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BACK TO BUSINESS: Aurora Village celebrates 20 years with renewed focus on local market

Mike Morin, left, CEO of Aurora Village and James Robinson, Marketing Manager have pivoted their focus towards the new teepee dining experience they offer at the Cassidy Point site on the Ingraham Trail. Blair McBride/NNSL photo

Aurora Village is celebrating its milestone of 20 years in business, but the past six months haven't been a dazzling ride.

“Over the years, we have come to be known as one of the world's premier viewing locations for aurora,” said marketing manager James Robinson. “And pretty much overnight, that stopped in March.”

The aurora tourism company had already been feeling the effects of Covid-19 in January, two months before the virus reached the NWT, because fewer tourists from Asia were travelling.

James Robinson, left, Marketing Manager with Aurora Village and Mike Morin, CEO have pivoted their focus towards the new teepee dining experience they offer at the Cassidy Point site on the Ingraham Trail. Blair McBride/NNSL photo

One month ahead of the regular end of the company's tourism season, it followed the advice of the chief public health officer and closed down on March 16.

It had to lay off 85 staff "basically overnight" and of its normal staff level of 110 it now has 25, Robinson said. For the rest of the spring and summer those employees kept busy with maintenance tasks.

"We’ve lost 100 per cent of our revenue from mid-March until now. Historically, we get upwards of 25,000 guests visiting Aurora Village through our Fall and Winter seasons and we don’t expect to get any this year from outside the NWT," Robinson added.

Regular summer programming of hiking and boating trips and city tours were cut due to the downturn in tourism and reduced numbers of drivers, guides and other staff members. Aurora Village managed to support some staff with assistance from the federal wage subsidy program.

With few hopes of tourists from outside the territory coming back soon, the company spent the summer crafting a local solution to the slump.

“A lot of our locals don't know what we have to offer in Aurora Village. They haven't been out because it has been predominantly an international tourism base,” Robinson said.

“We thought, we've got a restaurant, and we've got an outdoor area where we're licensed. So what can we do? Why not relaunch a restaurant? I mean, everyone's been through a lot in the last couple of months, and we don't have a lot of options to go and do different things. So let's make something different,” Robinson said.

Exactly six months and one day from when it closed, Aurora Village reopened last Thursday and welcomed 12 diners into teepees at the Cassidy Point site on the Ingraham Trail.

There are four tall white teepees, inside of which tables are set up for 10-12 diners who can eat courses made with Northern offerings such as bison, whitefish, pickerel and Arctic char.

A bonfire lights up the property and, in the late hours, the aurora is visible in the sky above.

There is also a nearby dining hall, which can accommodate up to 25 people.

Aurora Village has had a similar dining format during its regular tourism season but it caters to a larger group of customers who had already done day activities at the site.

The new project focuses more on the culinary experience.

“We've got a new chef, Peter Lau. He's been in Yellowknife for quite a while. He's put together a really beautiful menu, and we haven't had any bad feedback about the food, and everyone thinks the flavours are great," Robinson said. "I can't choose a favourite dish, and I do enjoy a good meal.”

The dining experiences will run each Thursday to Sunday in the evenings, and bookings are coming in steadily, according to Robinson. About 90 guests joined for the dinners on the opening weekend.

Aurora Village received approval for a grant from the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada for $25,000, which will help fund the dining project.

But while the new effort is proving popular with local people, the company is still operating far below its potential because of the Covid restrictions on indoor and outdoor gatherings.

“We've applied for an exemption to increase the capacity because we feel we do have the resources to safely manage that and socially distance everyone,” Robinson said. “We do have a very large property. We're just waiting on the outcome to that and hopefully we will be able to see more people.”

The larger problem is the lack of international tourists, who before Covid accounted for most of the customer base, and in pre-Covid times September was a month of full operations for Aurora Village.

“It has drastically had an impact. When you're used to welcoming 200 to 500 guests per night, that instantly has a massive effect on your bottom line,” said Robinson.

Like many other local businesses, Aurora Village faces anxiety about the looming unknowns of the pandemic.

And with signs of a second wave of Covid in Canada becoming increasingly evident, the prospects for a return of international tourists will be beyond the horizon for a while.

“We're going to use what we've got, we're going to use that to our advantage,” Robinson said. “We've got custom-made heated seats at the village that you can sit in and look at the aurora and dine. We've got that dog team that we're going to run anyway. Once the restrictions ease a bit more for live music there's more we can do. As long as we can make sure we can manage the regulations, where we're gonna see what we can do.”