May, and everyone was freaked out. Not just for the public-health stuff, though obviously that. But especially for the business stuff. When did things turn around?
Jim Krech: We’re always behind you guys in Toronto, because the ice comes out later. So our ice doesn’t come out until the middle of May or even late May. That’s three weeks later than in the south. By the time the ice is out up here, it’s already warming up and sunny. And this year, when the ice came out, the season just began. Immediately. There was no delay. Once the weather was warm and the ice was gone, we were busy. That was when our sales season started and to be honest, it was overwhelming for a while. It was hard to keep up.
Gurney: Do you know what triggered that? Was it a public-health directive or some government policy change? Was it moving to a different stage of economic reopening? Or was it just the weather?
Kim: We’ve been very fortunate in our district; we’ve only had 18 cases of the virus since March. So it was the weather. The reopenings happened later. But once it was warm and the ice was gone, it started. Right away.
Gurney: When we last spoke, you guys were battening down the hatches. You hoped there’d be just enough business to get the two of you through the season and the winter, and you feared you would have to let go of your staff. How’s your staff doing?
Kim: They’re here! All of them. We brought everyone back, and they’re all working. We actually had to hire extra help. I’m not worried about this year anymore. We’re going to be okay. And the staff and our clients, they’re spending money. Fixing roofs, buying cars, getting takeout food. They have jobs, and they’re supporting jobs.
Gurney: Even with all the good news you’re sharing about how busy you are, have you had to adjust how you do business at all?
Kim: The first month and a half, we were curbside-pickup only for parts and accessories. After that, we opened, but you have to come in with a mask on. We've got sanitizer stands at all the doors. We were only letting one couple into the showroom at a time at first, by appointment. We’re more open than that now, but we are practising social distancing. We do wear masks inside the buildings. We're careful with gloves and masks when filling up people's gas at the docks. We only let one boat at a time load supplies off the dock, because you can't socially distance on a dock that’s six feet wide. Everybody's been great. A lot of the customers come in, load their boats, fuel up, and shout goodbye as they motor off. And then we don’t see them for two weeks.
Gurney: Maybe you just already answered this, saying that people gas in, shout a goodbye, and then leave, but are you getting a chance to chat with people at all? I’m just wondering what you’re hearing from the customers.
Kim: That they can’t travel, they can’t do the things they’d normally do, and they’re happy to stay closer to home and spend their money here. A lot of them had cancelled vacations and they don’t think they’ll be taking one this year, either. So this is a chance to have fun right here at home.
Jim: And people feel safe here. They’re isolating at their cottages or on their boats. You can’t get more isolated than in the middle of a lake, surrounded by water, or on a private island. A lot of people have come up here specifically to be away from everyone else.
Gurney: Jim, I know you’re involved in the fishing up there. How’s that been this year?
Jim: I run a bass circuit up here, yeah. It’s booming. Hunting has been slow the last few years, there’s not as many moose, but fishing is great. People need a break. A lot of guys — it’s still mostly guys! — come up and need a break and a rest. [laughs] Not from their wives! Just everything. From work, from the pandemic, from being cooped up at home. So much of what we normally do to relax is closed or unsafe. But fishing on the water is safe and relaxing. People need to blow off steam. You should come up here and fish!
Gurney: [laughs] I’d be rusty, Jim. My grandfather was the fisher in our family, and he’s been gone 10 years now. You’d have to start me on the basics. But I think you’re right. People need something to do, and the water is a safe place to do it.
Jim: That’s what we’re hearing. It’s a strange summer, but this is a place where people can come and be safe and relax. It’s been a good year for us after all.
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.