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THE PIVOT: Antigonish campground turns to rentals amid slowdown

CEO Andrew Whidden, manager Greg Farrell and grounds staffer Hayden Fougere are seen at Whidden Park in Antigonish. - Contributed
CEO Andrew Whidden, manager Greg Farrell and grounds staffer Hayden Fougere are seen at Whidden Park in Antigonish. - Contributed

The Players:

Whidden Park CEO Andrew Whidden is the third generation of his family to run the 59-year-old campground located smack in the middle of downtown Antigonish.

The Problem:

International and Canadian tourists from outside the Atlantic bubble are unable to go camping at the Whidden Park campground this year, driving down revenues from camping operations.

The Pivot:

Renting out the business’ five cottages on a monthly rather than a nightly basis, Whidden Park cut operating costs and stabilized that part of its revenues.

It’s a lot quieter than usual at Whidden Park Campground & Cottages this year.

Swimming pool employees are only letting in a limited number of campers at any given time to ensure social distancing.

At the front gate, security personnel are screening anyone who comes in, asking them questions to determine whether they have travelled outside of the Atlantic Bubble or shown Covid-19 symptoms in the past 14 days. Visitors who are not registered campers are turned away.

Even the junk food is gone from the canteen in the campground’s main office. Andrew Whidden, chief executive officer of Whidden Park, wanted to cut down on foot traffic in the office to protect his employees. They wear facemasks and work behind protective Plexiglas shields.

So far, it’s working. There hasn’t been a single documented case of anyone at Whidden Park being infected or showing symptoms of Covid-19.

Although last month saw almost as many campers at the campsite as during July last year, campsite rentals were down by roughly 40 per cent in June and seem likely to do no better in August.

“In June, the big thing was the uncertainty around Covid-19,” said Whidden. “The swimming pool also wasn’t open.”

By July, much of that uncertainty had died down, the Atlantic bubble had opened up the Nova Scotia campground to people outside the province, and business slowly picked up to about 90 per cent of last year’s volume.

Then the fear of catching Covid-19 struck again. As students started to arrive at St. Francis Xavier University, would-be campers began to worry.

Antigonish is a small community of less than 4,400 people but that more than doubles during the school year as the students move in. Unlike some universities that are offering courses primarily online, St. F.X. is holding courses in its classrooms and housing students in its residences.

“The campers are worried about the students, about meeting them at restaurants. They worry they haven’t self-isolated,” said Whidden. “Quite a few students at St. Francis Xavier are living off campus.”

Licence plates from Ontario and Maine are fuelling the fear that the coronavirus could arrive to Antigonish from outside the Atlantic bubble. Many regular Whidden Park campers are staying away this August.

In April, Whidden foresaw this would probably happen and took steps stabilize his revenues for the coming season and cut costs.

Founded by Albert Whidden in 1961 and still owned by his son John Whidden, the business consists of 154 campsites, including 12 unserviced sites, 45 serviced with electricity and running water, and 97 that are fully serviced with sewer hookups. Camping fees range from $40 through to $57 per night, taxes included.

Whidden Park in Antigonish is turning to monthly leases amid the tourism challenges of the pandemic. - Contributed
Whidden Park in Antigonish is turning to monthly leases amid the tourism challenges of the pandemic. - Contributed

But Whidden Park also has higher-end accommodations for those who want to get away from it all but still retain all the comforts of home. There are five cottages.

Those two-bedroom mini-homes, which come complete with stoves, fridges, microwaves and Wi-Fi, usually rent for $140 per night, plus taxes. This year, though, Whidden Park has removed these cottages from its daily rental scheme and has instead been renting them for $1,050 per month.

“We filled them for the entire summer,” said Whidden. “It was a good compromise. It doesn’t bring in the same income but … we don’t supply any of the housekeeping we normally do or the cable services, so there are those savings and there’s also less wear and tear on the cottages.

“Compared to last year, we’re probably ahead on the cottages,” he said. “The other nice thing about long-term rentals is that it’s stable.”

Whidden Park is also landlord to other tenants in three small apartment buildings and 50 minihomes it has on the property. All of those minihomes rent for the same price as the five cottages. The 16 apartments, bachelors through to two-bedroom units, range in monthly rent from about $500 to $1,500 per month. They are all rented out.

Although the privately-owned business does not divulge its revenues or profits, it’s clear those rental units have provided the business with a lot of stability. Putting the five cottages into that rental pool this year has further helped the company ride out the pandemic.

But Whidden Park is not emerging unscathed. Last year, the business was in the black.

Not so this year.

Every autumn, Whidden Park attracts European tourists, mostly Germans, to Nova Scotia. With the global pandemic, though, none of those tourists will be able to come to Canada.

Whidden plans to close the campground early.

“I’m expecting to be in the red this year by about $10,000,” he said.

The Pivot is a regular business feature about an Atlantic Canadian company adapting to new market realities with innovative products, services or strategies. To suggest a business for The Pivot, please e-mail: Pivot@SaltWire.com.

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