Here at Cottage Life, we realize how hard the COVID-19 pandemic has hit small businesses. To do our part, we’ll be highlighting different businesses in cottage country. This week, we spoke with Stuart Letovsky who runs Algonquin Adventure Tours out of Dwight, Ont.
What is Algonquin Adventure Tours?
We are a guided adventure and tour company in Algonquin Park exclusively. We’ve been doing it for 25 years. Specifically, we have guided canoe trips and photography, fishing, birding, and biking tours.
How did the business get started?
In 1981, I started attending Camp Arowhon. It was a sleepaway camp inside the park. That really opened up the door for my love of canoe tripping and the park.
I was living in Toronto [in 1996], and I tried to get this tour company off the ground. I would cruise around downtown on a push scooter and whenever I saw obvious tourists, I would tell them about Algonquin Park and my tours—it helped that I speak five languages. The internet was in its infancy then, so I had paper brochures.
What inspired the name?
When we first opened the doors in 1996, it was Go Camping Canada. In those days, I was envisioning it as not just tours in Algonquin Park, but maybe one day doing tours all across Canada.
At that point, I had grand designs. But once we got more serious and more mature, I realized that we should be focusing on the one niche. So, Algonquin Adventure Tours made more sense.
What’s your most popular tour?
One of our biggest sellers is I do a three-hour-long VIP electric canoe photography tour. We’re the first company in Canada touring with these motors, and they allow us to travel completely emission free. So, regardless of whether you’re just bringing your phone or you’re bringing $15,000 worth of camera gear—which we get often—these boats allow us to get into supremely beautiful places where we’re often encountering wildlife.
Another tour we do is a six-hour, full-day canoe trip where everyone’s going to be sweating and paddling. We teach all the canoeing basics on that trip. Although they’re not being certified in anything, it is designed to teach people. We love repeat business, but we want people to be confident that they could go out and canoe themselves after taking our programs.
We do a short portage with them. If they want to learn how to do a solo carry, we do that. We go cliff jumping with them. We take them on a short hike to a scenic lookout; it’s a really full day, but it’s still oriented towards beginners.
What’s the most impressive thing you’ve seen on a tour?
Seeing moose up close is always impressive. Depending on which way the wind is blowing and how quiet we are, they’ll walk close enough that we can smell them. We try our hardest to never disturb the animals’ natural environment and routines.
How has the pandemic affected your business?
It’s affected us tremendously, because last year we made the decision to take whatever health measures we can to the absolute maximum level. So, what that means is we had to reduce our staff by 75 per cent to provide them with a COVID-safe living environment. So, we had to drop from eight staff to two. And, simply put, that means our earnings are down 75 per cent, too.
The government did help a little bit. That certainly softened the blow. But at the end of the day, it’s a year where we basically made no money. We’re ready to do another season this year.
What does the future look like for Algonquin Adventure Tours?
We’ve started a charity program called Canoe4Cancer. Because of my past cancer experience, we developed this to give people who are undergoing serious treatment the chance to come out and enjoy a free, effortless, motorized, VIP experience with me. It was working great for the first couple years we ran it, but then, of course, COVID threw a kink in it last year, so it’s currently on hold.
We’d like to expand those types of community offerings because—although we have many years left in us—one day when we sell the money-making side of the business, we might just continue living in the neighbourhood and doing the charity work.
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