“What we try to do is bring people together. COVID has actually heightened the importance of what we’re doing here,” says fourth-generation owner of popular beach resort
It all started with a log cabin built on fern-covered rocks along the shore of Lake Couchiching. The lakeside property is known as Fern Cottage and eventually became one of Ontario’s most popular resorts, thanks to the ingenuity and hospitality of two families.
Fern Cottage was owned by the McBain family in the late 1800s, the first family to invite summer visitors to a guesthouse they had built on the property. In 1918, the business was purchased by the great-grandparents of the current Fern Resort Chairman, Mark Downing.
“I represent the fourth generation,” explained Downing, who is clearly proud of his family’s history at the station.
Many facilities in the current resort are named after family members, such as Bertyl’s Lobby Bar, named after Downing’s grandfather, Bert Rumble. And in the Heritage Dining Room, guests can get a glimpse of the family photo album. Photos from each generation adorn one wall, while another serves as a dedication to the station’s stewards – the women of the family – from his grandmother down to his three daughters.
One of the resort’s many traditions is the popular Mother’s Day Brunch held in the Heritage Dining Room. It offers local visitors the chance to discover the family and friendly atmosphere for which the resort is famous.
The resort is geared towards family vacations, which is quite normal given the strong family heritage linked to the activity.
“Our sweet spot is young families,” Downing said. “What we provide for families is a safe and comfortable atmosphere that allows a nine-year-old to experience what we did as kids: just get up and run around. The kids love it so much; they like to have freedom.
“What we do here is about making memories, and our sense of community really makes that happen in the best way. It’s people who make connections and that includes our staff. The more connections we can make between our customers and staff, the better. Our guests love getting to know their server, the person who teaches them to water ski, puts the worm on a hook or gives them the bike,” Downing explained.
During the peak summer season, the resort employs around 220 people, 70 of them full-time. Of these, 25 to 30 are young people and university students who live there.
“We’re very committed to giving kids their first work experience and the responsibility and learning that comes with it,” Downing said. “When you work in the service industry, you learn skills that will take you anywhere, whatever your business. You will always need to connect with people.”
Many local high school students began their work experience at the Fern Resort. Melissa McKee of Orillia is one of those with fond memories of working at the resort as a teenager.
“It was my first summer job. I was a camp counselor at Play Village – we had kids of all ages. It was such a welcoming home environment – best job ever – it was awesome.
At the time, McKee was living on the lake in Orillia and driving a small boat on the lake to get to work. “Jumping in the tippy was a great way to start the day!”
Now her eldest son, who is almost 15, will start this summer at Fern Resort.
“It will be his first job,” McKee said. “He’s super excited. Now we are looking for a tin tippy for him to continue the tradition.
Downing stressed the importance of ensuring staff have a good experience.
“We encourage them to be part of the community here – it’s that time in your life that’s so special,” Downing said. “Have you seen dirty dancehe asked, suggesting that the resort experience mimics the story told in the classic film about how Frances “Baby” learns and performs with the resort’s dance instructor during summer vacation. summer with his family.
“Many of our staff, as well as our families, return year after year,” Downing added. “Some of our younger staff decide to make hospitality and working at Fern their career. Many of our managers were young children when they started here.
The kitchen staff is no exception. The resort’s chef, along with other kitchen staff, have worked at the resort for over 30 years.
“We have a strong, solid base in the kitchen,” Downing said, “which is a necessity since we serve three meals a day to 300 to 320 people at a time. For dinner, we have to serve a full meal with 11 different starters in one hour. This gives our kitchen staff an incredible skill set. They can do magic there.
Mealtimes also contribute to the community building that takes place at the resort.
“Even though everyone is alone enjoying activities all day, they do get together for meals, often with extended family members and grandparents,” Downing said. “In fact, we often have families enjoying a ‘stay at Fern’ that was a Christmas present from Grandma.
Downing is committed to carrying on the traditions of the Fern Resort that its community – of guests and staff – has come to love. After two difficult years coping with pandemic restrictions, Downing is encouraged.
“COVID has actually reinforced the importance of what we’re doing here,” Downing said. “What we’re trying to do is bring people together and COVID has done the opposite. But it showed us how much we value family relationships and friendships. We look forward to getting back to helping people make those connections.
Local residents will have the opportunity to experience the resort’s hospitality at the upcoming Mother’s Day Brunch.
“Being a destination for a special dining experience is something we also offer the region,” Downing explained. “When we organize these kinds of events, we like to put our best foot forward. It’s an opportunity for our kitchen staff to show off. Being able to get back up and running is exciting and Mother’s Day brunch is a way to celebrate that.
The popular brunch takes place on Sunday, May 8 in the resort’s Heritage Dining Room. Five places are available from 9:15 a.m. to 1 p.m. To book or for more information, visit the Fern Resort website.