This is the third instalment in a four-part series on cottage-country businesses and COVID-19. Read Part 2 here, and watch for Part 4 on Saturday.
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 George Friedmann, president of the company that owns the Eganridge Resort, in the Kawartha Lakes.
Matt Gurney: George, to start, I’ll note that I’ve had a chance to golf at your resort a few times this summer. And just a few days ago, I had a good tee shot off the seventh hole, which is my nightmare hole. I was 250 yards off the tee on my first drive and bogeyed the hole. This has absolutely nothing to do with this interview, and I mention it here only because I’m telling literally everyone, and now it’s a matter of public record. But more seriously, I’ll say this: the golf course is busy. When we talked four months ago, you had said you were hopeful you’d be able to get golf going, and you’d already started work on that, getting the course ready to open. And that was smart. It was barely two weeks later that the courses opened.
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George Friedmann: That’s right! We did start working early and got it open as soon as it was allowed. My prediction wasn’t based on any inside information that I was privy to. It was based on common sense. Being outdoors and socially distanced is clearly less problematic than being in a confined theatre, for instance. So the golf club opened shortly after we spoke. And it coincided with the weather. The golf course’s opening wasn’t delayed much beyond what the weather was going to dictate, anyway. So it was maybe two weeks we lost? Two to four weeks. Later on, we were able to open outdoor dining. We have two restaurants at the resort — the main dining room and the pub. We could have outdoor dining, and that made the golf experience better. You could have food and a drink. Later on, with Stage 3, we were able to open indoor dining and the spa. With indoor dining open, we’ve also been able to have some small events.
Gurney: When we last chatted, dining had been a big question mark for you. You didn’t have any sense of what the rules were going to be, and you explained to me your concerns — if everyone has to be six feet apart, how can a waiter serve a table? Along the way, when you were able to open first outdoors and then indoor dining, what did you have to figure out?
Friedmann: [laughs] Nothing. The government just told us what to do. We and everyone else got detailed protocols. We were told the rules, capacity limits were set, physical distances were ordered. We just had to follow those rules and space the tables out and bring in fewer diners.
Gurney: Was it hard to adjust to?
Friedmann: Honestly, it wasn’t really about adjusting so much as complying. And that’s okay. I’m not complaining. The safety of everyone is paramount. But it wasn’t like we had to figure it out on our own. There were rules; we were told what they were, and we followed them. It was like having extremely strict parents. They laid down the law, and we followed. [laughs]
Gurney: My parents weren’t that strict, but I understand.
Friedmann: [laughs] Neither were mine!
Gurney: I mentioned before that the golf course has seemed packed. Is that right?
Friedmann: Oh, yes. Yes. Absolutely. There’s nothing else for people to do, right? All the normal activities are cancelled. People who’d normally travel are staying home. We’re less than two hours from Toronto. Golf is very, very busy. It’s safe, it’s fun, and it gives people a chance to be out of the house for a few hours. And like I said, once we could have dining, you could make a trip of it. So yes, absolutely. Golf is busy. It’s busy everywhere. This is just psychological. People need a break, and we can offer them that. Going out for golf and a meal is almost normal. And the more we can offer people dining, the better a day it is. The dining doesn’t give you a full break — you can eat at home. But a game of golf can be a huge break.
Gurney: So golf is up big time. How is the dining going? You had some lost months there, but have you made up enough on outdoor dining to balance that out?
Friedmann: No. Outdoor dining is for sure way up. Way up. A lot of people who’d want to eat a meal and would normally sit indoors have gone outdoors because that’s the only option. So if I look at our category for outdoor dining, it’s definitely up for this year, but indoor dining is so far down it’s not a wash. But indoor dining is still very new. We just started being able to do that. And I think it’s going to take a while for people to come back. People need to feel safe; they need to feel comfortable. And people got into the habit of eating at home, of making their own meals. So indoor dining has been slow, but I think it will come back as people get back to normal. I don’t know what that will take. It might be a long time — maybe we’ll need a vaccine.
Gurney: In that same vein, how’s the spa doing?
Friedmann: I don’t know yet. Too soon to say. We have protocols. We are allowed to open. We have opened. You can come in for spa treatments under Stage 3. But we just opened a few weeks ago, and I don’t have real numbers yet to see if it’s come back. I’m going to guess that it’s going to take a long time, like indoor dining. There will be some exceptions, because you can cook yourself a good meal at home, but you can’t give yourself a full facial treatment or a massage. It’s not the same. So it will come back, but it will be slow. It will take a while to see a rebound. But like I said, that’s just a guess. It’s too soon to say.
Gurney: When we spoke in May, we didn’t really even touch on accommodation. It just seemed so far away into the future that it wasn’t even worth mentioning. But four months later, and yeah, you can stay in a hotel room. At Eganridge, you do have typical hotel rooms, but you also have smaller houses around the property that you guys can rent out to guests. And when I’ve been golfing, I’m seeing people there. Seems busier than normal.
Friedmann: Resorts in Ontario are packed. City properties are not busy. A lot of people who’d stay in a hotel in Toronto are there from abroad or from other parts of Canada. That kind of tourism in the big cities is way down. But outside the city, it’s the same as all those golfers. People who can’t travel abroad or who’d normally go to the U.S. are travelling to the country and staying at resorts. So yeah, we’re busy. People are taking vacations close to home and staying overnight or for a few nights. We have had a significant uptick in accommodation.
Gurney: I’m hearing from other people I’ve interviewed that that’s true. Millions of Torontonians are fanning out in search of things to do close to home. So your golf is up. Accommodation is up. Dining down overall. Too soon to say about the spa. Overall, how’s the business looking for the year?
Friedmann: Overall? It’ll be hard. We lost all our events. Events are a big part of revenue for a resort. They’re just a significant part of the business, and we lost our spring and summer events. We only started being able to do small events a few weeks ago. So that’s hard for us this year.
Gurney: In our last interview, you had said you were worried about being able to recruit staff. The government incentives, you said, were going to be hard to compete with, particularly for part-time or seasonal workers that you need just for the summer. Did that end up being a challenge?
Friedmann: It was. It still is. We did get the staff we needed, but we had to work harder. We had a beautiful summer, and some of the people we were counting on were able to go on government support and enjoy the summer. I understand why the government needed these programs, but for the kinds of workers we needed for the season, it was a real disincentive to them. You lose access to CERB if you make more than $1,000 in the prior month. So people didn’t bother. They enjoyed the weather. We did get the people we needed, but it was a struggle.
Gurney: I know you’re between appointments, so I won’t keep you, but I have to ask: What comes next?
Friedmann: It gets cold! When the weather gets cold, we’ll lose golf. We’ll close the course. We’ll lose outdoor dining. We’ll lose some of the accommodation because people won’t travel. Events, we don’t know. That’s up to the government. Like I said, the strict parent. They’ll tell us what we can do and when we can do it. It’s a real challenge for us. As a businessman, I try to control what I can. I do what I’m able to. But with the pandemic, we’re just trying to keep up — with medical advice, with the public-health directives, and with government rules. We’re very dependent on events beyond our control and rules the government makes. That’s okay. I know why it has to be this way. Normally, businesspeople don’t like the government in their way, but this is different. The health and safety of people — our staff and our guests and everyone — is paramount. It’s the most important thing. But we just have to wait. It’s hard to plan for. We just have to respect what we’re told — even if we don’t like it!
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.