Brier Island – As natural and untouched as it comes.

When we spoke with Virginia Tudor – the owner and operator of the Brier Island Lodge a nor’easter had just swept across Nova Scotia. If you’re not familiar with Nova Scotia geography, Brier Island is the most southwesterly point of the province and sits at the entrance of the Bay of Fundy.   It is about a four-hour drive along NS-101 from the Halifax Stanfield International Airport and has approximately 200 permanent residents of this island – which is only 7.5 km (4.7 mi) long and 2.5 km (1.6 mi) wide.

How does the weather impact your livelihood on Brier Island?

VT: An extended bad weather forecast during peak season can lead to mass booking cancellations, which isn’t pretty on the revenue side of things.  High winds cause the most havoc, that and heavy fog. That’s the combo that keeps the whale watching boats from sailing.  On the positive side, which there always is, those who stay on Brier Island during storms and who are adventurous enough to head out along the 25 kilometres of shoreline – at a safe distance, of course – are treated to some amazing storm watching and wave shows.

The weather, and the seasons, actually, is what make Brier Island what it is. It’s as natural and untouched as it comes.

Yes, I understand that you’re a strong proponent of eco-tourism.

VT: It’s integral to what we do her e on the Island. We’re in-line with the sustainability initiatives in Digby County, but we also try to go above and beyond.  At the lodge we follow similar waste and cost reduction practices that all hotels do, in the way of on-demand linen refreshing.  Being on wells rather than a town water supply makes water conservation extremely important to us, so plumbing is tailored for low consumption. We try to reduce the plastics used and opt for biodegradable products in all departments.  We compost much of our kitchen waste and use the compost in our landscaping.  We have on-site greenhouses that we use to grow some of our food in and focus on sourcing our food supplies within 100 kilometres to offer fresh, local dishes on our menu.

The island is also a mecca to nature lovers for so many reasons. One of the big reasons is that it’s home to one of the world’s rarest plants: the Eastern Mountain Avens or Geum peckii. The only two places in Canada that this flower grows are here on Brier Island and in the East Ferry area of Digby Neck, not far away.

The flora of Brier Island is very plentiful and diverse due to seed drop from the many migrating birds that stopover in the area.  There are actually 21 different species of orchids that grow here. Botanists travel from around the world to see the flora. The Eastern Mountain Avens is a protected plant species, so it’s a look with your eyes experience. 

With the emphasis on nature and the reality of conservancy now, the Island has become a real centre for research. There are a lot of unique opportunities, especially for people who are into botany, here on the island. The bog here that the nature conservancy is reclaiming is only one of three of its type in North America. They’re raising the water levels in the bog to protect the Eastern Mountain Avens.

A third of the island is actually owned by the Nova Scotia Nature Trust, and not just for the flora. The fauna, as I mentioned, plays a major role in the biodiversity of Brier Island.  It is, in fact, one of the major resting spots for migratory birds on the eastern seaboard. There is a species of hawk that migrates through here every fall, for instance. There are thousands and thousands of them. It’s something to see.

Every two years, we host nature retreats by Speyside Wildlife, a group out of Scotland famous for their guided birdwatching and wildlife holidays around the world.

Brier Island is also part of the Southwest Nova Biosphere.

How has the lodge and its services evolved throughout the years?

VT: It’s evolved quite a bit. Originally, before I had the lodge, I tried the bed and breakfast scene for a year or two. I learned from that experience that I needed to be in the hotel business. There was so much demand and only one other bed and breakfast on the island – and she had up-to 50 people sleeping in that house every night during peak season. It was really apparent that we needed to have a lodge here.

I built my house here first, but both the house and the business were built with the view in mind. When I built my house, it wasn’t the typical design for the area. There’s a tradition in many small communities in Nova Scotia where the locals take tours of people’s homes when they’re built or renovated. What people wanted to do more than anything was stand on the deck and see the view. During that first year I must have had a hundred people tell me that this was the perfect place to build a lodge or hotel because of the view.

When we built the original hotel, we received help from ACOA [Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency], but that came with a lot of restrictions. We didn’t end up with what we had in mind. One mistake we made in the original hotel was making the dining room too large. We quickly realized that we didn’t have enough rooms. We were almost immediately past capacity. We knew that if we were going to survive as a business, we needed more rooms. We put together the means to renovate and make some additions.

With the additional rooms, it then became apparent that we needed a communal place, that wasn’t the dining room, for guests to gather to specifically enjoy the view. That’s when we built the lounge on. We can easily seat 50 people in the lounge.

Our last phase of expansion was to add-on to the dining room because it became too small. It’s now licensed for a hundred people. We’ve also added several more rooms. We now have 38 and we’re happy with that number for now.

We have a range of rooms. We have rooms that start at $109, and they’re the original rooms we opened with. They’re a little smaller than standard hotel rooms. Ten dollars more gets you a small walk-out deck. From there, there’s our Superior Rooms, which all have an ocean view. Those rooms have either two queens, or one king size bed. We use those mainly for our packages.

We get a lot of off-season weddings. We don’t do weddings during peak season – we’re just too busy as it is. When we do weddings, though, we get people coming from all over and with different spins on their ceremonies. Sometimes the wedding is done on the grounds of the lodge, sometimes it’s done at the lighthouse here on the island, or on one of the whale watching boats, or down on one of the beaches – and, of course, we do the reception either way.

Do you get a lot of lodgers from outside of the tourism demographic?

VT: Yes, whenever there is major construction work in the area, we are often the choice of the work crews for accommodation.  We hosted an international crew of workers who were laying underwater power cables to connect the Islands to the main grids.  The project lasted over a month and the crew became like our family.

What does a corporate retreat at Brier Island and the Lodge look like?

VT: A corporate retreat on Brier Island is first and foremost an escape from the over stimulating urban environment.  Bringing employees to Brier Island can allow them to focus on the corporate goals, each other, and themselves.  It is a place that can rejuvenate them, but also excite them with nature
adventures, like hiking and whale watching. 

The Island and the Lodge has long suffered a disadvantage in the world of internet access.  Connections over the years were slow, unreliable, and costly, but now we have high speed wireless service which has really opened up the corporate retreat market for us.

We have total of 38 rooms of various set-ups, as well as a lounge and two dining rooms that can be adjusted to fit the needs of our retreat guest.   Our kitchen facilities can be used by the group directly if they wish to prepare their own meals, which is an accommodation available in the off-season only. Otherwise, our chefs can create custom menus for any group.

You must be very conscious of shaping the employee culture of the Lodge because of this.

VT: I come at it from two angles: I’m a resident and a business owner. We hire seasonally and the amount of employees depends on what time of year it is.  During the off-season, we can maintain operations with one-to-three staff members and at the peak of tourist season up to 30 people. As the owner and operator, I never stop working – and neither does my daughter-in-law and marketing director, Amy Tudor.

The Lodge has been in operation for nearly 30 years and in that time it has been a first job for many Islanders. Being a family business, many family members have worked here as well. Finding willing and qualified workers on the Island has always been a challenge for us and we have in the past hired employees from off the Island and offered on-site staff accommodation.

I imagine that businesses on Brier Island work quite closely with one another to survive and thrive.

VT: Yes, the fishing village of Westport keeps the community going in the off-season. That’s also where the ferry service takes people from Freeport on Long Island. There are two short ferry trips to get to Brier Island, actually. Both ferries run once every hour, 24 hours a day and are on-call after midnight. The cost is only seven dollars per car, cash only. You pay to get here, but it’s free when you’re leaving.

Whale watching is the major draw here. It was the advent about 30 years ago and the subsequent rise in popularity of whale watching that really proved to me that larger scale accommodations were necessary on the Island.   

We have always promoted the Island as a whole, but a special mention should go out to our whale watching partners, Brier Island Whale and Seabird Tours, and Mariner Cruises Whale and Seabird Tours.

We trust these companies to give our guests an experience they’ll never forget.

We were actually checking out some of the whale watching videos you have posted to Facebook in our editorial meeting – and they’re incredible.

VT: That’s the truth. We want people to see the amazing adventures that you can have while on the Island and the whale encounters are second to none.  You’re connected to the sea everywhere you look and travel on Brier Island. It is also home to three lighthouses, including the beautiful and historic Western Light and the Peter Island lighthouse, which is off the Island in Grand Passage.

We are confident that you will not leave the Island disappointed.

How has the internet changed the way you do business?

VT: When Brier Island Lodge started, the only thing that was online was the bedsheets.  As the access to the internet grew, we got online very early compared to most tourism destinations.  We purchased many domain names relating to our business and used them as landing and redirect pages for our main page. We were using SEO [Search engine optimization] before it became a trend. 

Adding an online reservation form to our website and partnered with online booking companies has greatly increased our global presence and we are seeing some of our best pre-season reservation counts ever.

Our Facebook page was started many years  ago, but it was not heavily focused-on until 2012 when our son Jess and his wife Amy returned to Brier Island to work at the Lodge.  They took over the social media side of the business and between them have created multiple channels of social media.  Amy is a creative and avid photographer and her ideas, images, and stories have attracted many followers to our business and area.  Amy saw that the Island as a whole was under represented in social media, so she created Facebook pages for locations like the lighthouse, which at the time had no funding for promotions.  She’s continued sharing content year round so people can see Island life even in the off-season.  She is proactive. She creates content for specific target markets and does a great deal of strategic tagging in many channels. Being part of ongoing online conversation when travel tourism tips are being requested is vital to the year round live marketing plan she has in place.

We have also worked with travel bloggers and see the growing importance these new advertising mediums have.

But as they say, ‘The more things change, the more they stay the same.’ I understand that Brier Island and the Lodge has become a generational vacation destination for many families.

VT: It’s a sign that I’ve been in the business for a long time, but I’ve noticed more and more people are coming in with their families and telling me stories about when they were a kid and came with their parents for whale watching over a holiday weekend, or what have you. It’s very rewarding to make those connections.

The island is also one of those rare places where you can let your kids out the door to play. You don’t see that everywhere anymore. The island is their playground, I mean, that’s how I grew up, and that’s priceless.

By David MacDonald