Somewhere out there is a saturation point for campgrounds, cabins and various other amenities for visitors to the Slave Lake area. But it hasn’t even been glimpsed, and nobody really knows where it is.
That’s one of the impressions gleaned from the discussion at the Slave Lake Region Tourism Society operators’ meeting, held in Slave Lake on Oct. 11.
Big Fish Bay is a good example. The resort on Lesser Slave Lake next to the town of Slave Lake now has 450 sites, plus 45 cabins and according to manager Edie Klassen, they had “a very busy summer.”
Other themes that emerged in the two-hour meeting included the difficulty in finding and keeping good employees, and the challenges inherent in the short camping season.
Following are a few of the highlights:
Notes from the chair
SL Region Tourism Society Kimberly Hughes reported on the season for the group, including the Beach Fest event in August, which she said was a great success.
“It’s becoming our flagship event,” Hughes said, and dropped the dates for the 2024 version, which is already in the planning stages; it’s set for the Aug. 10 weekend.
Hughes also spoke about the numbers this past season at the Slave Lake Visitor Information Centre, which surpassed 2022’s by quite a bit.
Travel Alberta: grants available
Chris Down of Travel Alberta (TA) advised the group about a suite of grants TA has. Some are outright; some are matching. Some are for tourism-related businesses just starting up and others for more established ones. Still others are aimed at supporting events; one condition for those is they have to be events of at least two days. The idea there, Down explained, is TA wants to promote overnight stays. All the details are online, Down said.
Fiona Houle, the Holiday Inn manager, said she’d had a busy summer. Lots of the rooms went to workers, but there was quite a lot of what she called “leisure” business as well. Most were from Alberta, Houle said, but they also had guests from places like China and Germany. The Tourism Society pamphlets were all handed out and appreciated, she added.
Big Fish Bay
As noted Klassen reported on a busy summer at the resort, which was notable because the pool and water slide opened. They had guests from as far away as Thailand, New Zealand, China and Israel, Klassen said.
“We didn’t do too much advertising,” she said. “We were too busy!”
As for cabin rentals, Klassen said they “wouldn’t be worth it,” if they were only rented in the warm months. In fact the resort has quite a few spots rented out long-term to workers. They are generally kept separate from the tourists, she added.
The topic of front-line workers (not just at campgrounds, but in any business) and the impression they make on visitors came up and was hashed over a bit. Down talked about training programs that are available. Anybody who works on the front line is an ambassador, he said.
Klassen told a story about something she’d heard from a customer who had been told by a desk clerk somewhere else in town: “Slave Lake is a boring town.”
Jared Franklin and his manager Nicole Ward filled the group in on this innovative business idea, which is renting portable cabins out and delivering them within the region. Three cabins are available and a fourth will be soon. Six was the original vision, Franklin said.
Someone asked if they build to sell. Not now, said Franklin, but “never say never.”
The campground (or campgrounds) at Canyon Creek, was not fully booked this summer, though weekends were busy. There aren’t many seasonal bookings for one thing, the managers said.
Pam Porter of the Canyon Creek Recreation Association (CCRA) said there’s a new website, ourcanyoncreek.com, for online booking.
Porter also spoke about the activities organized by the CCRA. These include the Canada Day parade, seniors’ crib tournament, the Family Day Chili Cook-off and more.
Down asked if there is an online community events page. Yes, said Hughes, Pearl Lorentzen of the Lakeside Leader maintains one.
Becky Peiffer reported to the group on how the Smith-Hondo Fall Fair & Rodeo went this year. To make a long story shorter, it was very well attended, from the M.D.-sponsored pancake breakfast on the Saturday morning to the heavy horse pull event on Sunday afternoon. A pro wrestling show was something completely new this year.
“A small group of volunteers pull this off yearly,” Peiffer said.
SHARA (Smith Hondo Association of Recreational and Agriculture Society) also does a ‘ski-joring’ event in February and an outdoor curling bonspiel in March.
Speaking of horse activities, Peiffer said, referring to Beach Fest, “I think it would make your event if we did flat races on your beach.” It was suggested for the 2023 Beach Fest, Peiffer said, but Parks wouldn’t allow it.
Spruce Point Park
Spruce Point has 270 campsites and 204 leased lots, said Linda Wedmid of the SPP board. There’s also a 100-berth marina, 50 of which have to be for daily rental only.
The association puts on a popular rodeo every summer and has a brand new 100 x 200-foot indoor rec building. It’s available for rent for weddings and such, and can be used for riding horses in winter.
Wedmid spoke about the big challenge of finding staff each year. They don’t have a manager, for example, and the marina shop had to be closed for a period due to lack of staff.
Having a marina is a big draw. Down mentioned one in Cold Lake that has a seven to 10-year waiting period for berths.
Chamber of Commerce
Slave Lake & District Chamber of Commerce President Brenna Emes spoke mainly about farmers markets that are being contemplated for next summer. The Chamber has a new executive director, who Emes described as “super ambitious,” working on that project.
At that, Jennifer Churchill of the Kinosayo Museum tossed out the idea of developing a “farmer’s market circuit” in the region.
Town of Slave Lake
Jason Swanson, the Town of Slave Lake’s Economic Development Officer, said he’s working on a “tear-off map,” of the area. He could use some input on what sort of area (Just Slave Lake? Regional?) should be depicted.
Swanson directed his next comment to the Travel Alberta rep: Lesser Slave Lake is part of Travel Alberta’s Lakelands region, he noted. But on the TA website, it isn’t highlighted.
“Our lake doesn’t even come up,” is how he put it.
Down said he’d look into it.
LSL Provincial Park/Boreal Centre
Patti Campsall of the Boreal Centre for Bird Conservation said “lots of winter activities” were being planned for the upcoming season. The Centre will be open Saturdays during the season, for people who want to go snowshoeing or cross-country skiing.
Speaking of winter season tourism, Campsall said she had recently become aware of a company that organizes ‘winter tours’ for Australians looking for experiences. They’ve been bringing vanloads of Aussies to Peace River, she said, for a glimpse of northern winter, before heading south to Jasper and Banff. They could just as well stop in Slave Lake as Peace River, she said.
Campsall also spoke about having observed quite a few travellers heading north on Hwy. 88 en route to the Northwest Territories.
Ceiridwen Robbins, the Visitor Services Coordinator for Lesser Slave Lake Provincial Park, mentioned ‘The Nest’ at the Boreal Centre is available for rent again, after having been closed for a few years. It’s a trial period, which runs until just after the Family Day weekend in February, when it will be reviewed to see what comes next.
by Joe McWilliams