by Jane Gaffin
It is due to this time of great sadness that this relic from my scrapbook, originally published in the Yukon News on August 16, 1996, has been brought forth in memory of long-time Yukon resident and entrepreneur excellence Barry Bellchambers.
The original picture of Barry Bellchambers and the wooden Red Serge Mountie guarding the High Country Inn that accompanied my 1996 piece, is now complementing Jacqueline Ronson’s Yukon News eulogy captioned Bellchambers Remembered for Humour and Vision: http://www.yukon-news.com/news/32621/
Chuck Tobin’s Whitehorse Star eulogy Leukemia Claims Hard-driving Entrepreneur, can be viewed at: http://www.whitehorsestar.com/archive/story/leukemia-claims-hard-driving-entrepreneur/
An impressive shot of the High Country Inn, an exact image of when former hoteliers Bellchambesr and his soul mate Maggie operated the popular establishment, can be seen at: http://www.tripadvisor.ca/LocationPhotos-g155047-d185532-Coast_High_Country_Inn-Whitehorse_Yukon.html
When Barry Bellchambers bought the 4th Avenue Residence in 1988, he had no idea what to do with it.
He just recognized it as one of the best buildings in Whitehorse.
“The replacement cost for a building of this type structure in this day and age would run between $6 million and $8 million,” says the High Country Inn’s owner, who has ingeniously converted what others viewed as junk into a world-class hotel.
The building was constructed originally as a YWCA for about $800,000 in the early ‘70s.
Then, the Tasmanian-born Bellchambers was busy investing in local diamond-drilling companies and buying trailer parks.
The ‘Y’ organization finally succumbed to financial woes. And the building reverted to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), which paid out the bank.
CMHC operated a low-budget accommodation centre for a dozen years. It was a huge cost to the taxpayer, adds Bellchambers.
“CMHC, of course, got tired of it. At one time, CMHC tried to give the building to the city of Whitehorse and to the territorial government.
“Any non-profit organization in this city could have taken over this building for a dollar. But everybody avoided it. People looked inwardly at the problems rather than at the potential.”
Perplexed councillors even discussed demolition if CMHC forced the city to take the unwanted waif for unpaid taxes. Eventually, CMHC put the building up for bid.
Bellchambers wasn’t high bidder. But the high bidder couldn’t come up with the financing. So, a deal was struck between CMHC and Bellchambers who envisioned a great future for the sadly neglected building.
“What that future was, I didn’t know.” Yet he spent gobs of money on restoration, adding rooms and replacing the heating and hot-water systems.
I had so much money into it, I either had to stay where I was with the low-budget accommodation centre, or jump into the pool with both feet. That’s what I decided to do.
“It was during a down market. Tourism was static. Governments were slow. Businesses were shutting down. The Klondike Inn was closing for the winter.
“I felt I could come in and compete, despite the local market. I recognized the cycles. I knew it was going to take three or four years to get the business to where I wanted it.
“By that time, I figured that we would be coming into a better market. That was right. I think the Yukon economy is back on an upswing.”
Facing a tough market is nothing new for Bellchambers. In the early ‘80s, he bought the 100-condominium Lewes Village (in the Whitehorse subdivision of) Riverdale.
He laughs at this recollection. Mines were closing, and people leaving. But he managed to sell the refurbished units.
He reinvested into his pet project. Atlantis Submarines was the first company in the world to design and build passenger-carrying submersibles, he said.
Bellchambers set up the operation and marketing plans for the submersible tours on Grand Cayman Island.
“The design and marketing structure is basically the same format that I’m still using in the hotel. I don’t have any formal marketing experience. Just from trying to sell 100 condominiums in an extremely low market, I learned a lot about marketing the hard way.
“You have to be pretty innovative and aggressive. Even though the submarines are a very unique product, you learn quickly that the world doesn’t beat a path to your door. You have to get out and market the hell out of it, no matter what it is. Everyone is competing for the same dollar. That’s where I got a good ground in Marketing 101.”
A real success story, Atlantis currently operates submarines in the exotic tourist havens of Hawaii, Mexico, the Caribbean and Bahamas.
Nevertheless, for a new hotel to compete with well-established Whitehorse businesses during an economic downturn, Bellchambers knew he had to offer something special.
The need for a country inn-type atmosphere that reflected his personality turned into a neatly landscaped, four-storey, 110-room hotel, accented with buckets and baskets of colorful flowers.
It is guarded by a friendly, super-size Mountie, nearly as tall as the building. Bellchambers’ gigantic marquee is a photo opportunity for guests who take the hotel’s name around the world for free.
Bellchambers is proud that the Mountie’s picture already has appeared in The Globe and Mail, and once was featured on the front cover of The Innkeeper, a British Columbia-Yukon hotel publication.
The forest-green awnings that shade the Inn’s eyes, deck and entrance won an international award two years ago (1994).
A Vancouver supplier entered the High Country Inn in a competition for cleverly incorporating awnings into an exterior restoration for that specific-size building.
“This is a place where you can walk in and say, ‘This feels good,’ ” he says.
He credits the interior design, furnishings, fireplace, staff, grand piano, no-smoking policy in the lobby and restaurant, and a segregated room for smokers.
The Yukon Mining Company, a poly-enclosed bar-restaurant, is a recent extension. Dubbed ‘The Deck’, both locals and visitors enjoy the casual, goofy atmosphere.
The title and alcoholic wares are billed on the side of an ebony, rescued-from-McCrae, 1929 AA delivery truck, laden with whisky barrels. “The locals love it.” He has another relic being painted now for display.
A spiffy biffy that he designed and built sets off in a corner. People actually sit in there and have their pictures taken.
All these details appeal to a segment of a market that had been neglected as well as to an older-market segment, he noted.
Whether a customer comes from across the street or from the other side of the moon, Bellchambers caters to every person who walks in the front door.
Bus groups are treated as individuals. “Every time a bus pulls in, we greet each person and serve complimentary iced tea and juice on The Deck.
“Before leaving, we get on the bus and thank each person individually for staying with us. Each person receives a package containing Whitehorse pins, mementoes, trinkets to personalize their trip here.”
Is there any wonder that last year’s bus tours ballooned from 60 to 200 tours this season? More are booked for next year.
Another image-maker and a first for any hotel in Whitehorse is the dedicated shuttle service, operating on a continuous basis, he explains.
The 24-passenger shuttle bus meets every jet, and transports RV park groups to and from hotel barbecues.
Whereas Bellchambers generates all the ideas, he claims there’s hardly any original thoughts in the world. “I steal and adapt,” he says.
“Often it doesn’t make financial sense. But I try not to let the creativity be limited by the cost. Eventually it all makes sense.”
(Barry Bellchambers died of leukemia on March 5, 2013; he would have turned 70 on March 10th. The community turned out en masse to give him a dazzling, whooping Celebration of Life, send off, fit for the people person he was. The gathering was in–you guessed it–the High Country Inn’s Yukon Convention Centre, the biggest meeting place in town.)