Small businesses lose millions in tourism revenue

Business owners facing unpredictable future

The village is empty after COVID-19 shut the resort on March 18. Photo SPIN

As small businesses in Sun Peaks each individually grapple with their futures in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the collective scale of the economic impact of closing the ski season four weeks early on March 18 is becoming clear. As doors were locked and staff were sent back to their homes around the globe, millions of dollars that would’ve been spent in the resort slipped away.

SPIN contacted 74 businesses in the community, 34 of which shared their lost revenue and 38 of which shared the amount of staff who were laid off or lost their jobs.

The total loss over the 34 businesses which shared is an estimated $4,514,900 and 224 jobs, not including Sun Peaks Resort LLP, the Sun Peaks Grand Hotel or Bear Country, the largest employers in the village. This accounts for the last four weeks of the winter season, and no anticipated losses going forward.

“The business cycle in Sun Peaks is brutal in that we tend to build up debt through the later summer and fall and then extinguish the debt in the first two months of winter,” one business owner told SPIN. “February income tends to cover operating expenses for the current winter, given that most income prior to February is still just covering debt, then March is the gravy. By March we’re usually flush and income earned helps us pay for taxes and get us into the summer before we start back into debt.”

That sentiment was echoed by other owners forced to close by the pandemic.

Nick Cundari owner of the Sundance Liquor Store said the resort’s closure has heavily impacted their businesses despite being able to offer online orders and delivery.

“SPR is really the economic engine of Sun Peaks and without them operational, business is really not sustainable,” said Cundari. “Every operational winter day is so valuable to the businesses up here. It’s also hard to lose the end of the season because, due to the seasonal nature of the business, you spend the first half of the season digging yourself out of the hole created by the off season, and your profit really comes in at the end of the season. New Years Eve power outage was another painful blow, many businesses were still trying to recover from when this hit.”

Tourism Sun Peaks (TSP) president Arlene Schieven confirmed the season was on track to end strong.

“It was definitely going very well, we had a really strong February and March,.” she said “With all of the key events we had we were definitely looking at an increase in March.,” she said. “Then with the closing on March 18 we saw a loss of about a third compared to last March and I think we would’ve expected to be a bit above that as well.”

But even businesses like Cundari’s that can remain open are being hurt by the virus and early closure.

Mountain High Pizza has remained open with hours and practises shifting depending on demand and recommendations from health authorities.

Despite being currently open for takeout and delivery at dinner, owner Ryan Schmalz said business is down around 60 per cent, compared to May of 2019, which is already one of the slowest months of the year.

He has also cut down to a skeleton crew, keeping one person working in the restaurant and one delivering orders.

“And there are only two restaurants open in all of Sun Peaks. Last May there were 10 others open.”

Other types of businesses have also seen huge financial impacts.

Rowyn Neufeld and Tobias Koller of 3 Peaks Rentals said the sudden close was still hard despite trying to prepare themselves for the local impact as they watched other resorts in Europe and North America close.

“We got the news, gave our staff the last two days to ski, did one final clean and they were gone,” Neufeld said. “It was sad to see people we worked with for a whole season and had grown to really enjoy spending time with having to leave.”

The couple said they are already receiving cancellations into the summer and even next winter, but have also received requests for long term rentals in the meantime. On April 6, Sun Peaks Mountain Resort Municipality issued a request for anyone who is not a permanent resident in the community not to travel to the resort.

While bookings have dropped, they said, they are trying to create other work for people by offering insurance walkthroughs and home checks for those that can’t make it up the mountain to their properties.

“We’re trying to stay optimistic but it’s hard,” she said. “It was quite a hit to us.
“At the end of the day we just want to do what’s best for Sun Peaks. It’s about sticking together, doing the right thing and helping those that might need help.”

Koller added he hopes to focus on how to encourage people to visit when travel is safe again.

“It can be scary for people to start booking again but humans have an innate want to travel. We can convey we are open again once it’s safe.”

While most businesses were forced to shut, others have found themselves even more needed by the community.

Rory Edwards, owner of Bluebird Market, said he had to make some staffing changes and is also trying to balance bringing in items residents may need while not wasting food. The market has implemented a phone in grocery order option and other safety precautions.

Bobbe Lyall, owner of Ohana Deli Market, said her business has shifted from more luxury foods to staples and produce for residents to avoid trips to town. Lyall has designated the first opening hour for those shoppers who are immunocompromised, and is working with supplier Gordon Food Services to offer full case orders for families.

Despite seeing more use from residents both grocery stores have seen a decrease in revenue with the loss of sales to tourists.

Sun Peaks Cargo has also been called upon for delivery of groceries and other necessities from Kamloops.

Jodi Shaw said their grocery delivery business has increased but they have lost freight deliveries of things like cleaning supplies, commercial food and liquor or linen due to the resort closing.

Sun Peaks isn’t the only community where small businesses are facing unprecedented uncertainty.

A survey by Insights West revealed 65 per cent of small businesses owners are very worried about the negative financial impact and only 55 per cent think emergency aid from the Federal government will be effective.

Another concern highlighted in the survey is that nine per cent of respondents said it will definitely or probably force them to close for good. Seven per cent of businesses surveyed say this will force them to declare bankruptcy,

TSP’s Schieven said how far the impact will last remains to be seen, but a survey of business owners indicated many would be ready to open in July, if safe, with limited hours or operational changes.

“Just know that we are in communication with all the different partners and will be ready to go whenever that is.”