Tuesday, January 25, 2011

What is it with horses?

Trudy Ferguson captures the Wild Mustangs at Ste. Anne's Spa
I recently observed a woman in the paddock occupied by "the wild mustangs", a small group of horses rescued by a foundation that I was made aware of a few years ago by Albert Botha as part of his effort to improve the outcome for these animals.  She was armed with a camera, and spent hours patiently trying to capture the magnificence of these beasts on film.  She came over and introduced herself to me, and asked for permission to continue shooting, to which I agreed.  Trudy Ferguson had discovered these horses during a visit to the spa, and as a part time student at SPAO in Ottawa wanted to take photos for her final masters class.  A few days later, she friended me on Facebook, and sent me a link to some of her photographs.  I have given most of my daily equine chores over to one of the guys who works on our property management team at the spa, so I don't have as much contact with my horses as I used to.  I miss it, but not in this cold weather.  Today I wandered into their paddock to make sure their water wasn't frozen, and the youngest, Sarah (Sophie's filly) quickly wandered over for a visit.  She sniffed my coat and nuzzled my chin.  Before long, big Franklin, the main man amongst the ladies, sauntered over and paid his respects.  Little Romeo - more a pony than a horse also came by to say hello, more curious than anything.  Sophie, Noche, and Jasmin just kept eating - glancing up to let me know that they saw me, but that their hay was more interesting.  Each horse has a distinct personality, and they quickly get to know their handlers.  We humans have had a long association with horses, and it really isn't too hard to figure out why.  A couple of weeks ago CBC radio hosted a discussion on the merits of eating horse meat - Canada's 3rd largest export of meat products.  Needless to say, both sides were passionate about their arguments.  For my part, I think I will stick to cows.  They also have their own personalities, and can be quite friendly with their handlers, but I just don't trust them, so I choose to eat them.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Looking back - the first 30 years

It was on a cold winter day early in 1981 that my father, mother and I first met Harold Winters, the caretaker of what was known locally as the "Grafton Castle".  At the time, I was living with my parents in a renovated farm house in Nashville, Ontario.  My parents had spotted a real estate ad that piqued their interest.  The place was all boarded up - there was no heat, and no furniture.  Harold took us through room by room with a flashlight.  The building was not in good shape.  Large chunks of plaster were hanging from the ceiling.  Water running through the roof had lifted the veneer on what was once intricate pine panelling.  The floors were painted yellow and blue, the walls were faded.  And yet, we were all intrigued.  Perhaps by the thoughts of lives that had been lived here, by the incredible sweeping views toward the expanse of Lake Ontario, or by the magnificence of the stone walls, the walled courtyard and the turrets.  After all, who wouldn't want to live in a castle, even if it wasn't just a little run down?  After some back and forth with the lawyers for the Blaffer family, a deal was struck, and we took possession the 1st of June.  I moved in right away with my high school friend, John Wood and we started work on cleaning years of algae from the walls of the massive swimming pool, thinking that in the days ahead we would need a place to retreat to from hard, hot days of dirt and dust.  For 2 years, I did my best to lead a group of skilled tradesmen in the renovation.  In 1986, Tom Hanks starred in the movie "Money Pit" - I went to see it and found that it was like watching a home movie, not only because I had a bit of a resemblance to him at the time, but also because of the similarity between his story and ours.  My father was working at IBM in Don Mills, and eventually he and my mom moved in as well.  We were all living in camp-like conditions, mattresses on the floors, bats flying in and out of the attic at night, no heat, and construction everywhere.  Before too long my brother John and his wife Nancy moved to Grafton as well, along with Ed Christensen, (our farm hand), his family and a couple of hundred Charolais cows.  Everybody pitched in, and it wasn't long before this vacant building started to feel like a home.  Those of us who were young men and women at the time all thought that once this place was finished it was going to make a great party house.  Well, my dad had a different idea.  I remember sitting around the kitchen table one night when he threw out the idea of starting a bed and breakfast.  I'm sure the cost of the renovation, (which ultimately exceeded the original purchase price of the property) was starting to tax him.  He surmised that with a little elbow grease and some luck we might some day be able to generate revenues of $100,000 a year with a bed and breakfast business.  We all thought he was crazy, and besides, how could we have a party house if it was full of couple looking for a quiet, romantic escape to a quaint bed and breakfast?  Well, I guess he wasn't crazy after all.  In 2010 we exceeded our previous highest revenue record, we maintained over 150 fulltime jobs with a payroll in excess of $5 million, and thanks to the people occupying those jobs, we have a strong reputation for an unpretentious approach to rest and relaxation.  Many things have changed over the years of course.  The bed and breakfast morphed into a country inn.  We doubled our square footage with a series of extensive building projects, and we introduced the incredible power of healing through human touch with the introduction of spa treatments.  I guess the only thing that hasn't changed is that our bankers still think (after 30 years) that this "spa thing" is a short lived trend, prone to economic downturn, and that we fit their traditional "seasonal Canadian hospitality model" to a tee, despite years of consistent growth and 90+ year round occupancy rates.  God forbid that a made in Canada success story in an "emerging" industry (spas have been around as an extension of the health care system in Asia and Europe for centuries, but never mind that) might ever be considered anything other than a flash in the pan.  Oh well, apparently Canadian banks have saved us all from financial ruin thanks to their conservative approach (not to mention their substantial profits); I suppose I should be greatful.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Meeting a click through in the flesh

On Wednesdays David goes running with his marathon buddies, Rick and Ryan.  But before he goes running, he lines up a few tasks for me, just to make sure I keep busy until he is done running.  So this past Wednesday, I was assigned to drop off a couple of spa guests at the Cobourg VIA Rail station so they could catch a 6:44 train.  Years ago, when we first introduced the "Stress Express", train station runs were one of my regular jobs.  Back then I didn't have a car of my own, so I usually borrowed my sister Anne's Volvo, and for a brief period of time I recall having to use a Yugo - a very utilitarian vehicle that was available to me for some reason at the time.  One of my first big investments was the purchase of a second hand Fleetwood Cadillac for $5,000, exclusively for the early, popular trips between the station and the "Grafton Castle".  That was a great car - I loved looking out over the expansive hood - it was like driving a jumbo jet.  As the spa grew, the "limo runs", as they became known, became a full time job for a variety of characters over the years, and we purchased bigger and grander automobiles to suit the task.  But sadly for me, I lost this opportunity to meet excited guests full of anticipation as they were arriving, or chat with them about their spa visit on their return trip.  So when I get called back into active duty to do a limo run, I get quite excited.  About a week ago in fact, I was so excited and talking up such a storm with my passengers, that I lost track of my speed, and was pulled over by the O.P.P. for speeding through downtown Grafton.  Luckily, one of my passengers spoke up and produced a ticket for a pending train departure, which convinced the constable to let me off with a scolding.  On this most recent limo run, I asked the departing guests if they would mind if we made the trip in a Jeep that I had borrowed from a friend for the night as opposed to the limo, because of the snowy roads, and if they would mind sharing the back seat with Massie, my canine companion.  They were up for the adventure, and very easy going.  The fifteen minutes we spent together was far too short, they were a charming couple, and they loved their stay in the Games Room.  And they told me that they had booked their stay as a direct result of a Facebook Ad that my brilliant Wanda (Director of Sales and Marketing, and turning 40 today), had placed just prior to Christmas.  Each day of our first campaign, Wanda and I had followed with excited amazement, the growing number of impressions and click throughs to our site from the Facebook ad.  And now, fate has given me the pleasure of meeting my first new found customers as a result of our cyber-experiment.  I felt like a proud parent - the seeds planted into cyberspace had first produced a torrent of interest, resulting in new visitors to our web site, (lovingly referred to as click throughs),and now a face to face meeting with living sentient human beings, new fans of Ste. Anne's Spa.  Amazing!

Monday, January 3, 2011

New Beginnings, gifts of many kinds

The living room at Seadream House, Harbour Island

Jim, John & Anna at John's Junction
They say, God works in mysterious ways.  Just over a year ago we received a call to let us know that my brother Bill's dream home on Harbour Island had burned to the ground.  A Korean-Canadian couple who had opened up a Japanese restaurant in Cobourg sold it when Anna was faced with a life threatening illness.  In their time of need, both of these families looked to Ste. Anne's for a hand up as they worked out a plan to rebuild their lives.  Ste. Anne is the grandmother of Jesus, and has been credited with thousands of  miracles, many of which invoke the acts of a typical loving grandparent.  Yesterday Bill called me to say that after a year of rebuilding out of the heartbreak of the fire, Seadream House was ready to receive guests again - he sent me pictures and the results of his work, and the work of his wife and fellow Bahamians is absolutely breathtaking.  And last night David, Nan and I enjoyed a wonderful, healthy meal at John and Anna's new restaurant "John's Junction".  Anna is fully recovered.  They also say, God sends crosses to those he loves.