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Company of the Year (1-15 Employees): Voyageurs' Lodge & Cookhouse

"We've always had a love of Canada and a personal love for history and the Hudson's Bay Company. We just realized the North Shore of Lake Superior was ideally suited to retell the story of the fur trade."

It doesn't take much prodding to get Frank O'Connor to dress up like a fur trader.

The co-owner of Voyageurs' Lodge and Cookhouse will don the garb for busloads of American tourists or to entertain a group of Lake Superior paddlers if it offers the chance to talk some local history.

"I'll put on the outfit anytime there's an opportunity to tell the story," said Frank, who has run the popular Batchawana Bay attraction on the Trans-Canada Highway, north of Sault Ste. Marie, with wife Gail, since 2003.

"We've always had a love of Canada and a personal love for history and the Hudson's Bay Company. We just realized the North Shore of Lake Superior was ideally suited to retell the story of the fur trade."

Situated along the spectacular beaches and scenic vistas of Batchawana Bay, the resort's decor, furniture and artwork reflects that period of Canadiana.

Their award nominators say the couple's entrepreneurial spirit and dedication to customer service makes them "ambassadors for the region."

During the busy summer tourism season, Voyageurs' Lodge is a happening place. Rooms are booked solid and it's best to make a dinner reservation, especially for the Friday night fish fry.

The couple have lived or vacationed in the area for 30 years. Frank taught business at a London, Ont. college, while Gail worked at a currency exchange.

When the opportunity arose to buy the former Blue Water Motel during the winter of 2002-2003, they jumped at it. The next year, they purchased a neighbouring motel property with the idea of creating a "destination resort."

Over eight years, the O'Connors have invested almost a half-million dollars in upgrades.

Aside from some startup help from the Business Development Bank of Canada, the couple proudly point out that they've built the business largely on their own dime. "The money we've made, we've poured back into the operation," said Frank.

They've painstakingly renovated the restaurant, lodge rooms, general store, gift shop and landscaped the property. A covered bandshell was built for folk and roots music festivals.

"We've had Juno Award winners, world champion fiddlers and a 15-piece swing band on our stage," said Frank.

This past August, they staged an artisans festival and future plans call for cottage lots along the nearby Carp River.

Over the years, they've had their share of challenges.

"We've had pipes freeze and I've wanted to throw dynamite at the building on several occasions," said Frank.

But the key to their enduring success has always been about pleasing the customer.

The O'Connors opened their doors just prior to the SARS epidemic and the American invasion of Iraq, which dried up the tourism market.

They survived by following the advice Frank gave to his college students, "the notion of relationship building with customers. We have customers who do two or three trips along the North Shore every year and always make a stop here."

The workforce has grown from five to 25 full-time and seasonal workers, many of them university-aged students who return every summer.

"It's a pleasant and fun place to work," said Frank. "Our philosophy is we treat these people with respect and in turn they will do the same with you. They've bought into our vision."

"We have way more applications than we have jobs," said Gail, who wrote its employee orientation manual. It outlines health and safety issues, job descriptions, how duties are performed and the importance of customer interaction.

There are defined expectations of customer service for housekeepers, store clerks and servers when meeting and greeting guests.

Though gratified that their sweat equity has translated into success, the O'Connors never rest on their laurels. Customer feedback fuels their desire to keep improving the venue, said Frank.

"When spring comes and your customers see the things you've done that winter and they tell you what great things you're doing, it always motivates you to keep thinking of new ways to do things."