By expanding a reliably performing tourism business—Thunderbird RV Park—Wei Wai Kum Nation is investing in economic development to reach new markets, providing significant new sources of revenue and employment for its people.
At A Glance
Vancouver Island-based Wei Wai Kum Nation is serving up a powerful example of how First Nations are investing in the expansion of reliably performing tourism businesses to create significant new sources of revenue and jobs for their people.
Blessed with a beautiful territory that reaches from Topaze Harbour and the headwaters of Loughborough Inlet in the north to Tsable River in the south, this Nation of about 800 people now centers its government in Campbell River. It was there that this river, bursting with out-sized salmon and depositing sediment on its endless eastward rush into Discovery Passage, created the sandy finger of land now known as Tyee Spit. Offering safe harbour to canoes from southeastern storms and rich with traditional foods like berries and deer, the Spit and surrounding area has been used by the Wei Wai Kum people for fishing, living, and playing.
Thirty-seven years ago, Wei Wai Kum leaders decided to turn a piece of Tyee Spit that forms part of its largest reserve into a public campground. Thanks largely to Sandra Malone, a Wei Wai Kum member who has managed it since 1992, the Thunderbird RV Park has been cultivated into a friendly, service-oriented campsite for RVs and tenters. Each year it hosts a highly successful annual fishing derby and barbecue, and about 80 percent of its clientele returns year after year.
“That campground has always done well economically,” says Chief Councillor Bob Pollard, who’s lived on this reserve with about half the Nation’s approximately 800 members all his life.
In 2007, when Coast Funds came into being (read about that here), Wei Wai Kum Nation quickly developed conservation initiatives. Leaders like Chief Pollard began asking: How best should it invest funds into economic development projects —launch a new business, or build on one of the Nation’s existing ones? This very entrepreneurial Nation has launched several successful ventures since opening Thunderbird in 1980—including a marina, marine fuel service, and a shopping centre.
Can This Asset Do More?
Pollard was perceiving signals that maybe Thunderbird’s true potential hadn’t yet been tapped, and he wasn’t alone. Malone was watching client demographics shift over time. “We’re seeing fewer families, and more people who are downsizing—getting rid of their homes and RVing full-time, and taking advantage of a low Canadian dollar,” says Malone. More and more guests are coming from overseas (Europe, primarily), seeking ecotourism activities, like whale-watching and bear viewing, and introductions to indigenous cultures—and they are willing to stay for weeks. Some park visitors are local to Campbell River and work from home, and feel the need to “get away” for the summer—but not too far. Others are just working in the area temporarily, or are vacationing from elsewhere on Vancouver Island and choosing to avoid ferry fees. It all adds up to unceasing demand for the park’s 53 serviced RV sites, with many sites booked a year in advance and up to 30 RVs a day being turned away during the high season.
At the same time, the park’s tenting area was under-used, sometimes generating as little as $1,500 a year, and there were more and more unsolicited inquiries about whether Thunderbird had cottages.
“The question became: Can Thunderbird do more for us?” says Chief Pollard. Inspired by another Indigenous community that was profitably flying groups of trout-fishers into a remote location, Pollard started generating ideas with Wei Wai Kum Council members and band staff, Malone, and Coast Funds. “Everyone was involved,” he remembers. “We recognized that you have to have something more than a campground. It was amazing, all the ideas that came out to attract people. And sure, some went in the wastebasket!”
It was amazing, all the ideas that came out to attract people.
Cottages looked like a promising way to reach an additional market. Rachel Wiley, who was working for the Nation as a cultural tourism coordinator at the time, developed a comprehensive plan with detailed cash projections, and communicated it persuasively in a presentation to Chief and Council. “She was instrumental,” affirmed Malone, to Pollard’s enthusiastic agreement.
Armed with Wiley’s calculations, Wei Wai Kum members debated tough questions in a series of planning meetings held in collaboration with Coast Funds. Should the cottages be basic and rustic, or more like condos? One storey or two? To what level should they be made accessible? Ultimately, Wei Wai Kum chose a cross between beach cottage and nice hotel, made two of the cottages two-storey, and ensured that all of the cottages (and onsite showers for RV guests) were reasonably accessible on the ground floor. “That really didn’t make much difference in terms of cost,” notes Chief Pollard.
Where to put the cottages was another question. No one was keen to move the business’s most loyal RV customers, with their coveted seaside views, to make way for cottages. But it became clear that optimizing views for those higher-end services was in the Nation’s best interest. The Nation opted to rededicate six of those seaside sites for cottages, and apply for a second phase of Coast Funds’ investment towards construction of 18 additional fully-serviced RV sites.
Further analysis also revealed that, rather than five cottages, it made more sense to construct four cottages and additional space for onsite laundry, storage, and guest showers. This would support cottage servicing, expand services for guests, and generate additional revenue.
Once funding from Coast Funds was approved, cottage construction began in Fall 2015. Additional RV site construction followed in Fall 2016.
Building Up and Out
As contractors were hired and cottage construction began, Malone found herself juggling full-time park management responsibilities with those of a general contractor. Sensing staff overload, the Nation engaged Highland Engineering & Surveying to occupy that role. From then on, according to Malone, construction was “almost stress-free”—well, almost.
By avoiding construction during the lucrative tourism season, cottage construction crews struggled to complete framing in late 2015’s unusually harsh conditions of rain, wind, and snow—and to get them dried out sufficiently to complete interiors. “There was no way to predict that,” says Malone. “It set us back a few months.”
Excavation to put in septic fields for the new RV sites unearthed an underground water line that wasn’t marked on any map. “Some places on reserves haven’t been touched in many years,” explains Chief Pollard. “So there were some hidden costs—but they didn’t break us!” By engaging an engineer, Wei Wai Kum now has professional drawings of the site’s underground infrastructure—essential for any project that is close to gas lines and residential areas, and extremely helpful in the event that electrical expertise is ever required.
As the June 25th opening date neared, there were some hair-raising moments—like a sprinkler system breakdown, damage incurred by moving furniture, and a maxed-out power grid. All employees were pressed into service to ensure everything was ready.
While the upgrade proceeded, Malone continued her usual program of marketing. She relies on many “traditional” methods, like listings in RV enthusiast directories, Hello BC, Destination BC, and Aboriginal Tourism BC. But she also maintains Thunderbird’s Facebook page, through which she cultivates community and runs flash sales that help her quickly plug any gaps in her bookings calendar. She finds that 50 to 60% of new business comes from people that simply Google what they offer.
Understanding that customer service is great promotion, Malone makes it her job to know where to send clients inquiring about services like rental of scooters, bikes, and kayaks. Thunderbird and other local businesses (including those owned by the Nation or members of it, like Jiggers Grill, Seabreeze Takeout, a fish & chips place owned by Rachel Wiley who wrote most of Thunderbird’s recent business plan; the Wei Wai Kum House of Treasures Indigenous art/gift store; Discovery Harbour marina and fuel sales; and Discovery Harbour Shopping Centre) routinely send each other clients. High-profile events like the Annual Salmon & Cod Fishing Derby and Salmon Barbecue and the Tribal Journeys Indigenous canoe event also serve to advertise the business to hundreds of people every year—and create the kinds of connections and experiences that keep people coming back. Malone enjoys randomly gifting Park & Resort clients with coupons, like a free dinner at Jiggers or Seabreeze. “We just consider that part of our marketing,” she says.
A grand opening was planned for July 2016, complete with a feast, open house, and media, but Wei Wai Kum suffered the loss of two members, including a beloved chief. As per Wei Wai Kum custom, all high-profile celebrations are deferred for at least a year out of respect. “That it is just part of having a big family,” says Malone.
But with a strong tradition of customer service, devoted clientele, and ongoing marketing, Thunderbird would be fine. Bookings for the new sites and the cottages were coming in before they were even built.
Today, the completed cottages offer private, front-row views of the estuary and all of its waterborne traffic—like seabirds, swans, kayakers, seaplanes, and occasionally, whales. But backwoods they aren’t. “They’re more like little homes,” observes one visitor from Vancouver.
Airy with sea-and-sky tones but warmed by touches of marine decor and floorings suggestive of rustic hardwood and, these cottages say “comfortable”. They include well-designed kitchens, quality appliances and classy finishings, generous pillows and quality linens, electric fireplaces, jet tubs, and hot tubs on shaded private porches.
The new cottages are booked about 95 percent in the high season and about 50 to 60 percent booked during the shoulder season.
Malone says the cottages are about 95 percent booked in the high season, about 50 to 60 percent booked during their first (only) shoulder season, and completely taken up over Christmas. “We were targeting July and August, but it turns out people are willing to rent them year-round,” marvels Chief Pollard. Contract workers in construction, forestry, utilities, the movie industry—“They find us, through the local Chamber of Commerce, or just Googling!” reports Malone.
The 18 new RV sites, including the extra-long sites that accommodate RVers towing boats, have been snapped up by extended-stay visitors. If these RVers’ friendly waves, numerous plant pots, and extensive outdoor furniture setups are any indication, these campers are happy to call this place home for as long as possible.
Thunderbird RV Park and Resort, as it’s now known due to the addition of the cottages, is now reaping the benefits of the Nation’s decision to invest its funding with Coast Funds this way. Today it’s employing 12 people year-round and several more in the high season, and most of them are members of the Wei Wai Kum Nation.
“That’s really important to me, and I hope our members will apply for any new jobs we have,” says Malone.
Chris Roberts, Regional Economic Development Officer for Na̲nwak̲olas Council Society (and a Wei Wai Kum member elected as Councillor in February 2017, after the project’s completion), is also appreciative. “This project really seems to have hit the mark for creating meaningful employment for Wei Wai Kum members,” he says. “You can see the pride in the work that they do here.”
This project really seems to have hit the mark for creating meaningful employment for Wei Wai Kum members. You can see the pride in the work that they do here.
Chief Pollard is very proud of the project. “I have to admit—it’s actually way better than everyone even thought,” he says. “Everyone involved did a great job!”
When asked what he’d pass on to other First Nations considering similar projects, he thinks for a moment and chuckles: “Don’t even try to compete with us!” (but then goes on to offer several tips, he offers below in Key Challenges). In fact other BC First Nations have already reached out to Thunderbird in search of business insights.
Wei Wai Kum Band Manager Angie Sarsons had high praise for Coast Funds’ partnership with the Nation. “It was great to work with everyone at Coast Funds,” she says. “We found that they truly facilitated our work—they were really about the First Nation.”
Councillor Roberts observes that sometimes, proven assets, like Thunderbird RV Park are left to just “coast”—with people thinking that if something’s not broken, it shouldn’t be tampered with. “This is a good example of how you can take a very strategic look at something that already works,” he says, “and find opportunities to actually create more benefits for the community.”
Wei Wai Kum Creativity Shines
Quite apart from the new cottages and upgraded RV sites, Thunderbird RV Park & Resort radiates a pride of place that goes beyond its spotless walks, colorful annuals spilling from plant boxes, and aesthetic mix of many water-wise indigenous plants in cottage-side gardens. It may be the prolific original art.
“We have so many talented artists on our reserve, it’s unreal,” says Chief Pollard. There’s Councillor Curtis Wilson’s redesigned Canadian flag, which flies at a few places on the site, celebrating Indigenous presence; Indigenous art on the flower boxes and signage; totem poles near the main office; and historical photographs of the Wei Wai Kum Nation and Tyee Spit inside the cottages. The newest additions are four one-of-a-kind carved wooden panels that illustrate the cottage names: Raven, Orca, Thunderbird, and K’olus—a supernatural bird that has the ability to transform into a person.
“I wanted to bring in members from each of our Nation’s carving families,” says Malone. All four carvers are accomplished artists, each with personal styles that are heavily influenced by decades of training in the visual languages unique to their clans and Nations.
While many casual observers may view the panels merely as pleasing décor, in fact they are rich in history and symbolism. For example, the Thunderbird panel reflects about 150 hours of design and carving time of Tom D. Hunt. He’s often found down the road from the Park, working in the same carving shed that was used by his grandfather—an esteemed carver who trained him. While working on his latest project, a 25-foot totem pole, Hunt explained that the thunderbird crest was handed down through multiple generations of his family to his parents, hereditary chief George Hunt and Mary Hunt. The thunderbird was featured on a 50-foot totem pole that was raised at a 1998 potlach celebrating the 60th anniversary of his maternal grandparents, Sam Henderson (an esteemed Kwakwaka’wakw carver born in Blunden Harbour) and May Quocksister (the eldest daughter of a high-ranking Wei Wai Kai Nation family). At that time, the traditional dance and song associated with the thunderbird was entrusted to Tom’s brother, Patrick—an accomplished artist in his own right—and who also carved the Raven panel.
Read more about the carvers that contributed to this project:
Every year, Thunderbird caps its very popular three-day fishing derby with a family barbecue. It’s attended by hundreds of people, including all Council members. Visitors purchase a generous $25 plate of fresh seafood, and enjoy traditional dancing and drumming by a Wei Wai Kum performance group that includes kids as young as three. Chief Pollard finds that sharing Wei Wai Kum culture this way promotes understanding and can be powerfully reinforcing. “It’s just great to see all these young kids involved, with traditional regalia and headpieces, and our youth drumming,” says Pollard.
Malone says Indigenous culture sparks high interest among many visitors, particularly Europeans. “They’re looking for it! They want to know where there are totem poles, where they can see dancing, visit museums, galleries—everything about First Nations. And they’re very respectful.”
But it’s not always easy. There are clients that say things, or use terms, that are unintentionally hurtful. “When you’re living in a society where that’s so normal for a lot of people, they often just don’t know better,” she says. “I’ll very nicely correct them. With some people, it just goes over their heads, but most people actually thank me. We’re happy to do a little educating!” Malone helps her employees bolster their skills at choosing words that “defuse situations and turn them around in a better way”, through customer-service training and by rehearsing common scenarios—thereby reinforcing her people’s centuries-long record of being gracious hosts.
Key Challenges and How They Were Overcome
Chief Councillor Pollard, Operations Manager Sandra Malone, Band Manager Angie Sarsons, and Councillor Chris Roberts generously shared a few insights gained from this project.
Generating A Shared Vision. Key people in the project emphasized the collaborative nature of its development: “Everyone chipped in with ideas,” says Chief Pollard. But there was actually a long period of brainstorming and sorting, which required listening with an open mind, being flexible, and having the courage to speak up.
Doing Due Diligence and Taking A Strategic View. Wei Wai Kum found the involvement of an experienced business planner (then serving the Nation as tourism coordinator) was absolutely essential. Councillor Chris Roberts also observes that it’s always important to consider what you want to achieve by scaling up. “Bigger is not always better, and growing for the sake of growing is never good,” he cautions, noting that growth imposes new costs, too. “You really have to look at each element of your plan from all angles—for example, is it creating meaningful employment?—to determine whether it’s a net gain.”
Bigger is not always better, and growing for the sake of growing is never good. You really have to look at each element of your plan from all angles—for example, is it creating meaningful employment?—to determine whether it’s a net gain.
Pulling the Right Team Together. Councillor Roberts emphasizes the need to pull together a great team. Key roles on Wei Wai Kum’s team included the Chief, the band manager, the business planner, the person with deep knowledge of day-to-day operations, the financial controller—all of whom worked with staff at Coast Funds during planning.
Preparing for the Unexpected. “You always run into an unknown,” says Chief Pollard, citing the example of an unmapped underground waterline. Pollard recommends that, in addition to crafting—and sticking to—a solid business plan and budget, proponents should follow Wei Wai Kum’s example and build in a contingency fund of 10 to 15 percent.
Considering All Possible Markets. Pollard indicates that, if doing the project again, tourism would still be Thunderbird’s main concern. But he would have thought more about markets in the off-season or shoulder season—for example, organizations like BC Hydro, which is constructing a new generating station in Campbell River and needing accommodations for workers from out of town. As Wei Wai Kum had hoped, these markets are finding them!
Addressing Community Impact. Wei Wai Kum Nation encountered some concerns about how the project could affect neighbours’ privacy and peace. “Even when an economic development project is within reserve boundaries, it can impact other people,” says Wei Wai Kum Band Manager Angie Sarsons. “It’s important to show courtesy and respect for community relationships. That may mean things like focus groups, open houses and invitations for more dialogue, to ensure they’re part of the process and have a say in the overall budget.” Councillor Roberts adds that such consultations must always be weighed against the possibility that a level of confidentiality may be required during the planning stage of any business.
Allocating Staff Resources. At the project’s outset, the park operations manager was running the park full-time and making a superhuman effort to also oversee contractors engaged in the park upgrade. “She stepped up to do it because she was passionate about this!” says Band Manager Angie Sarsons. “But if we were to do it again, we’d ensure there was a project manager from the beginning.” They need to clarify lines of communication between all parties.
Finding the Right Contractors. Malone underscored the importance of finding the right contractors to work with. “You need to find a professional that has a great reputation and reviews of past projects, and that demonstrates good communication,” she says. “Are they respectful and open to your ideas? You can pick that up in the first conversation with them.”
Preparing to Move Up The Tourism Value Chain. For Wei Wai Kum, moving “up the value chain” from tent and RV sites to reach markets for full-service RV sites and luxury cottages has also meant upgrading the level of service and organizational infrastructure. Malone reports that Campground Master, a state-of-the-art but relatively inexpensive site booking software, has made it impossible to overbook, and that investments in customer service training for all staff have been worth every penny. “We did Jeff Mowatt’s Art of Customer Service training seminars, and I recommend these 110%,” says Malone.
This project created 12 new permanent jobs, in maintenance, housekeeping, and front desk and office administration. Of these, 10 are held by First Nations people. Twelve people received a total of 207 days of training in office administration and tourism, with significant training in customer service, including workshops with renowned customer service expert Jeff Mowatt.
From June to September, the park also hires summer students for additional maintenance and housekeeping work. These jobs are especially valued by Wei Wai Kum members as they enable people to work and live on the reserve, with ready access to extended family and all of the social supports this provides, and to be part of a workplace where Wei Wai Kum culture is so visibly present and celebrated.
This project celebrated Wei Wai Kum culture by engaging four professional carvers to create art panels for the cottages, each with an original design that depicts the totemic being (raven, orca, thunderbird, and k’olus) for which each one is named.
The project also created a new path through the cottage area for recreationists to access the estuary and Dick Murphy Park, which is marked by a prominent sign that displays the text “Tla’deece”, a Liq’wala phrase that means “Where the Salt Water Meets the Fresh Water”. Expansion of the park has raised its profile as the site of important cultural events. These include Tribal Journeys, which annually convenes coastal First Nations from Alaska to Oregon for a transnational canoe trip involving hundreds of indigenous paddlers—stopping at Tyee Spit in 2017, where they are received by the Wei Wai Kum—and the long-running Salmon & Cod Derby and Salmon Barbecue, where Wei Wai Kum performers celebrate with traditional drumming, singing, and dance.
The project has created four new cottages, which can be rented from $138 to $268 nightly depending on the season and cottage size. Just after one year in operation, the cottages are occupied at rates of more than 90 percent in high season, about 50 to 60 in the shoulder season, and they have been completely booked over Christmas.
The project also created 18 new fully serviced RV sites, which range from $32 to $40 a night depending on season and power needs. These are almost fully occupied year-round, and there is a long waiting list for sites that come open. The project also funded upgrades to the power service at several sites for extra-long rigs, which makes it possible for the Nation to earn more from the sites, and funded landscaping and fencing around the Park. Project funds were also used to build new facilities for housekeeping, a coin laundry, and accessible showers for guests, thereby offering more services for guests and capturing demand that was previously being served elsewhere.
Wei Wai Kum Nation
Wei Wai Kum Nation
In 2015 and 2016, Coast Economic Development Society approved funding for two projects totalling $871,613 toward Wei Wai Kum Nation’s development of the Thunderbird RV Park & Resort.
Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw Nation creativity and entrepreneurial optimism shone May 17 in Port Hardy during a ceremony to officially launch the Kwa’lilas Hotel, a game-changing economic venture for its people and a significant contribution to the tourism offerings of Vancouver Island.