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. 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,” Pollard says.