Back to Business is a business news series by NNSL Media. It focuses on local businesses in Yellowknife NT.
With borders closed for the busiest tourism months of the year, North Star Adventures is pivoting to staycationers to share the gems of the NWT.
Joe Bailey launched North Star in 2007 to share his love of the land and “showcase all that beauty we have in the territory to the world.”
Originally touting themselves “aurora hunters,” North Star has since grown to offer canoe expeditions, fishing trips, snowmobile and boat tours and sightseeing excursions across the territory.
Bailey lists the Mackenzie mountains, the Arctic Ocean, Nahanni National Park, Tulita, Great Bear Lake and others among locations he’s “worked, lived, and played.”
“We just have so much beauty here that people don’t realize.”
But since the start of the pandemic, Bailey says weathering the storm has “been devastating.”
Surmising losses is difficult, he said, since the tour company’s profits continue to decline steadily. By June, Bailey estimates North Star had lost over $100,000. Now it would probably be close to $300,000, he said.
North Star initiated a screening policy back in January. Bailey recalls barring Chinese guests from booking with the company, followed by Iran, then Italy. North Star was completely shut down shortly afterwards when the pandemic was announced in March. Then came the refunds.
This time last year, North Star had 15 staff members. Now, “it’s basically just me,” Bailey said.
Normally the aurora season from February to April generates enough revenue for the company to survive the summer months but the cancellations and the refunds were “crippling,” Bailey said.
Since their launch, 99 per cent of North Star’s clientele hail from outside territorial borders. As such, the company has redesigned their products to suit locals.
Every second person in Yellowknife has a boat or a snowmobile, Bailey said, so instead North Star begun offering products like the Mackenzie River canoe tour and Dehcho summer experience where even longtime Northerners can experience something new.
One thing that sets them apart from other tour companies, Bailey said, is that North Star is 100 per cent Indigenous owned and incorporates elements of Indigenous culture into all of their products. “As a matter of fact a lot of the feedback we’re getting was that the best part of the tour was learning the Indigenous culture part of it,” Bailey said.
“I just think it’s a natural fit to have a tour company that’s 100 per cent Indigenous because we have a special connection to the land.”
He describes watching new hires get out on the land and become “great workers” and “great storytellers.”
When guests sign up for a tour with North Star, “you’re going to learn about our culture, taste our food, hear stories and learn some of our language.”
Bailey said his company would not have been able to survive without the federal government’s funding support. He is counting the days to the next summer tourism season and keeping his fingers crossed that they can make it 120 days to when vacationers are booking their summer trips in March.
“We’re doing all we can to redesign and restructure ourselves as a result of the pandemic,” Bailey said, but admits “it’s a struggle.”
“Maybe I’ll be looking for a job next year but it will be the last thing I do because I believe we can still survive.”
To promote small business week, MP Michael McLeod recently filmed a short video with Bailey encouraging viewers to support local businesses like North Star.
“Small business is at the heart of our NWT community and their success is vital to our economic recovery,” McLeod said in the video. “They’ve been hit hard by the pandemic and yet they’ve shown incredible strength and resilience.”
Bailey said they were thankful for the exposure and excited to be chosen by the MP.
“I believe in the Yellowknife people and the Northwest Territories people,” he said. “I can’t wait to get back out there.”