HUNTSVILLE, Ont. — Jesse Hamilton, general manager of Deerhust Resort in Huntsville is confident his property will sell out on winter weekends, though that means 75 per cent occupancy due to COVID-19 safety measures. Hamilton, who is also newly-appointed chair of ORHMA, spoke to CLN on how Deerhurst has weathered the storm and how ORHMA is working to help hotels and restaurants.
Hamilton, who has been GM since 2016, credits Deerhurst’s reputation for the success the hotel and resort has enjoyed since they reopened for business on June 15. “Things have been different, but we’ve adjusted. From the standpoint of travel within the province, we were very lucky with the reputation we have. Even before the pandemic, Deerhurst attracted people who wanted to get out of the city. Now, those city-dwellers’ desire to escape is even stronger. We have seen levels of demand we didn’t expect, and that has continued up until and including this past weekend.”
That weekend saw sunshine and unusually high temperatures throughout southern and central Ontario. “We have reached occupancy levels of 75 per cent with leisure guests, and are as busy as we could be from a leisure perspective,” Hamilton noted.
The group business that usually takes up 50 per cent of Deerhurst’s room nights, is another matter. “That piece of business completely disappeared during 2020, but at least two-thirds of our clients understand and appreciate our partnership, and have rebooked for 2021 or 2022.
“It’s really been an uphill climb for us — it’s not an easy thing to figure out.”
Deerhurst is a four-season resort situated on Penn Lake in Muskoka, with trails, golf, and close proximity to Hidden Valley Huntsville ski hill. “Since 2017, we’ve successfully sold out every winter weekend. We have just shy of 400 guest rooms now, and I have no doubt we will sell out this coming winter.” That means 75 per cent occupancy in winter 2021 due to COVID-related safety measures.
“We offer ski and stay packages with Hidden Valley, and discounted lift tickets to other guests. Business has been growing every year since winter 2017.”
One of the changes Deerhurst has implemented is contact-free guest check-in, where guests can call the front desk from their cars in the parking lot, and receive their check-in package from a masked front-desk associate who hands it through the car window. Right now, Deerhurst is reconsidering this approach, as more people seem to be coming in to the front desk anyway. They are taking a close look at what parking lot check-in could look like in the winter, in terms of snow removal, staff apparel, etc. “If there is too big of a lineup of cars, it may not work,” he said.
While the indoor playground is closed, Deerhurst is now offering family recreation rooms with a sound system, large-screen television with Netflix, ping-pong, foosball and an extra-large Connect 4 game. Families can stay within their bubble, and book the family rec rooms for 45 minutes — a fun option especially if the weather is not good.
“We have a number of things to offer for winter,” said Hamilton. Two years ago, they implemented a 1.5 km Starlight Snowshoe trail with coloured lights. There’s a Historic Snowshoe Trail as well — it is family-friendly with plaques talking about Deerhurst and area history. This year, Deerhurst will have an outdoor skating rink next to Maple Pub and Patio, so that kids can skate while adults drink hot chocolate (with or without Bailey’s Irish Cream), and other cocktails.
“Normally, we build a rink on the lake, but this new rink can open sooner and longer. We will be grooming a walking trail around the frozen lake — a lot of guests have never had the experience of walking on a lake,” Hamilton said. “Our goal is to have enough activities to keep people happy, but not encourage crowding in any one space.”
Deerhurst restaurants include Eclipse fine dining and Maple Pub. This year they will also offer Chef’s Table meals in The Rotunda, which is usually used as a function space. The Chef’s Table will accommodate 10 couples in each of two seatings per night prepared by executive chef Rory Golden, who has guided Deerhurst’s culinary team for many years. “We want to make sure people can get a reservation at our on-site restaurants, and this allows more people to eat onsite. It’s also a chance for us to test some recipes, as we would like to open a new restaurant concept in that space,” said Hamilton.
ORHMA’s roles include amplification and clarity
Hamilton joined the Ontario Restaurant Hotel and Motel Association more than two years ago, and soon after that, he stepped into the vice-chair role. He was named chair at ORHMA’s AGM in September.
He sees ORHMA’s role as two-fold.
The association acts as a collective voice for restaurants, hotels and motels in the province, working with the membership to lobby and amplify the needs of the industry. “There has always been a government lobby responsibility, listening to membership and amplifying the challenges,” Hamilton said.
A lot of the time, ORHMA needs to interpret what is happening regarding changes in federal and provincial legislation — for example providing easily-digestible, bitesize quotes about economic change and legislation that can benefit our businesses during challenging times, he added.
“These two responsibilities were important before COVID-19, and even more important today,” Hamilton said, adding that Tony Elenis and his team are doing a great job in the hardest times they have ever seen.
ORHMA has also opened doors for Hamilton to chair the Huntsville Hotel and Restaurant Association and the Huntsville Municipal Accommodation Tax Association, and become a board member of Destination Ontario. “For me, being involved in ORHMA, is one of the reasons the other opportunities became available,” he said.