Wei Wai Kum First Nation finds gold in an existing asset

Thunderbird RV Park and Cottage Resort – Video by Rick Ward

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 per cent 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, 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.

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!”

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.

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.

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.

Malone says the cottages are about 95 per cent 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.

“We were targeting July and August, but it turns out people are willing to rent them year-round,” Pollard says.

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.”

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.”

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.

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