Birch is the New Maple

Date : September 28, 2016
Birch is the New Maple

In my ongoing pursuit for hotels in every corner of the world that are taking chances and offering truly exceptional experiences for their guests, I recently found myself in Cranbrook, British Columbia (BC) at St. Eugene Golf Resort and Casino, a 125-room property built 15 years ago.

Located in the East Kootenays – the easternmost valley of the Rocky Mountains with the Purcell range to its west – the region is not only the sunniest part of the province but one of the few areas of the world that has more elk than people. Also close to the US border, Cranbrook has long catered to the forestry industry while the neighboring villages of Kimberley and Fernie are skiing meccas. Visiting St. Eugene in early June, though, outside was sweltering and instant proof for how Interior BC is able to make such great wines at such a northern latitude. While winter sports were out of the question, the purpose of my trip was to test out some of the new summer activities the resort has packaged including fly fishing, white water rafting and helicopter tours of the majestic Fisher Peak.

The Global Spread of Adventure Tourism

Normally an old curmudgeon when it comes to this sort of adventure tourism, as a responsible hotelier I have to set my reluctance aside because this is already a big business and likely the future of all resort travel. That is to say, while urban markets will always be able to lure in prospective guests with their proximity to convention centers, great attractions, shopping, nightlife, museums and historic sites, trips to rural or resort properties must offer experiential activities to set themselves apart.

We are already seeing this to a great extent with ‘sun destination’ travel where it’s no longer just about a resort’s plush guestrooms or the cleanliness of the beach, but what the territory has to offer and, more importantly, how activities are packaged into half-day or full-day experiences that require little to no planning on the guest’s part.

Picture yourself absconding to Costa Rica for a week. While lazing against the calm ocean waves may sooth your soul for two or three days, eventually you’ll be jonesing to explore, opting for, say, a ten-hour excursion inland that includes a guided hike through a tropical rainforest followed by a catered lunch, zip lining and canoeing down a quiet sylvan stream. In terms of organization, all you had to do was authorize a payment from your credit card and then show up for the bus, swim trunks optional.

While popular resort regions targeting the North American and European markets like Central America, the Mayan Riviera, Caribbean islands like Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica, and even as far as French Polynesia are saturated with these sorts of adventure packages – with each offering its own local authentic flair such as Mayan ruins tours when in that part of Mexico – what I learned from my trip to St. Eugene is that this trend is worldwide and will soon be an expectation for ALL travelers.

Not just leisure tourists with fat wallets, but everyone from the young family on a budget to the eloping wedding party or the business group on a corporate retreat. We no longer want to simply visit; we want to do.

Interestingly, this echoes the many conversations I had with DMO and CVB operators at ITB Berlin back in March. Largely a European crowd, the general consensus in terms of travel across the pond was something along the lines of, “Yeah, we’ve seen Manhattan and we’ve been to the Hollywood Walk of Fame. We aren’t coming to you for culture or history. Heck, my hometown has more of both than your entire continent put together. We want forests, camping, untouched lakes, kayaking, bear sightseeing – we want nature!”

Experiencing the East Kootenays

Nature is exactly what I got at St. Eugene. Touting itself as the best place in the world for fly fishing, I only had an hour or so for a brief tutorial as I was escorted out to the nearby St. Mary River – a minor tributary of the Columbia River – on the hunt for the elusive cutthroat trout. While this wasn’t enough time for me to catch a fish and take the perfunctory ‘look how big this is’ picture, it definitely gave me a greater appreciation for what attracts people to angling. If you have stress in your life, this is better than anything a psychiatrist can prescribe.

Next up, rapids and whitewater rafting lie in wait a little further upstream. In my youth this would’ve been first on the list, but alas, with the progression of my Ménière’s disease over the decades and its vertiginous effect on my inner ear, the best I could do was watch another life-jacketed group hoot and holler as I stood ashore and crushed a tallboy of local craft beer. Almost counterintuitively, the final undertaking – a helicopter tour of the Rocky Mountains – was more than manageable for my vestibular apparatus. Captivating, breathtaking, awe-inspiring – pick your adjective and that’s what it’s like to get up close and personal with the still snowcapped peaks and glacial turquoise lakes.

The lesson through all this for every hotelier is that you have to start thinking of your property as just the beginning of the guest’s journey. Undoubtedly your region has exceptional, authentic and interactive experiences to offer, and it’s your responsibility to bring them to your customer’s attention. If you don’t, travelers will inevitably migrate to other hotels or territories where these adventures are available and marketed.

Birch is the New Maple

A full day packed with these outdoor Rocky Mountain adventures had me famished. Luckily, I was in more than capable hands, as any good resort hotel will marry great experiences with exceptional food and beverage. Every hotelier worth his or her mettle already knows this, but it is more restating.

The big takeaway, though, is that resort properties, no matter their locale, must be equally as bold and experiment just as much with their culinary presentation as the classical restaurant nerve centers of Paris, London, New York City, Rome or Tokyo. With that in mind, I’m eager to circle back to the title of this article as the Executive Chef Ronny Belkin has found something truly remarkable in the form of birch syrup infusions into just about everything on the menu.

Like its maple counterpart, birch syrup comes in a spectrum of colors, with amber and amber gold suitable for direct application to foods in the form of, for example, salad vinaigrettes or a sandwich glaze while the dark grade has a flavor somewhere between black molasses and cough syrup. Not nearly as sweet as maple syrup, this offers a reasonable explanation for why birch has yet to take Canadian or American culture by storm. But mix the dark grade with ketchup, apple cider vinegar, brown sugar and spices (otherwise known as barbecue sauce) and you’re in flavor country, my friend.

Fitting for the Marlboro reference, Chef Belkin was brought aboard last autumn to help rebrand St. Eugene’s previously fine dining establishment into a BBQ smokehouse with a bona fide Interior BC vibe. Plunking down for a meal of smoked and charred meats, it only took one bite for me to realize why he lathers everything from elk steaks to bison ribs in his patented birch barbecue sauce. It’s a taste that’s wholly unique to the region and yet another example of how your hotel should always be on the lookout for the next big thing.

Aside from its acrid taste which necessitates blending, the other side of the equation that’s holding back birch syrup from reaching the same levels of popularity as maple is its cost. I’m hardly a dendrologist so don’t quote me on these figures, but, as a ballpark example, ten gallons of maple sap may reduce to ten quarts of Grade A syrup while ten gallons of birch sap may only net you one unit of saleable liquid.

If St. Eugene has any say in it, then birch syrup will indeed become the next maple syrup and economies of scale will alleviate this issue, but at the present, birch syrup in commercial quantities is a hefty expensive. Chef Belkin took a big monetary risk by sourcing this ingredient, but it’s paid off in the form of barbecued foods you can’t get anywhere else.

Ultimately for you and the rest of your senior management team, this is yet another example of why you shouldn’t micromanage your culinary team. You have to give them the resources, both in budget and in time, to tinker with their chosen craft in order to devise something that is ostensibly one-of-a-kind. I’m a diehard believer that great F&B is essential to overall guest satisfaction, so do yourself a favor and see what can be done in this regard in tandem with your pursuit for other local authentic experiences.

(Article by Larry Mogelonsky, published by Hotels News Now on September 12, 2016).