Can B.C.’s heli- and cat-ski industry survive COVID-related travel bans?

As Phase 3 of the provincial government's plan to reopen the B.C. economy unfolded in June, COVID-19 considerations were keeping Beat Steiner, co-owner and CEO of Bella Coola Heli Sports, awake at night. "It's pretty much all I've been thinking about," Steiner says from his home office in Whistler. No...

Credit: Eric Berger/Bella Coola Heli Sports

ONLY THE STRONG: A Bella Coola Heli Sports chopper drops off guests in the Coast Mountains

Think your business has it tough with the pandemic? Long dependent on foreign visitors, heli- and cat-skiing operators throughout the province face a choppy ride this winter

As Phase 3 of the provincial government’s plan to reopen the B.C. economy unfolded in June, COVID-19 considerations were keeping Beat Steiner, co-owner and CEO of Bella Coola Heli Sports, awake at night. “It’s pretty much all I’ve been thinking about,” Steiner says from his home office in Whistler.

No wonder he’s worried. COVID hit many businesses hard, but it’s left the future of heli-skiing and cat-skiing, a B.C.-born brand of high-end recreation that generated $213 million for local operators last year, hanging in the balance. The pandemic is revealing cracks in the industry’s business model, which for decades has relied on visitors from abroad. As long as the province remains closed to most international travel, Steiner and his competitors can forget about shuttling wealthy foreign skiers into the province’s vast backcountry for a fix of powder snow.

Bella Coola Heli Sports has a commercial heli-skiing tenure in the Coast Range that is roughly the size of Switzerland and owns historic Tweedsmuir Park Lodge, its main base of winter and summer operations. In winter, Steiner and his team also ski out of four other small satellite operations at privately owned lodges throughout its domain.

Steiner commends the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy program, which covers salaries up to 75 percent, a boost he says Bella Coola desperately needs to keep as many as 88 staff ready to welcome heli-skiers for a 2020-21 season that would typically start in late December. If the province’s second wave of COVID-19 keeps worsening and international travel bans remain, it’s all for naught.

“With caseloads climbing in B.C. and Europe and the disaster unfolding in the U.S., I have to admit we are starting to lose faith because it does not look like borders will be opening anytime soon,” Steiner says. (The Canadian border remains closed to non-essential travel from countries except the U.S.)

Thankfully, he notes, Bella Coola has deep-pocketed investors who can weather a few lean seasons, and bookings from hopeful Europeans and Americans remain strong. But the company faces other unique challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic. During the early days of B.C.’s COVID lockdown in March, in an effort to protect its 900 members from the disease, the Nuxalk Nation opened an information checkpoint on Highway 20 urging non-residents and tourists to stay out of its traditional Bella Coola Valley. In May, the nation renewed calls for all non-essential travellers to keep away, forcing Bella Coola to suspend its summer season of $1,000-plus-per-night bear viewing, heli-hiking and fly-fishing holidays.

Steiner says maintaining a good relationship with the Nuxalk is crucial to his company’s survival, and he understands why the local Indigenous community is cautious. He also thinks the B.C. government can do a better job explaining to rural communities that it’s safe to open for tourism outfits observing the right health protocols. 

“We feel that we can safely keep our staff and guests separate from the local community,” Steiner argues. “If travel bans are lifted but we can’t operate because of local issues, that’s another problem. We need some sort of mediation to help us through this. Right now, we’re focused on the winter season.”

The $10,000 question

The province is home to more than 40 heli- and cat-skiing companies operating everywhere there are mountains, from the Coast Range to the Southern Selkirks near Nelson. Together, they employ nearly 1,800 people and contribute $89 million in household income. The industry has enjoyed substantial growth in recent years—from 2016 to 2019, total skier days grew 20 percent, to almost 118,500. However, high-end powder skiing mostly depends on affluent foreign customers. Though the level of reliance varies from company to company, more than 90 percent of those who typically occupy seats in snow cats and helicopters have American or European passports and can afford to pay up $10,000 for a week of skiing.

Unless these companies can find a way to get foreign guests into the country safely without posing a health risk to fellow skiers, staff and the communities in which they operate, the 2020-21 season could be a bust, says Ross Cloutier, executive director of HeliCat Canada, which lobbies and advocates on behalf of its 21 heli-skiing and 14 cat-skiing members. According to Cloutier, some operators simply won’t survive a season of zero revenue, especially after the pandemic caused an early shutdown in mid-March, around the time that three Americans heli-skiing with three different companies tested positive for COVID. The closure cost operators between $60 million and $70 million in lost revenue, he reckons.

That’s why HeliCat Canada has been focused on getting health measures in place, including personal protective equipment for staff and guests and Plexiglas shields between seats in the helicopters. However, the looming bigger question is whether companies will even be able to get their guests into the country.

“We think it’s possible to create a quarantine bubble, but I think folks are coming to the realization that the borders will not be open and are now determining what that all means for them,” Cloutier says in late August. “Some are close to announcing that they will close, while others are rejigging.”

Chris McNamara co-owns and manages Retallack, a cat-skiing and mountain-biking operation tucked into the Selkirk Mountains between the Kootenay towns of Kaslo and New Denver. The 25-year-old company, which has carved out a niche with expert skiers thanks to steep, treed terrain, has 85-percent repeat customers. When BCBusiness reached McNamara at his Nelson home in July, Retallack was running a limited summer mountain biking program.

Given the nature of the business and the inherent threat of avalanches, McNamara likens running a cat- or heli-skiing company to being in risk management. He believes the spirit of cooperation between businesses is helping the sector adapt to a new reality and operating procedures.

“The problem is, so many things are up in the air. It’s certainly possible that we won’t be able to operate if there’s another lockdown,” says McNamara, who is also VP of HeliCat Canada. “I’d say overall, given the situation, government is doing a pretty good job, but the tourism sector is getting hammered.”

Pivot to what?

Megan Osak thinks government should do more. Eight years ago, she and her husband bought the oldest cat-skiing operation in B.C., Selkirk Snowcat Skiing, founded by late industry pioneer Alan Drury. Today, 65 percent of the company’s clientele is foreign, and general manager Osak says the best-case scenario for the coming winter is to break even. 

“The alternative would be to shut for the season, risk losing our staff and still have to pay our overhead costs,” she explains. “We are already moving forward with our plans to defer our U.S. and international clients to the 2021-22 season and fill our lodge with domestic skiers. We are a small operator and expect to be able to fill 300 seats.”

Cat-skiing is “a low-margin industry with huge up-front costs,” Osak adds. “Most operators are putting off making any decisions until the fall, but the unknown is stressful, and it takes months to get these operations up and running.”

Osak says the province could help relieve financial stress with some specific measures, like reducing the provincial corporate tax rate and temporarily waiving tenure fees and employer contributions to employment insurance and the Canada Pension Plan.

“The only thing the government has really done so far is suggest that operators pivot and welcome B.C. residents,” she says. “What they don’t realize is, where are these operators going to find 40,000 skiers willing to pay $1,500 to $2,500 per day to ski?”

HeliCat Canada’s Cloutier agrees. “Destination BC’s focus on domestic travel doesn’t work for heli-skiing,” he says.

Out of necessity, the province’s arm’s-length destination marketing organization has had to pivot its own efforts away from attracting inbound travellers, at least in the short term. Marsha Walden, president and CEO of Destination BC Corp., admits that “this is a tragedy for the tourism sector.” Walden says she understands the challenges facing heli- and cat-skiing operators as they try to plan for the winter season.

On the plus side, she observes, there’s at least a chance that international travel restrictions will loosen by the time the snow flies in the mountains of B.C. By contrast, many of the sport-fishing lodges, guest ranches and other luxury boutique tourism businesses that appeal to a similar affluent foreign traveller couldn’t open their doors for the summer season and are staring down a bleak balance sheet for 2020.

“There’s no reconciling the need to promote domestic travel just so we can salvage a tourism season with the fact that heli- and cat-skiing companies can’t easily pivot to a different market or clientele,” Walden says. “The best they can do is to ready themselves for when they are able to open.”

That might be cold comfort for some companies if the global pandemic prevents them from opening their doors this winter.

Credit: CMH

Heli-skiing pioneer Hans Gmoser

Up, Up and Away

The B.C. heli-skiing industry took off thanks to one man’s pioneering efforts almost 60 years ago

On a cold February day in 1963, Austrian-born Hans Gmoser loaded a helicopter with skis and skiers to fly into the Bugaboos, a glacier-shrouded group of granite spires in southeast B.C.’s Purcell Mountains. Gmoser, who had immigrated to Edmonton in 1951, was already a well-established mountain guide. He was also an entrepreneur who in 1959 launched Banff-based Rocky Mountain Guides, which would later become Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH). Gmoser credited Calgary geologist and avid skier Art Patterson with the idea of accessing powder snow by chopper.

His first guinea-pig guests paid $20 (roughly $170 in today’s currency) for a day of heli-skiing and overnighted at a logging camp. Though others had used helicopters for such trips in Alaska and Europe during the 1950s, Gmoser’s pioneering Bugaboos foray launched a high-end industry that put B.C. on the global map as a premier destination for powder skiing.

As demand for this exclusive experience grew, so did CMH. The company, now called CMH Heli-Skiing and Summer Adventures and owned by Denver-headquartered Alterra Mountain Co., has 12 lodges, 500 employees and 15,000 square kilometres of commercial recreation tenure in B.C. Gmoser died in 2006 after a cycling accident near Banff. –A.F.