Hands preparing Ah-Nah-Ko-Nah-Ow at Pei Pei Chei Ow, an Edmonton-based catering company that offers contemporary Indigenous cuisine. (Pei Pei Chei Ow photo)

Hands preparing Ah-Nah-Ko-Nah-Ow at Pei Pei Chei Ow, an Edmonton-based catering company that offers contemporary Indigenous cuisine. (Pei Pei Chei Ow photo)

Pandemic-forced changes to Indigenous tourism businesses net positive outlooks

‘We survived colonization. We survived residential school. We’re going to survive COVID for sure’

By Sam Laskaris, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, CFWE

After some initial concerns about whether his business would be able to survive the COVID-19 pandemic, Scott Iserhoff has a much more positive outlook now.

Iserhoff owns Pei Pei Chei Ow, an Edmonton-based catering company that offers contemporary Indigenous cuisine.

Iserhoff was one of three business owners who took part in a panel at the virtual Indigenous Tourism Alberta summit, which concluded on Wednesday.

The panelists discussed how they have shifted their businesses since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

The panel included Amy Willier, an artist, designer and co-owner of Calgary’s Moonstone Creation, and Juanita Marois, the executive director of Metis Crossing, located in Smoky Lake.

Mackenzie Brown, the project manager for Indigenous Tourism Alberta, facilitated the panel.

Iserhoff told conference attendees how all of his catering gigs were cancelled as soon as the pandemic hit.

“The hospitality industry took a big hit and is (still) slowly taking that hit,” Iserhoff said. “All our bookings got cancelled. And at the time we had just had our newborn. So that was kind of a blessing too, because I didn’t have to work for like two months so I could spend every day with my little one, which was a positive to look at.”

Iserhoff has started to build his business back up. In fact, he seems to be doing quite well offering various dining packages.

And he’s not willing to let the pandemic dampen his optimism for the future, despite making plenty of adjustments in his business. He believes other Indigenous business owners should adopt a similar line of thinking.

“We survived colonization. We survived residential school. We’re going to survive COVID for sure,” he said.

“COVID is nothing compared to what we’ve survived previous to this. It’s just a little stage and, maybe, it’s happening for us to take a step back and think where we’re going with our business, with our lives, put more perspective on our values.”

Iserhoff said he no longer aspires to own a restaurant. Because of the pandemic he’s content to continue his catering jobs, operate more online cooking classes and possibly find a space to have private dining functions.

As for Willier, she said her Indigenous gallery and gift shop had to make some immediate changes when the pandemic hit and its doors were closed.

“We started doing face masks,” Willier said. “That’s how we started. And I was doing curbside pickup three days a week.”

Moonstone Creation also beefed up its online presence in order to sell other goods.

“We were selling beads and supplies and smudge items because people were saying `I don’t know what to do with my time’,” Willier said.

By the time September rolled around, Willier decided to pivot her business even more by offering online classes.

For Orange Shirt Day, 150 kits for an Orange Shirt Day beaded brooch project were sold to various schools and additional kits were sold through the store’s website.

Willier said her online classes quickly became a success.

“I had a company that bought 400 kits of Dreamcatcher-making kits,” she said.

September proved to be a really busy month.

“I figure I taught 600 people virtually, which I could never have done before COVID,” she said. “I couldn’t have done it. I couldn’t have been running here and there teaching people.”

During October Willier concentrated on selling beaded poppies. And now in November she has added classes on how to make baby moccasins.

As for Marois, she said Metis Crossing officials have been forced to make their share of changes at the popular cultural interpretive facility because of the pandemic.

“We completed our new gathering centre in December 2019 and we were poised to have a wonderful grand opening event,” Marois said.

But those plans were nixed.

“When we got the news in March (about the pandemic), like other cultural gathering centres, we had to shut our doors,” Marois said. “We really took that time to reflect and (determine) what is our business model and what can we do.”

The answer was plenty, thanks primarily to the fact the centre is located on 512 acres of land along Saskatchewan River, plus the fact people were still eager to get out safely from their homes when they could.

“We decided to change our model to offer different experiences and we focused very much on the same content, on the same stories we wanted to share,” Marois said. “But we had to share them slightly differently. So, we did time-stamped visitations.”

Those looking to visit the facility were required to register online. And they were required to abide by new safe visitation rules.

“The challenge with that of course is that it doesn’t allow us high volumes of people,” Marois said. “So, in terms of generating a lot of income, our visitation was actually only about 10 per cent of what we had hoped it would be this year.”

Marois said visitors seemed to enjoy the smaller gatherings.

“It provided a very intimate experience for guests,” she said. “And guests were very happy to have this safe place to be, to run, to experience nature, to learn about the Metis culture.”