By Darren Lum
Finding that perfect spot on a lakefront in cottage country will be even more elusive than ever before thanks to unprecedented demand this year spurred by a desire to get away following loss of summer vacations last year.
Short-term accommodations are a hot commodity because of the pandemic and how more and more people are looking to get away from the city, but still stay in the province.
Cheryl McCombe, owner with Don Critchley of Cottage Care Rentals and Property Management, which represents 65 cottages primarily in the Haliburton Highlands, said she’s never seen this kind of demand before after close to eight years of operation.
Before the March lockdown, the company could have taken bookings for the summer, but decided to wait. It was shutdown and did not take bookings from March until June 4 when the “flood gates opened.” It’s four staff continued to get paid at this time.
“I was literally on the phone from 6:30 in the morning until 11 at night every single day from June 4 all the way until the end the of June and solidly booked every single opening we had at a cottage,” she said.
There were lots of people left without a summer vacation last year because of how fast the bookings were made, she adds. This led to people, who missed out last year, to carry their deposits over to bookings for this year.’
“It’s’ crazy. We have very limited space available at any of our cottages right now,” she said.
She said a lot of the people booking are frontline service workers, seeking stress relief with a summer vacation, but are facing challenges due to scheduling.
“We have a lot of them sitting on hold somewhere where at least when their schedule opens up they can get away,” she said.
Many of her clients, she said, are older couples and families.
The arrangement for accommodations, she said, is safe for everyone.
When the family comes from their home they come directly to the accommodation.
“They get food delivery. They’re bringing their food with them. Their kids are going to be able to jump in a lake, hug a tree and make s’mores around a camp fire,” she said.
The feeling of relief is palpable when a booking is finalized, she said.
“As soon as we say, ‘Yep, OK, great, let’s book you into this cottage. It’s a good match.’ And they fill out all the forms, you can just hear the exhale from them,” she said.
Although many are return clients, she said, there are new renters, who would otherwise travel out of the country to warmer climes.
Typically the busy time is the end of June to September, but the added demand has expanded the time period for bookings before and after. Bookings aren’t usually made for May because of the bugs, but there has been requests for that month now.
Particularly with families, she said, the hope is to just get away and a continue with things like it was in the city or suburbs.
“They think, ‘Geez, my kids have been in online learning for so long, if the place has WiFi we can just continue that and have a nice quiet vacation,’” she said. “There’s not the need to go back and return to school.”
McCombe wasn’t sure about the exact figures, but said there is a high percentage of return customers and this year is part of an ongoing trend for the Highlands. Cottage Care Rentals and Property Management is part of the Ontario’s Cottage Rental Managers Association, which includes 10 vacation rental companies based in Ontario. It was reported all the OCRMA members have reported close-to-full capacity a January meeting.
She acknowledges the pandemic is not a good situation, but looking at the positives of there are many new visitors to the area who are discovering “those hidden gems that exist here.”
Muskoka used to be the main cottaging draw for people in Ontario, but in the last four years, she said, there has been a growing demand to come to the Highlands.
The people come here “because they have been hooked on our community. They have been hooked on our nature. They have felt the energy in the Highlands and they feel like they’ve been welcomed so they’re coming back,” she said.
This greater demand could provide an opportunity for growth for the area related to services and amenities.
“There are places in Muskoka you can get everything and anything over there and there is no reason why we can’t do that here,” she said. “All you need is starting a business to do it.”
McCombe said the recent lockdown forced them to turn away winter vacationers for February.
“We had to say, no. So we had to cancel. That is important to know that any agency here is working within the rules,” she said.
She adds this is important for the health of everyone.
As far as licensed rental agencies go, she said, they didn’t rent out accommodations when there was a lockdown the first time last spring despite what people think.
“We are responsible business owners and we will not break the rules. The rules are in place to keep everybody safe,” she said.
Bill Dewey, owner of WRD Cottage Rental Agency since 1995, said there has been lots of inquiries for bookings through his agency, but everything has been put on hold for the summer.
“There’s no lack of people wanting to rent cottages and we’re taking them and putting them on hold until we have some clear guidelines from the government,” he said.
WRD represents more than 180 private rental cottages in Central Ontario, including the Haliburton Highlands.
Dewey said he was surprised there has been so many bookings during the pandemic.
It’s important to remember, he said, he’s not just looking out for the interests of renters.
“I’ve got two customers. I’ve got the renter that rents the cottage, but another important aspect is the owners. The owners come to us. Without them I don’t have anything to sell so they’re all just sitting back and waiting now as to what the government’s going to do. I don’t know whether we’ll ever get a definitive answer the way the government’s been operating lately,” he said.
He adds the cottage owners are hesitant to proceed with bookings this summer for health concerns.
Dewey tries to listen for updates, but finds it challenging with changing messages.
“Everyday I get up and listen [for] the new protocols … It’s difficult for a company like ours or anybody in the hospitality industry right now. It’s crazy,” he said.
He welcomes the inquiries despite the issues with what is and what isn’t permitted.
“I encourage them to come to us and if they find a cottage on our website that they like we put their name on it and we wait for the government to make their decisions,” he said.
If a provincial decision leads to a ban on short-term summer accommodations, McCombe said deposits will be returned to people.
However McCombe is optimistic the summer will play out like last year because of the vaccine.
“If we didn’t go through [with bookings] when do you wait until? That’s the question,” she said.
She adds,“We have to have hope that it’s going to be okay for the summer time or else you go crazy.”