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Saskatchewan outfitters at risk of losing 2020 seasons amid COVID-19 pandemic

Saskatchewan outfitters at risk of losing 2020 seasons amid COVID-19 pandemic
WATCH: It's an economic powerhouse that many in Saskatchewan never see, but the outfitting industry has been hit hard by COVID-19, and it's costing the north.

Saskatchewan hunting and angling outfitters are facing cancelled or shortened seasons due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with no chance to financially recover in 2020.

According to the Saskatchewan Commission of Professional Outfitters (SCPO), up to one-third of the province’s 625 licensed outfitters operate in the spring, while the summer angling sector makes up 40 per cent of the industry.

“You can see that having zero revenue in a year is going to have a huge impact on the families and the small businesses, and the reality of that is not in question anymore,” said Roy Anderson, SCPO acting CEO.

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Anderson said SCPO polling has found up to 80 per cent of the province’s outfitters are at “high risk” of not operating in 2020.

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As of April 4, the industry had reported $80 million in lost revenue.

“We’re confident that when we go out this weekend with our update poll, we will see that number get closer to $100 million if not over,” Anderson said.

“It’s a huge economic shock to the province.”

Saskatchewan’s outfitting industry generates a net contribution of $130 million to the provincial GDP each year, along with 5,000 jobs.

READ MORE: Regina economics professor weighs in on impact of Reopen Saskatchewan plan

Outfitting is scheduled to resume in phase four of the Reopen Saskatchewan Plan, the second phase without a fixed date.

Anderson noted that not all outfitters licensed for the now-cancelled spring season, are also licensed for summer or fall.

“The outfitting business is very seasonal. It happens at a point in time, over a defined couple of months,” he said, adding summer anglers are now in jeopardy of losing an entire season.

“With the clear indication from the Saskatchewan government, as well as the US border remaining closed, a lot more of the angling sector will be making the decision — if they haven’t already — that they may not be open for this season.”

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Scott Lake Lodge general manager Jason Hamilton says owners have committed to paying the three full-time and 30 seasonal employees this year, and intend to honour 2020 bookings in 2021.
Scott Lake Lodge general manager Jason Hamilton says owners have committed to paying the three full-time and 30 seasonal employees this year, and intend to honour 2020 bookings in 2021. Scott Lake Lodge / Facebook

While some outfitters have provincial and Canadian clients, primarily road accessible lodges, the majority of business comes from the US market.

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Remote fly-in operations, like Scott Lake Lodge in northern Saskatchewan, almost exclusively serve American sports enthusiasts.

“We had to cancel our 2020 season entirely,” said general manager Jason Hamilton, adding the loss is in the millions of dollars.

“We had people pay in this previous December, so it’ll be about 18 months before we’re going to see much new income.”

Prairies Edge Outfitting in North Battleford operates in spring and fall, and caters to American and Canadian waterfowl hunters.

“I have already had people cancel since their business is currently suffering or closed and they have no money to spend on a trip to Canada. Bookings are down to basically zero.”

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Owner and operator Mike McLane said the spring 2020 season has been cancelled, despite Canadian residents making up 75 per cent of the clientele.

“They chose to voluntarily cancel based on fear of the virus, travel restrictions from other provinces, and worry about their jobs,” McLane wrote in an email to Global News.

“Of course I had Americans booked as well and they had no choice since the border was closed.”

Prairies Edge Outfitting in North Battleford has already taken a loss of $40,000 for spring 2020, and could see a $1 million loss in revenue if the fall season is cancelled.
Prairies Edge Outfitting in North Battleford has already taken a loss of $40,000 for spring 2020, and could see a $1 million loss in revenue if the fall season is cancelled. Prairies Edge Outfitting / Facebook

McLane said he’s lost $40,000 in revenue so far, and had to use deposits that will now be carried over to 2021 to cover overhead and pre-season expenses.

“I had enough deposits to be fine financially, but now in 2021 I am responsible to provide a lot of half price hunts – a net loss – so this is not a short term effect,” he said.

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McLane has started a new business in an unrelated industry to bring in revenue, especially now that his fall waterfowl season is in jeopardy.

READ MORE: Lumsden man hopes rule changes can improve hunting accessibility in Saskatchewan

“I have already had people cancel since their business is currently suffering or closed and they have no money to spend on a trip to Canada. Bookings are down to basically zero,” he said.

He said if borders remain closed, the fall season will be cancelled — amounting to $1 million in lost revenue, and nine to 12 employees without jobs.

‘Significant impact’ on northern Saskatchewan

Outfitting generates $85 million in economic activity for Saskatchewan’s northern region, as most activity takes place in the rich forested areas.

Veteran guide Jeff Smith, who co-owns Kutawagan Outfitters in Choiceland, Sask., with his wife, said his business makes $250,000 in a good year.

“Bear season should have started yesterday, but it looks like it’s going to be a big zero for the year,” he said, noting spring business accounts for 65 per cent of his annual revenue.

Smith said the rest is generated during the fall whitetail deer season, which he and the SCPO are uncertain will go ahead in 2020.

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“The fall season is predominantly American, so that has a huge factor as well depending on what happens with the Canadian and U.S. border between now and then,” Anderson said.

The acting CEO said SCPO is working with national outfitting groups to lobby Ottawa for more supports.

Currently, the majority of Saskatchewan outfitters — including Smith — don’t qualify for federal benefits based on minimum payroll requirements.

READ MORE: Saskatchewan earmarks $50 million in aid to small, medium businesses during coronavirus pandemic

“The characteristics of some of the outfitters in Saskatchewan is that they’re smaller operations, many of them are family-held, many may use contracted employees during the season — if they have any employees at all,” Anderson said.

He noted the provincial government has provided some relief by cancelling land commercial lease fees and permits for 2020, and reducing licensing costs.

Anderson estimated the change, which does not impact all outfitters, amounts to about $250,000 to $400,000 across the board in savings.

Some outfitters also qualify for the Saskatchewan Small Business Emergency Payment (SSBEP), which provides grants to businesses based on 15 per cent of monthly sales revenue, up to $5,000.