True Key caters to experiential travelers Newton Cove Resort

True Key caters to experiential travelers Newton Cove Resort

By Colleen Isherwood, Editor

RADIUM HOT SPRINGS, B.C. — With properties in places like Vancouver Island, the Gulf Islands, Harrison Hot Springs and Radium Hot Springs, True Key Hotels & Resorts Ltd. offers some of the bucket-list travel experiences today’s travellers are looking for.

“We’ve benefitted from the trend in the industry where people are looking for travelling experiences. Because of the locations of our resorts, we can offer really exceptional, bucket-list experiences,” said Michael Anderson, president of True Key Resorts. 

“In Sooke, there’s whale-watching right at the end of the dock, guided fishing, sailing and crabbing. In Radium Hot Springs, they can go whitewater rafting or snowshoeing. At Harrison Hot Springs, they can land a 400-pound sturgeon.

“From Parksville, they can see the West Coast rainforest. And when the tide goes out, they can walk for a kilometre. They can see all the sea life there is, including crabs and sand dollars.”

True Key has grown from managing two resorts when Anderson took the reins in 2010, to eight today. The company tends to manage properties in secondary and tertiary markets that are high-end, but a little off the beaten path. “We’re not Whistler or Banff,” Anderson said. Michael Anderson, president of True Key Resorts

Michael Anderson, president of True Key Resorts
Michael Anderson, president of True Key Resorts

Anderson started in the industry at age 14 as a busboy at a hotel in Edmonton, working his way up to server and prep cook. At age 18, he moved into nightclubs. By 20, he was managing his first hotel. Later, Anderson worked at Bellstar, helping grow the company from two properties to more than a dozen. He worked for the predecessor to True Key, Glacier Lake Management Corp., acquiring equity and changing the name to True Key.

Their current portfolio consists of: Bighorn Meadows in Radium Hot Springs; Harrison Beach Hotel in Harrison Hot Springs; Moutcha Bay Resort in Nootka Sound on the west coast of Vancouver Island, approximately 70 km north of Tofino; Nootka Sound Resort; Newton Cove Resort, also on the west coast of Vancouver Island; Sooke Harbour Resort and Marina just east of Victoria; Sooke Point Ocean Cottage Resort; and Sunrise Ridge Waterfront Resort on the east coast of Vancouver Island, about 40 km northwest of Nanaimo. Bighorn Meadows Resort in Radium Hot Springs

Bighorn Meadows Resort in Radium Hot Springs
Bighorn Meadows Resort in Radium Hot Springs

Over the past few years, the company has faced some challenges. As is the case in other parts of B.C., the top challenge is the availability of front-line labour. Housekeepers, servers and front desk staff get more difficult to find each year. Between the Municipal & Regional District Tax (MRDT) and the increase in the minimum wage, labour costs have risen about 10 per cent a year over the past three years. 

Airbnb and VRBO have also had an impact. On the one hand, affordable housing for staff is more scarce. Vacation property owners are also willing to pay $25 to $30 per hour to get their properties cleaned, meaning hotels face stiff competition for housekeepers.

The political unrest between Alberta and B.C. means B.C. properties miss out on oil and gas corporate travel, regardless of the political views of the resort operators. And provincial restrictions on fishing have affected some of the properties as well.

“Regardless of the challenges and economic hiccups, our company continues to show year-over-year improvements almost without exception over the properties we manage,” said Anderson.

Focus on culture

True Key counters these problems with a focus on employee culture. They were recently honoured with the Tourism Vancouver Island’s Employer of the Year award, sponsored by accounting firm MNP, which recognizes tourism businesses that exemplify best practices in all areas of operations and human resource management. The winner of this award is chosen based on the quality of the workplace and work atmosphere, as well as leadership in recruitment, performance management, and career advancement. 

“We’ve done quite a bit on the corporate culture side,” said Anderson. “While it’s critical to deliver exceptional experiences to our guests, we also deliver exceptional experiences for our team members, because they provide the services we need on a daily basis. We also invest in education and professional development for team members, from learning excel to taking safety courses or professional courses toward a degree in accounting. Our view is that for us to cover costs, the only caveat is that it is a win/win that benefits the employee and is applicable to the service they are providing.”

They have also developed some innovative marketing and sales strategies, diversifying the clientele. What started as a rubber-tire leisure market now encompasses a much broader clientele. True Key has worked with wholesale companies to attract international guests from the U.S. and overseas. They are working to get more corporate travellers, who work in the area or come for incentives, corporate workshops and business meetings.

Anderson believes in slow and steady growth for the company. “We want to make sure we have the foundation and infrastructure to support vertical growth,” he said. That being said, the company is actively seeking new management opportunities, and expect to welcome at least one, if not two, resorts into the portfolio in the coming year or so.