Sharpening Risk Management Skills

By Melanie Dahling

The sun is out and Canadians want to be right there with it. After weeks of isolation, Ontario is taking cautious steps toward re-opening. Outdoor activities feel safe because the air is open and there’s room to spread out. But adventure tourism operators need to adjust their model to the new normal. How can we soak in the sun without raining on anyone’s parade?

Graham Ketcheson, Managing Director at OWL Rafting, is anxious to get people back on the Ottawa River. He is confident the 26-acre property can provide a safe space for visitors.

OWL Rafting

Image provided by OWL Rafting

 “We’ve got a perfect sort of remedy down the road for when people are ready and society’s ready for us again,” he says. “So that’s the good news. But it’s been quite a challenging time to rethink our business plan.”

 Premier Doug Ford declared a mass re-opening of parks and campsites on May 15th. At this phase, overnight stays are available only to RV owners, who must follow a host of precautions. Many sites need to work strategically to be safe and will need time to accommodate the new normal as it unfolds.

 Though it is a challenge, it’s one Ketcheson feels up for. He says a large part of adventure tourism is risk management. During open season, the folks at OWL often change plans based on nature’s inevitable flux. “We adjust our planning daily,” he says. “COVID-19 yes is a much bigger curveball thrown at us but we’re also used to managing risk so it’s not like its that new.”

Jeff Jackson, Ph.D echoes those sentiments as the Professor and Coordinator of Algonquin College’s Outdoor Adventure Program. The Pembroke campus adventure guide course typically ends with students running an expedition, often to the United States.

Algonquin College

Image Provided by Algonquin College

 “[The pandemic] was on our radar all semester,” Jackson says. He was aware of potential issues crossing the border, despite students being somewhat dubious. The situation escalated, and Algonquin went online with classes two weeks before Ontario’s shut down.

 “I don’t feel particularly smug about that, but that’s just the world we live in,” he says. “I would argue adventure guiding is a continual series of corrections.”

 He uses the analogy of a guide on a kayak trip, zipping the vessel left to right to avoid accidents. “Keep a smile on your face and no one ever knows a disaster was just averted,” he says.

In the current situation, success lies in working together as a team from all sides of the adventure tourism business.

Ketcheson says OWL has been reaching out to others in the same situation. “We’ve been chatting with a bunch of different rafting companies and just kind of seeing what other people are doing,” he says. “Working together and sharing ideas, and right now we have the time to do that.”

When it is safe to do so, Jackson says it is imperative for consumers to support local adventure tourism in any way possible. “This is going to be absolutely catastrophic for some adventure tourism operators,” he says.

OWL Rafting

Image provided by OWL Rafting

Jackson suggests day trips or a guided hike as a way to show support. “Every business has clearly taken a hit. But retail will open and their demand is latent,” he says. “Travel does not work that way. Travel is going to feel this for many years.”

Ketcheson hopes to offer a phase 1 opening soon, with self-guided canoe or kayak trips, and spaced out campsites for small groups.

 Now that the weather is right, many people are ready to find new ways to get outside. The most difficult task on both sides is waiting. “[The river is] there, it’s flowing so we just hope we can get on it in a safe way and get people out to enjoy it,” says Ketcheson.

For updates on OWL Rafting, check-in on their website: https://owlrafting.com/about-us/covid-19/

 Algonquin College is committed to offering its hands-on programs in the fall term and will take the proper precautions to do so. For more info, visit: