The photographs of Nancy and Michael Rogers’ wedding at Nova Scotia’s White Point Beach Resort were so spectacular they were shown on newspapers across Canada, Europe and India, on CBC, Inside Edition, CNN, NBC and even Saturday Night Live. Normally, the Queens County resort would be thrilled with such international exposure, but not so in November 2011. The couple looked great, but what really caught the eye was the inferno destroying the historic inn behind them.
“What a horrible time it was,” recalls general manager Danny Morton. “It was an emotion-filled day for myself, for my staff, for my guests, for the community. I had messages for weeks afterward.”
As the blaze ripped the lodge apart, owner Robert Risley spotted a weeping staff member and told her she could go home. “She said, ‘This is home. You don’t understand. I am home,’” Morton recalls.
Amid the chaos of firefighters and flames, staff set up another hall for the Rogers wedding and found alternative food and accommodation for all of their guests. The couple lost their banquet, some presents, and all of their decorations, but staff were determined they would not lose their wedding.
Risley announced his decision to rebuild three days later.
Sitting on a yellow Adirondack chair on the porch of a cabin beside the lodge site eight months later, Morton has cause for optimism. The crashing waves, singing birds and scampering bunnies are interrupted only by the hammering of construction. The charred ruins of the 83-year-old inn have been swept away and a new lodge is taking shape.
“You use the words ‘rebirth,’ and to have a rebirth, something has to go away,” he reflects. “I guess that’s what happened that day. When we lost the main building, the one thing we didn’t lose was all the experiences people have had over the years.”
Morton, who has worked at White Point for 30 years, starts staff training with a 30-minute history of the lodge. “I tell them they’re the luckiest hotel people in the world, because White Point isn’t a place where people come to lay their head because they’re doing something somewhere around here. They’re coming to White Point because they want to be at White Point,” he says. “This place has meant a lot to a lot of people. A lot of special things have happened here.”
White Point was opened in 1928 by Philip Hooper Moore, an American who wanted to attract well-to-do anglers and hunters. He made the swank lodge not to pamper the sportsmen, but to provide a comfortable home for their families while he guided the men into Nova Scotia’s wilderness. New England families would travel by steamship to Yarmouth, and then take the train to the lodge. “We had intermodal travel back then,” Morton dryly observes. It became a tradition for generations of families. Couples wed at the lodge, and then returned for the marriages of their own children.
Author Frances Jewel Dickson began staying at White Point in the 1980s. “I was immediately drawn to the historical surroundings and the sheer beauty of the natural setting, which, combined with the friendliness of the staff, promoted almost instant relaxation,” she says.
She decided to write a history of the lodge; it burned down three days after she handed in her first draft. Destination White Point needed a dark new chapter, and the painful process of turning all references to the past tense. Still, Dickson is hopeful for the future, noting that White Point has survived the stock market crash of the 1920s, the Great Depression and two world wars. “It is my opinion that White Point is unique in its category in that it has managed to survive and re-invent itself against considerable odds over a period of more than eight decades,” she says.
A skeleton crew has stayed on the payroll since the fire, but most staff were laid off. Some are renovating the existing accommodation and some are handling reservations as well as the small number of guests in the vacation homes and time shares on the adjacent White Point Estates. The golf course remains open and staffed.
White Point is tapping into social media to stay connected to its community and clients during the four-million-dollar rebuild. The lodge’s Facebook page and Twitter feed provide regular updates, while its webcam streams the construction live. Morton credits his marketing manager, Donna Hatt, with the innovative approach.
They’re using more traditional social tools to replace a quilt depicting life at the lodge. Hatt asked local quilter Bev Crouse to create a new one. At the lodge’s golf course annual general meeting, members weren’t allowed in until they had put one stitch into the quilt. At a fundraiser for the fire department, she had each firefighter add a stitch. Slowly, the White Point community is being knitted back together.
Blaine Mayo is following the rebuild online. His company, Advanced Energy Management, regularly held seminars at the old lodge. “The experience that the lodge provides to guests is simply unbeatable,” he says. “What really makes the experience special is the people who work there. They really do know how to provide world-class service.”
It’s an especially impressive place to take international partners, he says, as the ocean-front cabins make for deep, positive memories. He’s already planning events at the new lodge. “We can’t wait to get back there,” he says.
While there is optimism and a firm plan to reopen in 2012, there are deeper problems in Queens County. On the day this reporter visited, the front page of the Chronicle Herald was headlined, “Waiting f r a phoenix to emerge from the ashes.” The article was not about White Point, but the hard times in Queens County after the closure of Bowater’s Brooklyn mill. The mill opened the same year as the lodge, a time when the local economy was red hot. It’s struggling today, a problem compounded by the provincial government’s 2009 decision to stop funding the New England to Yarmouth ferry.
“Some are surprised that we’re trying to rebuild, with the demise of our ferry, our link to our biggest market – 30 or 40 million people right there. It’s very difficult times,” Morton says.
He, like just about everyone else on the south shore, is lobbying for the ferry to return. “I hope it will be realized that access to our province is critical,” he says. “It’s such an obvious mistake.”
White Point Lodge’s business is about 10 to 15 per cent international (down 10 per cent since the ferry stopped), 50 per cent from Halifax, 20 per cent Atlantic Canada and the rest from Ontario. The local business is a mixture of weddings, Christmas vacations and weekend getaways, with a strong core of corporate events. The resort will have about 150 bedrooms in the new lodge and refurbished cabins and will be open year-round.
The plan is to open by the end of October and the lodge is already booked to host Nova Scotia Music Week in November. It’s busy over Christmas and then with corporate events. All of those guests will be staying in what, as Morton speaks, is empty air floating above the new concrete foundation. “And I’m not even scared yet. If I was going to go there, I would have even less hair left than I already have,” he laughs.
J.W. Lindsay, the contractor responsible for the rebuild, has worked hard to secure the trades people needed to swiftly move the project ahead. That speed has affected the cost of the rebuild and it’s likely accommodation prices will rise in the new lodge. “We plan to re-enter the marketplace with a fully refreshed, quality product. Our success has been value in the past and that will continue,” the general manager says.
The new lodge will have the same feel as the original, but the views will be better, it will be more accessible for people with mobility issues and it will be greener. The staff will be the same, and Morton hopes so will the guests. If the rebuild of the lodge succeeds, then perhaps one day Nancy and Michael Rogers will return for the wedding of their own children.