LODGE LIFE: THREE FAMILY-RUN OPERATIONS IN REMOTE NORTH AMERICA SHARE THE TRIUMPHS AND TRAVAILS
Fraser Murray of Nimmo Bay in the Great Bear Rainforest, Ellie Claus of Ultima Thule Lodge in Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, and Carly Potgeiter of Alaska’s Within the Wild Lodges all grew up helping their families run lodges in off-the-grid wilderness. The three discuss how you know when it’s time to pass the torch, crafting a luxury wilderness experience, and the difficulties (and joys) of getting guests to relax and appreciate nature…
Q: Did all of you always see yourselves staying in the family business, and how hard was it for your parents to relinquish control?
Fraser: “Nimmo was originally a fishing lodge – that was my dad’s vision, but at some point just marketing heli-fly fishing wasn’t cutting it. I started guiding at age five and have always been involved. I took over about six years ago with the idea of still offering fishing, but also more adventures like SUP and free diving that would genuinely connect people to nature. It was really difficult for my dad to let go, but he’s finally given me the reins. I try to be respectful of what my parents have done; that’s really important. I look at what went well and see how we can improve on it, rather than scrap what previous generations accomplished.”
Ellie: “My whole family is still very involved in the day-to-day. My mom still runs dinner prep and cooks fantastic meals. My dad is still the main pilot. They let me be in charge of whatever I feel I should be in charge of. We’re growing the lodge together. My mom used to take bookings by mail – I don’t even know how that was possible! It would take three weeks to respond… My generation has a different mindset; I had to explain: if you don’t respond today, by email, they’re going to book elsewhere. The experience used to be a little bit more cowboy and I’ve refined things. My dad thinks people get bored looking at the view from the plane. I have to remind him that this is their first time here, versus this is our life and what we do and see every day. My dad has done certain things his whole life, so I try to get him to take a step back; I’ll make suggestions like, bring bubbly to lunch on the glacier, or buy new camp chairs.”
Carly: “There’s a phenomena known as founder’s disease – founders have to pass things on but have a hard time letting go of certain things. My dad, for example, still likes to pay all the bills by cheque. I’ll gently suggest, ‘Hey, we could pay it all online automatically’, but it’s his habit so we let him do that. But there are some things where my sister and I have put our foot down. It took years to convince my dad that we needed to hire someone to update our photos and videos on our website. Our public image didn’t match the experience – even guests had told me that our website and marketing materials didn’t scratch the surface of encapsulating the experience. Other things have to be a hostile takeover: my sister and I made the decision, without our parents blessing, to have three chefs rather than one in the kitchen and the food is more elevated now.”
Q: What are the biggest challenges of trying to deliver a ‘luxury’ experience in a remote wilderness setting?
Fraser: “Justifying the cost of Nimmo is a challenge – people think they should pay downtown Vancouver prices. Our lodge is half-floating and it’s very expensive to get high-quality food here. The location is extremely wet, so everything needs constant maintenance. We have an incredibly short season – five months – and because of that revenues are cut short. My goal is to get off diesel by 70% in the next five years and move to batteries. It’s not about being perfect today, but always improving.”
Ellie: “When I first meet the guests arriving at the lodge, I always say, ‘As you walk around look at everything and remember that it all arrived the same way you did: on multiple airplanes from the city. The toilet paper, the nails that built this property, every little thing got here the same way. Like Fraser, we often find ourselves having to justify the cost. The cost of human resources in Alaska is outrageous. Some African lodges have a staff of 300. We’re so lucky to maintain our tiny staff of 24 and we need to pay them a liveable wage. If we want to have excellent food and guides, it’s going to cost more because of our location.
It’s important to remind people that luxury is being in a wild place. You may have been to the Alps or on safari in Africa, but it’s nothing like flying for two hours in an airplane and seeing wilderness that no human has ever touched. It makes you feel small and remote – there’s incredible beauty in that. People are overwhelmed by how far out in the middle of nowhere they are – and then they get it and say wow, how are you so modern but yet you’re so removed from civilisation.”
Carly: “I like to use the catchphrase, ‘We specialise in the luxury of rare experiences.’ My mom and Ellie’s dad like to say we go to places every day where no other human has been before, because we can – our backyard is vast. We’ve had people get to experience things no one ever has or will. The rareness of that is a luxury. The undamaged area we are in is rare luxury.”
Q: How do you manage expectations?
Fraser: “People’s perception of adventure is different and that’s a challenge. We’ve given a lot of thought as to how to manage expectations. Before booking we get as much out of the guest as possible, so we can make sure we’re the right fit. We have to remind people that this isn’t a Discovery Channel TV show. We have to educate people about what a wilderness experience is. We get guests who say they want to see a spirit bear; well, there are no spirit bears here. One family might come back to the lodge having seen 100 orcas, while another group didn’t see anything the same day. Nature changes day to day. We do our due diligence with our marketing. We don’t put photos on the website of guests SUPing with dolphins. You can do it, but it takes time and extra guides and a lot of factors have to align to make it happen. We can’t control the weather and the wildlife, but what we can control and manage is the service, the food – we make sure we have that nailed down.”
Ellie: “I would much rather not have client if they aren’t the right client for the property. There are less-than-glamorous parts of being in the wilderness and I don’t want to put a false light on the experience. The guest needs to want that kind of experience. I’m sometimes two-or-three levels removed from my guests because of how they book; sometimes travel agents, especially new ones, don’t understand the client expectation ahead of time – they just want to make a sale. Working with agents is critical for finding the right match and the meetings I have with agents at PURE allow me to explain the property in a way that just can’t happen over the phone.
I travel quite a bit and it’s a reminder of what it feels like to see a new place for the first time and to take note of what the guides or lodge did to make the experience cooler. I’m always thinking about how we can be better experience facilitators, instead of just rough-and-tumble guides. It’s important for me to know what a client has seen and done. That enables me to understand them on another level and craft the right experience.”
Carly: “It starts with the booking process. We talk to guests and remind them frequently that we are in a wild place and that there is a big difference between Alaska and other remote places in the U.S. This is vast wilderness. We have to get people to trust us and part of that is developing relationships with travel agents. That’s why conferences like PURE are so important. Higher quality agents know us and know their guests and that really helps match us with the right people. We had a woman who criticised us for not cleaning up the bear scat in the woods, as if it were a groomed trail system. One year the Internet went down at Winterlake Lodge while a group of hedge fund managers were staying with us and they panicked because their travel agent had promised them WiFi. I eventually said, ‘Were you not looking for a wilderness experience? Because part of what that means in Alaska is that we don’t have control over these things.’ If something has to be built or fixed, we can’t just call for a repair, or send a crew out to do it. We need to plan. They still had a hard time understanding that; they just weren’t the right guests.”
Q: How hard is it to attract and keep talented and motivated staff in such remote spots?
Fraser: “Getting return employees is our goal. It provides a richer experience for guests. But we need to pay them a liveable wage and create incentives to not just stay, but care. We provide guide training each year and are trying to build a guide training course with the First Nations community and local school. Hiking and kayaking are easy skills to teach, but service is different. We look for our staff’s passion points, just as we do with our guests. We find out if they’re into film, photography, marine research and help match that passion to their job and make them part of the decision-making process. It’s hard to teach people to be giving of themselves, especially when things are going south. Burnout is real in this business and we make sure staff get enough time off. Being so remote for such a length of time can be hard, so we invite staff to bring their friends and family to Nimmo to help them feel like being in the wilderness is a part of life and not a life apart.
Ellie: “Our season runs from April through September and our guest-to-staff ratio is 2:1. We look for people who want the same lifestyle we do. That’s the bottom line of why my family does what we do. We love living in a remote place, taking care of ourselves and sharing with our crew and our guests. When we find people of that like mind who want to be part of our community, things flow naturally. Over the years, the biggest change I’ve made is making the schedule more accommodating to our lifestyle, rather than having it just revolve around the guest. In the past, guests would want to come and we’d bend over backwards. We don’t do that anymore. There are set days of the week where all of our crew can go explore or have family members visit. We make sure to give staff time off. If we had guests every day of the summer and didn’t give the team a break, then the end-of-summer experience would be vastly different for the guest. If we take really good care of our people, then they take really good care of you.”
Carly: “It’s a hard lifestyle. Lodge work in Alaska is probably the hardest work known to man and the level of service we offer is intense. We devote a lot of time to finding the right people. Our guides are career guides, not college kids on summer break. This is their lifestyle choice.”
How can being family-run still give you an edge over bigger, corporate-run hotels and lodge experiences?
Fraser: “We’re like the small mom ‘n’ pop corner store competing against Whole Foods, but I think our clients get that. We’re an intimate lodge and that means we can adapt to client needs. In some ways our strengths are our weaknesses. But we try to find a silver lining in everything. Our family and staff can really connect with the guests and form lasting relationships that continue long after they’ve checked out.”
Ellie: “We pour our entire lives into the guest experience. When people’s expectations are exceeded, they start crying when it’s time to leave. We are very deliberate about building relationships with our guests and by the end of the stay it’s like saying goodbye to a long-lost cousin. A lot of clients stay in touch and send Christmas cards. I had six birthday emails recently from guests I’ve met over the years. Involving guests in the story of your operation is something money can’t buy. You’re visiting on a level that makes the guest feel like a friend.”
Carly: “This is our home. I grew up at Winterlake. I have a bedroom there. People feel like they are being welcomed into our home and we are genuinely excited to show people what we love about Alaska and our lifestyle. You’d never hear our employees say, ‘That’s not our job’, because they think this is their home too. I hate the word ‘authenticity’, but we are really authentic. Most people in the lodge business don’t make it and a lot of corporate-owned places experience a lot of turnover in management, simply because most people cannot do this kind of work unless they love it. It’s what we’ve always done. It’s our identity, so we do it with joy. When guests tell us they loved the experience and we ask why, we often get, ‘It was you and your family and the way you made us feel.’ They feel like part of the story and nowadays people are looking for meaning.”
Jen Murphy is a Colorado-based writer whose work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Outside, Men’s Journal and Departures.