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Snowbirds Warm Up to the South Okanagan Valley

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The Okanagan River, which slips into Lake Osoyoos, is one of the picturesque natural features of the Oliver-Osoyoos wine region of British Columbia. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

Executive chef Murray McDonald was realistically prepared for COVID-19 to keep diners away from his restaurant, the Indigenous-focused The Bear, The Fish, The Root and The Berry at Spirit Ridge Resort. Like other businesses in British Columbia, the resort, which overlooks the vineyards of NK’Mip Cellars in Osoyoos, was closed in the early days of the pandemic. When it resumed operation in June, McDonald anticipated slow demand. He pivoted to offering take-out family meals, preparing to-go servings for the community, and accepting his restaurant would not be bustling with guests.

Then the doors opened.

“This has been the craziest, craziest season ever,” McDonald says. “It has been the busiest season in the hotel’s history. We have had stretches where the restaurant sold out every night.” [Read Vacay.ca’s Award-Winning Feature on Chef Murray McDonald]

The Bear, The Fish, The Root and The Berry — named after the Four Food Chiefs, a legend of the Okanagan people — would routinely serve more than 150 diners a night and 180 guests for Sunday brunch. McDonald has rehired 80 per cent of his staff that had to be laid off when the coronavirus crisis forced the closure of restaurants and resorts across Canada. Heading into winter, the demand isn’t going to slow. Far from it.

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Seared halibut served with chestnut pasta is among the inventive and Indigenous-inspired dishes from chef Murray McDonald at The Bear, The Fish, The Root and The Berry. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

“For the first quarter of 2021, we’re expecting to have 75-per-cent occupancy and almost all of that is from snowbirds, and usually it’s about 5-to-8-per-cent of snowbirds coming here,” McDonald says of the resort that has 226 guest suites, including villas and condos. “I have a feeling it’s going to be a hopping winter. We all thought we were going through this process where people would be staying home and easing themselves back into travel, and we thought we might hit 50-per-cent occupancy but that’s not what’s happening at all.”

What Spirit Ridge is experiencing is resonating throughout the South Okanagan Valley, a region that stretches from Osoyoos north to Penticton and its neighbouring winery-laden communities of Peachland, Summerland, and Naramata. Many Canadians who would normally flock to Florida and Arizona to escape the frigid cold of winter are staying away from the United States, which has failed pathetically to contain the spread of COVID-19.

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Executive chef Murray McDonald, who has Métis heritage, oversees the culinary operations at Spirit Ridge Resort, which has seen a high number of visitors despite the 2020 pandemic. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

The tourism opportunity Canadians present to the South Okanagan and other domestic destinations is colossal. In Florida alone, Canadians visitors spent $6.5 billion USD in 2017 and contributed $500 million to the state’s tax revenues. In a year where good news for Canadian tourism and restaurant businesses has been in shortage, the consumer power of domestic travellers is a major relief for at least this one region of the country.

MORE: Wineries See a Sales Spike in COVID-19

At Walnut Beach Resort, a family-friendly lakeside property down the road from Spirit Ridge, general manager Kristian Miller says the snowbird arrivals have already started, noting that a number of his guests stay for months at a time because of the full-service condominium-style accommodations available at the property. Walnut Beach has 112 units, ranging from studios to two-bedroom suites, a private beach, and a large pool deck overlooking Lake Osoyoos.

“We are hugely over our bookings and the amount of interest from a year ago,” says Miller, adding that the snowbirds he hosts are typically from “Alberta to Winnipeg.”

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Walnut Beach Resort sits alongside Lake Osoyoos and has its own private beach, an inviting feature for snowbirds. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

To accommodate the guests, Walnut Beach enlists “snowbird ambassadors” to help visitors get settled and ease their ability to explore the region. They arrange game nights and golf outings. Miller is hopeful of teaming with wineries in Oliver and Osoyoos to provide experiential evenings with wine tastings and chefs’ dinners.

The South Okanagan is a magnet for Canadians for many reasons. As the nation’s largest non-Arctic desert region, it has a warmer climate than most other municipalities. It does snow in winter, with Osoyoos averaging below-freezing night-time temperatures in January and February, but it is still far milder than most anywhere else in Canada and the dry climate is appealing. Some golf courses are hopeful of being open through the winter to accommodate the increase in snowbirds this year.

“We’re really attractive,” Miller says of the area. “We all see the potential and see we can have a unique offseason. We’re presented with an opportunity with what’s happened in 2020 and we’re finding ways to make it work. At the end of the day if you’re going to be in the hospitality business you have to have that agility because you are going to be faced with challenges.”

Penticton Lakeside Resort includes the new eco-designed West Wing building with fantastic views of Lake Okanagan. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

North of Osoyoos, Penticton Lakeside Resort & Conference Centre is offering winter promotions that include snowshoe excursions, bonfires on its private beach, and an ice rink on the shores of Lake Okanagan. It features its original building and its marvellous new West Wing, a stand-alone wood property replete with environmentally friendly features and architectural components. Knowing that Canadians are coming this winter means increasing its communications with the area’s ski resorts to help service guests.

Expanding on programming for kids is also more crucial than ever for accommodations providers. At Summerland Waterfront Resort, located about 15 kilometres (nine miles) north of Penticton, a Kids Club includes crafts each day in a large space conducive for physical distancing. The resort is one of the few in the world that never shut down during the pandemic. Davy cites the property’s business model as a strata organization (similar to condominium management for an apartment building) as the reason it was able to remain open. “We were an essential service and that was a great benefit to us and our team,” she says.

Despite all of the activity the South Okanagan has seen this summer, the cases of COVID-19 have been remarkably low. The region has a population of about 60,000 people and only reported 26 total cases (as of September 30) since the start of the pandemic. McDonald of Spirit Ridge Resort calls it a “weird bubble” where people of the area are concerned, particularly about the large percentage of its elderly citizens, but also amazed by the relative absence of sickness so far.

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Escape is one of the draws to Summerland Waterfront Resort. The resort has 115 suites with soaker tubs, fireplaces, and decks or balconies with views of Lake Okanagan. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

With life being very good compared to other jurisdictions, the South Okanagan has faced challenges in meeting demand. McDonald has adapted an “adjust and go” attitude, feverishly working to make sure he has enough food and supplies, including takeout containers that are in use by seemingly every restaurant still operating. A lack of imports means greater pressure on local farms to provide produce for commercial and residential use.

In the age of a pandemic, as many people in tourism and hospitality are learning, customers’ priorities have changed. The majority of travellers are suddenly less finicky about feeling pampered and far more focused on being kept safe.

“When we entered Stage 2 in June and the restrictions were eased,  all of a sudden the phone was ringing off the hook,” Davy of Summerland Waterfront Resort says. “We were seeing more families wanting to come, because we have these units where they can be self-contained in their suite if that’s what they wanted, and part of the interest was definitely because they had been cooped up for so long. They think of the Okanagan as having space and a place where you can breathe. They see where we live as safer.”

MORE ABOUT VISITING SOUTH OKANAGAN VALLEY

COVID-19 Protocols: Although each hotel property follows public-health protocols for containing the spread of the novel coronavirus, there are some notable differences. Spirit Ridge Resort, part of the Hyatt Unbound Collection, is following an international corporate mandate that is stricter than British Columbia standards. It mandates mask use among its staff and is in the midst of achieving certification with the Global Biorisk Advisory Council (GBAC), which recognizes properties that exhibit a high level of sanitation practices, promote staff education on the spread of infectious diseases, and emphasize customer communications. Each property mentioned in the article features a section on its website dedicated to COVID-19 information and what guests should expect during their stay.

Note: Vacay.ca editors and writers are creating a series of articles on the Okanagan Valley, which has handled the pandemic exceptionally well and maintained a strong culture of hospitality while adapting to the realities of COVID-19 and still introducing new experiences.

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Adrian is the editor of Vacay.ca and VacayNetwork.com. He also edited "Inspired Cooking", a nutrition-focused cookbook featuring 20 of Canada's leading chefs and in support of the cancer-fighting charity, InspireHealth. "Inspired Cooking" was created in honour of Adrian's late wife and Vacay.ca co-founder, Julia Pelish, who passed away of brain cancer in 2016. Adrian has won numerous awards for his travel writing, travel photography, and fiction, and has visited more than 55 countries. He is a former editor at the Toronto Star and New York Newsday, and was the social media and advocacy manager for Destination Canada. His articles have frequently appeared in the Huffington Post, Globe & Mail, and other major publications. He has appeared on national and local broadcasts, talking about travel, sports, creative writing and journalism. In 2019, he launched Trippzy, a travel-trivia app developed to educate consumers about destinations around the world.