Small island, big plans

Posted on February 25, 2015 | Sandra Phinney | 0 Comments

If Gutrid Hutchings has her way, people will start streaming into Battle Harbour like they did back in the 1800s and early 1900s, when cod was king and the small island (1km x .5km) was the unofficial capital of Labrador.

Huchings is chair and managing director of the Battle Harbour Historic Trust Inc. She was invited by the government in 2012 to lead the revitalized board, and to review and implement the business framework for Battle Harbour, previously mapped out by PFK Consultants, an international firm with hospitality/tourism expertise.

Battle Harbour is where Robert Peary transmitted a story from the Marconi Station to The New York Times in 1909, claiming he had reached the North Pole. Journalists flocked there to get the full story. It’s also where Dr. Wilfred Grenfell set up the first hospital in Labrador, and where numerous original historic buildings are still standing — including St. James the Apostle Church, designed by William Grey, noted ecclesiastical architect of the mid-1880s.

After the resettlement in the late 1960s and early 1970s, most residents were relocated to the mainland. Neglect took its toll; buildings, wharves, and flakes began to deteriorate. With the birth of the Battle Harbour Historic Trust Inc. (BHHT) in 1990, an ambitious restoration plan got underway.

In 1997, Parks Canada designated Battle Harbour as one of Canada’s National Historic Districts, and it’s the only National Historic Site in Canada where travellers can hunker down for the night. (Note the dual designation.) But it couldn’t rest on its historic laurels or laudable restoration efforts. Battle Harbour needed more paying customers to make it viable.

Gutrid Hutchings on site
Gutrid Hutchings on site
That’s when Gutrie Hutchings stepped up to the plate. With her background in operating a successful high-end tourism operation in a remote part of Labrador (Rifflin’ Hitch Lodge), she brought a certain savvy to the scene. “Hats off to the original board — true visionaries,” she says. “They did a phenomenal job in the restoration. But now Battle Harbour needs to reach its true potential.”

Zooming into high gear, she let certain people know that Battle Harbour needed help. Chefs, architects, engineers, designers, heritage carpenters, energy consultants, historians, successful entrepreneurs and travel experts gathered — pro bono — for a few days on the island. They roamed about, made notes, and asked themselves, “What if?”

In short order, with the support of the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA), the provincial government’s departments of Innovation, Business and Rural Development (IBRD) and Tourism, Culture and Recreation (DTCR), along with some private contributions, major changes were made.

To wit: Phase I of the PFK report (amended and completed between June 2013 and May of 2014) clocked in to the tune of $375K. Highlights: the Merchant’s Building was turned into eight classy rooms with private baths; Battle Harbour Inn was renovated, including a plumbing upgrade; the RCMP Annex (a shed) was repurposed to a high-end single unit; rooms on the site were outfitted with handmade furniture and quilts (made by residents in the region) and the best linens and toiletries money could buy.

Merchants Building
Merchant’s Building
A suite in the Merchants Building
A suite in the Merchants Building
Suite bathroom
Suite bathroom

Monies were also spent to create a new logo/brand and launch a website. But it wasn’t just money going out. A fundraising event sponsored by Battle Harbour supporters in St. John’s generated $125K.

Phase II, completed June-October 2014 ($307K) focused on building a new kitchen/dining room on the ground floor of the Salmon Store building; a conference room/reception area upstairs; cooks received training to turn regular meals into a culinary experience. The Loft over the General Store was repurposed into a lounge, and the Wash House/Twine House morphed into the Wash House Spa — both with potential revenue streams. Throughout the site, the 600+ historical artifacts were consolidated and properly displayed.

Dining room in Salmon Stores
Dining room in Salmon Stores
Freshly made latkes and smoked salmon apps
Freshly made latkes and smoked salmon
The lounge in the Loft
The lounge in the Loft
Wash House Spa
Wash House Spa

Now, coming into the 2015 season, Phase III is all about getting some return on these investments. Hutchings says, “Some people have a mind-set that government funding will keep things alive forever. This is not what funding should be about. If projects cannot be sustainable after a certain period, the plan needs to be reworked … and perhaps harder decisions made.”

Last year, extensive road construction on the 85km gravel stretch between Red Bay and Mary’s Harbour (where guests are then ferried over to the island) was a deterrent. One guest faced a hefty bill for muffler/undercarriage damage. Some turned back when they got to Red Bay and saw the condition of the dirt road. Visitors will now be happier, knowing that the road is pavement-ready, although there’s no guesstimate as to when it will actually be paved.

On the up side, visitors are staying longer. “The word is out that you need to stay more than one night to fully experience Battle Harbour.” A foreseeable challenge involves staffing, as current workers are ageing and some will soon retire, but the Trust is working on a strategy. “For example, we are currently training a young lady from Mary’s Harbour to operate the spa,” says Hutchings. “It’s a small step in stemming the tide, but an important one.”

Will Battle Harbour ever be viable and sustainable? Will it become a destination of choice, touted in Condé Nast, National Geographic Traveller, and

“I have no doubt that this will work,” says the feisty entrepreneur. “The key is understanding who the travelling public is. Remote island destinations are experiences many FIT (fully independent travellers) are looking for. And one of the fastest growing sectors of tourism is health and wellness travel. There are also culinary travellers and people interested in history and the environment. We are confident — not cocky, but confident that by the end of 2016, the operating side of Battle Harbour will be able to take care of itself.”

Peter Bull on site with one of the staff's granddaughters, and his two sons.
Peter Bull on site with one of the staff’s granddaughters, and his two sons.
Peter Bull, executive director for BHHT says that the current target markets are Ontario and Quebec. “We also realize that there are a lot of people living on the island of Newfoundland who have never been to Labrador. Many had grandparents who fished in Battle Harbour, so it’s a place for them to explore their ancestry.” Battle Harbour is also starting to get noticed in Germany. “That may be a market we grow moving forward,” Bull adds.

Meanwhile, plans are in the works to partner with three World UNESCO sites in Western Newfoundland and Southern Labrador. Also, as Fogo Island and Battle Harbour have much in common, this could be a good fit for partnering ventures.

This spring, BHHT will showcase the island at trade shows in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. “We also have great partnerships with Destination Labrador and the province’s department of tourism,” Bull says. “These two entities are working hard to get Battle Harbour’s message out to travellers looking for a unique destination.”

For individuals or companies with deep pockets, Bull can arrange for small charters to fly into Mary’s Harbour, or, better yet, for float planes to land at the wharf on the island, mere feet from the dining hall and conference centre.

“With our upgraded accommodations, common spaces, lots of meeting rooms and great cuisine, this is the ideal spot for a wedding, corporate retreat or board meeting. No distractions, no street lights, no roads, no traffic — and no flies!”

If Bull, Hutchings and the BHHT get their way, Battle Harbour may once again be a rockin’ little outport. New York Times, stay tuned.

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