Lessons learned on a trip to Canada’s Rocky Mountains
Lessons learned on a trip to Canada’s Rocky Mountains
12 SEPTEMBER 2016 7:48 AM

Destination travel is changing, and resort properties and hotels must market the unique experiences their regions offer—like the fly fishing and birch syrup I discovered during a stay this summer in British Columbia.

In my ongoing pursuit for hotels in every corner of the world that are taking chances and offering truly exceptional experiences for their guests, I recently found myself in Cranbrook, British Columbia, at St. Eugene Golf Resort & Casino, a 125-room property built 15 years ago.

Located in the East Kootenays—which is the easternmost valley of the Rocky Mountains with the Purcell range to its west—the region is not only the sunniest part of the province but one of the few areas of the world that has more elk than people. Also close to the United States border, Cranbrook has long catered to the forestry industry while the neighboring villages of Kimberley and Fernie are skiing meccas.

While visiting St. Eugene in early June, I observed sweltering outside temperatures and instant proof for how Interior British Columbia is able to make such great wines at such a northern latitude. While winter sports were out of the question, the purpose of my trip was to test out some of the new summer activities the resort has packaged including fly fishing, whitewater rafting and helicopter tours of the majestic Fisher Peak.

The global spread of adventure tourism
I am normally an old curmudgeon when it comes to this sort of adventure tourism, but as a responsible hotelier I have set my reluctance aside because this is already a big business and likely the future of all resort travel. That is to say, while urban markets will always be able to lure in prospective guests with their proximity to convention centers, great attractions, shopping, nightlife, museums and historic sites, trips to rural or resort properties must offer experiential activities to set themselves apart.

We are already seeing this to a great extent with “sun destination” travel where it’s no longer just about a resort’s plush guestrooms or the cleanliness of the beach, but what the territory has to offer and, more importantly, how activities are packaged into half-day or full-day experiences that require little to no planning on the guest’s part.

While popular resort regions targeting the North American and European markets like Central America, the Mayan Riviera, Caribbean islands like Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica, and even as far as French Polynesia are saturated with these sorts of adventure packages—with each offering its own local authentic flair such as Mayan ruins tours when in that part of Mexico—what I learned from my trip to St. Eugene is that this trend is worldwide and will soon be an expectation for all travelers.

Not just leisure tourists with fat wallets, but everyone from the young family on a budget to the eloping wedding party or the business group on a corporate retreat. We no longer want to simply visit; we want to do.

Experiencing the East Kootenays
Nature is exactly what I got at St. Eugene. Touting itself as the best place in the world for fly fishing, I only had an hour or so for a brief tutorial as I was escorted out to the nearby St. Mary River on the hunt for the elusive cutthroat trout. The experience definitely gave me a greater appreciation for what attracts people to angling. Then, while the progression of my Ménière’s disease over the decades and its vertiginous effect on my inner ear kept me on the shore during whitewater rafting, I did suit up for a helicopter tour of the Rocky Mountains. Captivating, breathtaking, awe-inspiring—pick your adjective and that’s what it’s like to get up close and personal with the still snowcapped peaks and glacial turquoise lakes.

The lesson through all this for every hotelier is that you have to start thinking of your property as just the beginning of the guest’s journey. Undoubtedly your region has exceptional, authentic and interactive experiences to offer, and it’s your responsibility to bring them to your customer’s attention. If you don’t, travelers will inevitably migrate to other hotels or territories where these adventures are available and marketed.

Birch is the new maple
A full day packed with these outdoor Rocky Mountain adventures had me famished. Luckily, I was in more than capable hands, as any good resort hotel will marry great experiences with exceptional food and beverage. The big takeaway, though, is that resort properties, no matter their locale, must be equally as bold and experiment just as much with their culinary presentation as the classical restaurant nerve centers of Paris, London, New York City, Rome or Tokyo. In St. Eugene, I experienced Executive Chef Ronny Belkin’s infusion of birch syrup into just about everything on the menu.

Like its maple counterpart, birch syrup comes in a spectrum of colors, with amber and amber gold suitable for direct application to salad vinaigrettes or a sandwich glaze, while the dark grade has a flavor somewhere between black molasses and cough syrup. It’s not nearly as sweet as maple syrup, and this is likely why birch syrup has yet to take Canadian or American culture by storm. But if you mix the dark grade into barbecue sauce, it’s quite delicious.

Chef Belkin was brought aboard last autumn to help rebrand St. Eugene’s previously fine dining establishment into a barbeque smokehouse with a bona fide Interior British Columbia vibe. Plunking down for a meal of smoked and charred meats, it only took one bite for me to realize why he lathers everything from elk steaks to bison ribs in his patented birch barbecue sauce. It’s a taste that’s wholly unique to the region and yet another example of how your hotel should always be on the lookout for the next big thing.

Aside from its acrid taste which necessitates blending, the other birch syrup is also more expensive than its maple cousin. I’m hardly a dendrologist so don’t quote me on these figures, but, as a ballpark example, ten gallons of maple sap may reduce to ten quarts of Grade A syrup while ten gallons of birch sap may only net you one unit of profitable liquid. If St. Eugene has any say in it, then birch syrup will indeed become the next maple syrup and economies of scale will alleviate this issue, but for now, birch syrup in commercial quantities is a hefty expense. Chef Belkin took a big monetary risk by sourcing this ingredient, but it’s paid off in the form of barbecued foods you can’t get anywhere else.

Ultimately for you and the rest of your senior management team, this is yet another example of why you shouldn’t micromanage your culinary team. You have to give them the resources, both in budget and in time, to tinker with their chosen craft in order to devise something that is ostensibly one-of-a-kind. I’m a diehard believer that great F&B is essential to overall guest satisfaction, so do yourself a favor and see what can be done in this regard in tandem with your pursuit for other local authentic experiences.

Larry Mogelonsky is the founder of LMA Communications Inc., an award-winning hospitality marketing agency. He’s also a member of Cayuga Hospitality Consultants, G7 Hospitality and Laguna Strategic Advisors. He has published three books including “Are You an Ostrich or a Llama?”, “Llamas Rule” and “Hotel Llama”.

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