Fishing Lodges Grapple to Find a Hook

Chinook Salmon/King Salmon | BCBusiness

For B.C.’s sports fishing lodges, survival comes down to identifying a unique niche and shrewd marketing, regardless of whether the fish are biting 

In March, Northwest Angling Adventures Ltd., proprietors of the King Pacific Lodge wilderness resort, silently made an assignment into bankruptcy. A seasonal resort in the Great Bear Rainforest renowned for its ocean fishing and fly-fishing expeditions, King Pacific Lodge was on Condé Nast Traveler’s Gold List from 2009 to 2012 and won the celebrated travel brand’s 2011 Reader’s Choice Award for No. 1 Resort in Canada—the same year it snagged Travel + Leisure’s Global Vision Award for sustainability in a luxury setting. Yet in the summer of 2013 it didn’t even open its doors.

“You don’t get into the fishing industry to make money,” says Brian Grange, vice-president of West Coast Fishing Club, a sports fishing operator based on Haida Gwaii.

Business was good in the 1990s, he says, when competition among lodges was more for fish than beds. Things dropped off after 9/11, then improved again in 2006/2007, when all of B.C.’s fishing lodges enjoyed full occupancy and expansion. When the stock market crashed in 2008, however, things changed again for B.C.’s sports fishing lodges—and fast. That year, St. John’s Fishing Lodge Ltd., operating in Kitimat, fell upon financial hardship and closed its doors. In 2009, employees of Rivers Inlet Resort told CTV BC that their paycheques had bounced and that the company faced declaring bankruptcy. Big Time Sport Fishing BC Ltd. vanished in a deluge of unanswered emails and disconnected phone numbers in 2010. West Coast Resorts, which operated five high-end fishing lodges in northern B.C., filed for protection from creditors under the Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act in July 2011. (Haida Enterprise Corp. has since bought a controlling interest in the company, and it has resurfaced.)

The WCFC also struggled since 2008, Grange says, seeing its business decrease by 30 per cent one year. But its three lodges survived by embracing counterintuitive methods. “It wasn’t about selling more seats. We had to go in the opposite direction; a fine-dining model with guest chef appearances, wine cellars, better boats, higher levels of service… We’ve gone for a model of key differentiation in a commoditized market,” says Grange.

Individuality appears to be the trump card. The Oak Bay Marine Group’s MV Charlotte Princess, anchored just off Langara Island, targets dyed-in-the-wool fishermen, offering a more rustic experience and, according to its website, it sold out its 2013 season. Nimmo Bay Wilderness Resort owner Fraser Murray added adventure, wilderness and eco-tourism to his roster of fishing expeditions. He expects to see 30 per cent growth in 2013.

Grange says the WCFC lodges were at full occupancy throughout its 2013 season. “There’s a 90-per cent chance that our customer will be back within three years, and an 84-per cent chance they’ll be back within two years,” says Grange. “We’re a bucket-list trip to some, and a bucket-list trip that you’ve got to take twice to a lot of others.”