With the border closed, Sask. outfitters now question their business future

Outfitters in Saskatchewan are already feeling the effects of non-essential travel recommendations and the shutdown of the US border. 

Outfitting operations run throughout the province — in the south, game bird hunting is the biggest attraction while in the north big game and angling are major draws. The industry contributes $129 million into Saskatchewan's economy each year.

Roy Anderson, acting CEO of the Saskatchewan Commission of Professional Outfitters, said the majority of these businesses cater to American clientele and with the border closed, they're in turmoil. 

"Our residents and other Canadian residents have other options [for hunting]," Anderson said.

"The prospect of backfilling even a small percentage of the business disruption by luring Canadian sportspeople is pretty difficult."

Clients 100 per cent from U.S.

Jeff Smith operates Kutawagan Outfitters, near Choiceland, Sask., located roughly 100 kilometres east of Prince Albert. He said 100 per cent of his clients come from the U.S.

Smith said his operation's bear season — which runs between May and June and was already booked full — is in jeopardy because of the border shutdown. 

"The spring bear season represents 60 per cent of our yearly income," Smith said. "We've pretty much prepared ourselves for not having that."

He said there haven't been many cancellations yet and the lodge is prepared to take in hunters. For the most part, he said groups who want to come hunt are taking a "wait and see" approach.

But even if there aren't cancellations and if the border reopens, he still said he'd think twice about opening his business, because everyone's health is a priority and he doesn't want the virus to spread.

The hope, he said, is that bear hunt customers will want to roll their hunts into next year.

The other 40 per cent of his yearly income stems from white-tailed deer hunting, which takes place in the fall. But Smith has accepted that may not happen depending on how long the pandemic lasts. 

Kutawagan Outfitters employs six people. Smith said their future is still in question. If there are no clients in camp, those employees won't be working.

Now's the time for fall decisions

Harvey Kroll, who operates Hatchet Lake Lodge, an angling outfitter located in Saskatchewan's far north, faces a different set of questions. 

Although his angling business — which has been around for 57 years — operates between June and August, he has to decide now whether or not he's going to have a season. 

"I hate to say it but I'm leaning more towards not opening," Kroll said. 

"I have to haul fuel in over the ice [roads], I've got to get supplies in over the ice and when I miss that window of opportunity, there's not such a thing as saying 'well, we'll start up the third week of July.'"

Outfitters rely on rebooking

Kroll said for most outfitters, it's not just this year that's going to be a concern for business. 

He said his business relies heavily on rebooking clients for future years right in the lodge during their stay. He's venturing into uncharted territory when it comes to planning for the 2021 season, as he'll have to do more external marketing. 

Hatchet Lake Lodge employs 40 people, half of who are Indigenous and many of whom are university students.

Both Smith and Kroll said they've been monitoring what the provincial and federal governments have said in terms of coming supports.

"We've never been an industry that's kinda held our hand out, we've always managed to wade through things," he said. "This is something that's totally different, it's very unique, I don't think you can find two operations that are identical." 

Start talking to the banks

Kroll said he hopes to see some kind of program that allows the outfitting industry to move forward. 

When asked to offer advice to other outfitters, he said the number one priorities are personal safety and preventing the spread of COVID-19. 

He also recommended that businesses consider making the best possible financial decisions to ensure their longevity.

Submitted by Jeff Smith

Smith said if they haven't done so already, now is the time for outfitters to start talking to the banks.

"Make sure your finances are in order so you can weather this storm for a year, in the event that it is zero income from here on in," Smith said.

Unique businesses

When asked about relief for outfitters, Anderson said the Saskatchewan Commission of Professional Outfitters said the organization, and the 650 outfitters who it represents, are trying to navigate the processes to ensure their employees get the support they need.

But he said there's a "uniqueness" to the business in terms of how each business operates that's making things challenging.

"We're not really seeing opportunities to assist these outfitters that are at risk with business liquidity or how they manage to get through these next six months of 2020 and beyond," he said. 

"We're keeping a very close eye on the federal programs to see what might work and what might not work."