It is no small thing to say that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the landscape of tourism as we know it. Predictably, the only certainty we can rely on in these times is that nothing is predictable. As we progress through our second winter of the pandemic, protocols, guidelines, public health knowledge and outlooks are identifiably different than they were at the start of 2020. In what has always been known as “cold and flu season,” our outdoor winter attractions must rise to a unique set of circumstances to ensure their guests can continue to benefit from much-needed and morale-boosting cold weather activity, while maintaining health and safety measures. Here are some of their stories of how they are facing the 2021/2022 winter season, including what challenges they’ve had to overcome, and the successes they’re proudly celebrating.
Treetop Trekking, Stouffville
In the warmer months, Treetop Trekking welcomes visitors to an aerial adventure with a birds-eye view of the Ganaraska forest. In winter, though the main courses shut down, Treewalk Village remains open for children to continue to explore and experience the outdoors. Since the winter of 2020, when the pandemic was in its first wave here in Ontario, much has changed about how Treetop Trekking operates its cold-season offerings. With COVID-19 now in its third year, they have grown more accustomed to juggling the safety of staff and guests, following regulations, continuing to offer a premier guest experience, and keeping the business profitable.
“Our 2021 season was very different from our 2020 season,” says Marketing Director, Mike Stiell. “In the spring of 2020, there was so much unknown about COVID-19, and the provincial restrictions for businesses.” For much of that season, Treetop Trekking’s main opening was delayed… and staff were concerned that they might not be able to open at all.
Naturally, this made preparations and planning quite challenging. “Although our season opening was delayed again in the spring of 2021, we were at least confident that we would be able to open up at some point, and we could begin to prepare for and invest in our season with that in mind,” Mike recalls. “We certainly learned a lot of lessons in 2020, which helped us this year. And a lot of the things that were strange or new in 2020, like constant hand sanitizing, masks, policies and more elaborate cleaning procedures, felt much more normal this time around.”
As an outdoors-focused business, regardless of the weather conditions, Treetop Trekking found it relatively simple to move all the steps of a guest visit, including check-in, outside to avoid crowds in small spaces. “We have always been a primarily reservation-based activity,” Mike says, “so that helps us control capacity on the activities, and takes care of contact tracing as well.” In Treewalk Village, staff have significantly reduced capacity—from over 200 guests at a time to a maximum of 75 in 2022. They have also made the elevated walkways one-directional, which would help children avoid passing each other in close proximity. “Overall, these changes have been well received by guests and staff,” Mike says. “In some ways, they have resulted in our guests enjoying the experience even more.”
Mike credits the staff at Treetop Trekking with an exceptional job of developing and implementing all of their COVID-19 operational challenges. “Coming into this, we thought changes to our day-to-day operations were going to be the most challenging aspects of opening during the pandemic,” he says. “This has proven to not be the case.” However, he does point out that it was challenging to decipher when, technically, they were allowed to open given that the unique model of an aerial adventure park didn’t quite fit in with other recreational activities being identified in official guidelines. “On the one hand, we had staff that were eager to get to work, guests that wanted to come, and a business that had to make money,” he recalls. “On the other, there was the worry of re-closure, penalties, or bad press if we made the wrong call. We ended up being a little more cautious than maybe we had to, and using our best judgment.”
Happily, there is a bright side. Though the past two years have been challenging, Treetop Trekking was able to adapt so successfully and as a result the park saw its 2021 revenue rebound closer to that of a ‘normal’ year. Surprisingly, many new people have discovered and fallen in love with the aerial adventure experience as well—an unanticipated success. “In both 2020 and 2021 we were voted by our guests as Ontario’s Top Outdoor Attraction in the Attractions Ontario People’s Choice Awards, and were also named Ontario’s Attraction of the Year,” Mike states proudly. “We feel that our type of authentic experiences really connected with people during the pandemic and had a profound impact on them.”
Located just outside of Orono in Durham Region, Brimacombe is one of our premier ski and snowboard resorts. This not-for-profit facility has been in operation since the 1936/1937 season, and is one of the largest facilities in Southern Ontario south of the Collingwood area. With 23 trails, two chalets, seven lifts, a well-laid terrain park and racing programs, around 150,000 skiers visit per year. So naturally, COVID safety protocols are something this facility has become accustomed to in the past three years.
“We entered the 2021/2022 season as the Omicron variant began to take hold and the unknowns began to increase, so we decided to set the property up in the same manner as we had for the 2020/2021 season,” says Mark Rutherford, General Manager. “This allowed us to be flexible and responsive in our operations should we need to divert from the plan we had in place.” While restrictions on the outdoor operations components of the facility did ease some since the beginning, other restrictions remained in place like spaced line ups and discouraging congregation of people. As a result, in order to proactively control capacity, the resort continued to stringently enforce policies it had initially developed in year one, while evolving them to respond to the ongoing evolution of health and safety recommendations as it moved into year three.
“Brimacombe is working hard to ensure that its members, guests and employees are able to enjoy and work in the safest environment possible, and is using an abundance of caution,” Mark says. “We follow all COVID regulations and protocols. Members and guests visiting Brimacombe are required to wear masks or appropriate face coverings at all times while on the property unless seated in designated areas to consume food or drink—this includes while outdoors, on the lifts and slopes.”
In addition to these measures, all lines are spaced to allow proper physical distancing both indoors and outdoors, and Brimacombe has implemented a proof of vaccine requirement to enter either of its chalets. Portable washrooms are available around the property to reduce the need to go inside. This season, members and pass holders have full and unlimited access to the facility to enjoy the slopes as often and for as long as they wish, while day lift ticket sales are limited to 4-hour blocks. Brimacombe is recommending that non-members purchase their lift tickets online in advance to ensure they have a spot reserved, and that their “car to slope” time is minimal.
“Ultimately, everyone is in this together and facing daily challenges,” Mark points out. “For the most part, challenges are similar. We like everyone else are keeping up with the ever-changing regulations and requirements, and ensuring we are doing whatever we can to mitigate transmission with a special focus on keeping our staff healthy.” With the rapid spread of Omicron, Mark and his team are seeing a growing rate of staff absence due both to confirmed transmission and the caution surrounding contact tracing. This has left Brimacombe tight on staffing, with the need to shuffle departmental staff around to maintain services.
“These have been the toughest years of my career, and I can say the same for the rest of the management team,” he adds. “Leading in 2020/2021, we reinvented almost every aspect of our operations and the way we do business. The most difficult part of operating though this has been managing through times of increased angst in society. Though the majority of our visitors are grateful to be able to be outside and enjoying the facility, we, like almost all other businesses, are faced with our share of visitors who are angry in the world around us. The offset, of course, is seeing everyone out here having fun, getting exercise and enjoying the fruits of our collective labour.”
Alton Mill Fire and Ice Festival, Village of Alton
For over a decade, the Alton Mill Arts Centre, in the picturesque hamlet of Alton Village, Caledon, has been hosting its beloved Fire and Ice Festival each winter. This event is a celebration of the season, an antidote to the default mindset to hunker down in our heated homes and wait for spring. Unfortunately, for the past two years, operators of the Fire and Ice Festival were forced to cancel the event and seek alternate ways to deliver an experience to eager guests in the form of organized skating on the adjacent mill pond. The aim: to remind one and all that there will soon come a time when the festival is not only back, but bigger and better than ever—hopefully that time is winter, 2022/23.
“It was a difficult choice to cancel,” says Jeremy Grant, co-owner of the Alton Mill Arts Centre. “It was an emotional choice, as well as a business and practical one. So, it hits us two ways. The Fire and Ice Festival is a beloved tradition that we are hoping to build on. We’ve been hosting it for so many years that people now anticipate the event. It’s something we’re eager to continue, and understandably disappointed that we cannot this year.”
Last year, when faced with the same disappointing closure, Jeremy and his team opened up the mill pond to offer skating to guests as a nod to their popular Alton Mill Pond Hockey Classic, which is held at the time of the festival. The hope was that this would be a reminder to visitors that the cancellation was only temporary, and would encourage guests to keep the Fire and Ice Festival in the forefront of their minds so that the event would not lose momentum. This year, the Alton Mill is once again in the midst of plans to offer skating to the public, and to build on the success they had last season.
Of course, this means reviving and evolving protocols that were enacted in 2020/2021. “Last year, we had signage to encourage visitors to move apart and distance themselves,” says Martin Kouprie, event organizer and partner at the Alton Mill Arts Centre. “We also had to create a capacity limit, though because the skating feature was so new and people weren’t aware of it, we didn’t have to enforce any of the capacity restrictions last year because there weren’t many people out.”
This winter, because skating on the mill pond is in its second year, the Alton Mill anticipates more visitors, which means capacity will likely have to be monitored. As a result, they are currently developing a more formal process to uphold and enforce health and safety measures—particularly with regards to people coming inside the mill, which is still permitted. “Our hope is that people will linger,” Jeremy says. “There is no restriction on people going into the building if they want to get a hot chocolate, or if they want to check out the art studios and galleries, or use the washroom. We’re not in a lockdown, after all.” Thankfully, effective health and safety measures have already been developed for guests entering the mill, which include contact tracing, vaccine monitoring and hand sanitization.
That being said, because this pivot-event is still in the works and it is not yet known how popular skating on the pond may prove to be, the organizers acknowledge that more refined health and safety measures may become something to address, and are proactively mapping out potential scenarios to be implemented as needed. “As we get closer to the event, we will look at whether or not we want to invite large crowds into the mill at all,” Jeremy says. “If capacity becomes an issue, we may do a couple of pop-ups next to the pond as an alternative, where we’ll have a hot chocolate tent set up and maybe some snacks. Possibly even port-o-potties. But even if we have to postpone the Fire and Ice festival as a whole, we think this kind of thing is important to help build up the community spirit, to show everybody that we’re here, and to let them enjoy this beautiful space.”
Are you an outdoor attraction here in the York, Durham and Headwaters regions of Central Counties? Share photos and stories of how you are managing this winter, 2022, by tagging us on Facebook and Instagram (@CentralCountiesTourism) and Twitter (@CCT_RTO6). Let’s share our successes and our collective experiences!
Story by Katherine Ryalen