Hunting Big Game Hunting

Jim Shockey on the Real Trouble With the Border Closure: Here’s Why It’s Not So Easy to “Roll Over” Your Outfitted Canadian Hunt

Jim Shockey, a legendary Canadian outfitter, on the grim reality of how the border closure has rocked the guiding industry—and created major losses for American hunters
Canadian outfitters are in dire straits after more than a year of covid-related setbacks.
Canadian outfitters are in a bind after the COVID-19 border shutdown between the USA and Canada. John Hafner

The Canadian border will likely open in the next few weeks, but even with relaxed travel restrictions, the thousands of American hunters who booked trips for last year will have a difficult time making their dream hunts happen this year. Meanwhile, the thousands of Canadian outfitters who fought to keep their businesses alive last year, are still hanging by a thread. We have only begun to see the detrimental impacts of the border closure on our hunting and outfitting industry in Canada. Here’s a look at two perspectives—the client’s and the outfitter’s—plus, what you should know if you have a hunt booked.  

The Client Perspective

You read about hunting in Canada, in Outdoor Life magazine, or maybe saw it featured on a TV show. You thought about it for a few weeks (or maybe years), ran the idea past your spouse, who gave you their blessing, discussed it with your best hunting buddy and when they agreed to come along, you picked up the phone and called the Canadian outfitter. The outfitter seemed honest and sincere, had a great reputation and their references checked out, so you booked the hunt.

You sent the 50 percent deposit check and two weeks later received the “hunt contract” in the mail, which you immediately signed, without reading it thoroughly, and mailed it back. Done deal. A few months later, early in 2020, you and your buddy sent the balance of your hunt price to the outfitter, as the contract stipulated and booked your flights.

Then came the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Canadian government closed the border to “non-essential” travel, meaning you, as a tourist, could not go on your scheduled hunt. At first you were upset about your hunting holiday being affected, but it was obvious there wasn’t anything you could do about it. You and your buddy read the contract more closely now and seeing that the contract clearly stated that “deposits” and “funds paid in full” were “non-refundable,” you contacted the outfitter and told them not to worry about the money, you and your buddy were willing to simply let the outfitter “roll the hunt over” to the following year.

You called the airline and while they wouldn’t return your money, they would give you a credit for the flight costs. They also said that when you rebooked the same flights down the road, you would have to book at the new prices, not the old price you originally paid. Fair enough.  

COVID would pass and you wanted to do the hunt anyway, so it was not the end of your dream hunt, just a postponement.

Jim Shockey covers the covid-19 related troubles of Canadian outfitters and US-based clients.
The author guiding one of his American clients. Courtesy Jim Shockey

The Canadian Outfitter Perspective

You read about the hunt in Outdoor Life magazine when you were younger, and maybe you saw it on TV. The wonder of the wild lands and the majesty of the animals, stuck with you and for years. You dreamed about making your living working as a guide and outfitter, taking clients on wilderness hunts and making client’s own dreams come true.

Eventually the day came when you could not ignore your calling any longer. You discussed it with your spouse and with their blessing, you mortgaged your home, wrote the biggest check you’ve ever written, handed it over to the previous owner of the outfitting territory and just like that, you shouldered greater responsibility than you ever imagined.

 At first, it was a close race between mounting expenses and client deposits arriving for you to use to prepare for their hunts in the coming season—your first. You had boat repairs to pay for, trucks in need of fixing, gear that required mending, government fees to pay, maintenance cost on cabins, marketing and advertising bills to deal with. And that’s on top of the hundreds of unseen costs that you hadn’t realized were part of keeping the doors to your new outfitting operation open as you get ready for the fast-approaching hunting season.

The bookings were slow that first year. Nobody in the hunting world knew who you were or how good your hunts would be. And so, even after that first season’s clients paid for their hunts in full, a month before the season started, all the money they sent was gone. That first year, you only made the final balloon payment, the money you still owed the old outfitter, by using your life’s savings. Even though you did all the guiding yourself, after all the expenses that first year, there was zero profit.

You made ends meet, thanks to your spouse taking a job, and the second year proved better. Your first-year clients vouched for you, told their friends what a great hunt you provided, and the deposits started rolling in. Thank goodness, because without the client money coming in, you had no other funds available to pay all the same “getting ready for the season” expenses that you incurred the first year. The truth be told, it was tight for 10 years, but eventually you managed to pay off the rest of what you owed on the territory. On the good years, your profit margin on the $1 million in revenue you were bringing in was a healthy 10 percent.

More important than the money, you were a respected member of a small group of fulltime Canadian outfitters, who were running profitable outfitting operations. You were living the dream, making $100,000 a year living the lifestyle you loved.

Of course, making $100,000 a year wasn’t going to put you or your family on easy street; you accepted the fact that holidays were always going to be busman’s holidays, standing in a booth with your spouse, trying to sell hunts at the various conventions, which cost money, but at least those trips were before tax expenses. Truth be told, that $100,000 in profit, after you paid Canadian personal taxes, didn’t leave much to feed, clothe, and look after your family, or fix your children’s teeth, and nor was a new car an option. Dinners out with your understanding spouse were few and far between. But all in all, life was good as long as hunt bookings continued on track.

And so it went, one season would end and what was leftover from the fees that season’s clients paid you, would be enough to cover your family’s personal expenses for the coming year. Barely, but enough. New clients for the upcoming seasons continued to book hunts with you and send their non-refundable deposits for you to use to prepare for their upcoming hunts and, if all went well, you made your 10 percent profit. Thankfully once a season was over, the costs for that season came to a complete end and so every penny you were spending from that closing date on, was for the upcoming season’s clients.

Your operation increased in size, more staff, year-round employees, accountants and bookkeepers suddenly started sending you invoices and there were bigger insurance fees to pay every year and government quota fees continued to rise. But all in all, you could still swing a 10 percent profit margin.

Then came COVID.

By March 2020, with the spring season about to start, all the cabin rentals were paid, government fees were paid, all the expenses leading up to the upcoming hunting season were paid, the maintenance and gear costs were taken care of and the guides that worked for the outfit year-round on wages, were paid up. New temporary seasonal guides were organized and hired, the office secretary wages were up to date, and the massive amount of pre-season work was done and paid for. The only expenses remaining were the gas and food for the actual hunts and seasonal guide wages.

Most of your clients (except the few inevitable deadbeats) had already sent the remainder of their “hunt balances” 90 days before their hunt, as was stipulated in the contract they signed, monies which you used to prepare for their hunt.

And then, suddenly, without warning, came the announcement from the government. “THE CANADIAN BORDER TO INTERNATIONAL TRAVELLERS HAS BEEN OFFICIALLY CLOSED: STANDBY FOR FURTHER NOTICE IN 30 DAYS.” So, you got your team together and made contingency plans. It was a setback for sure, but the season would still work as long as the border opened in 30 days…but it didn’t.

You kept the doors open, continued to pay the costs, ready and willing to take your clients on their hunts.

The Canadian government left you hanging, like a puppet on a string. You had no choice but to keep your company operational, the doors had to remain open, your staff had to be there to answer phones, you had to keep paying and paying, because you had no way of knowing if the border would open.

Thankfully, the expenses for that lost 2020 spring season ended when that 2020 spring season ended and the expenses for the upcoming fall 2020 season and the spring 2021 spring season began.

Clients started calling the day the closure was announced. Most were civil, understanding. Most recognized that it wasn’t your fault, just “roll my hunt over to next year” they said, and you knew they thought they were being benevolent. You agonized and stressed over what to say to them. “I can’t?” Or “I’m sorry, your hunt has come and gone?” Should you tell them that you already paid for most of the hunt costs associated with their hunt? Didn’t they realize that? And unless those clients paid for those expenses again, there was no way you could afford to take them in a following year? And what about the government quota for the game animals? The quota was for that lost season and even if you could figure out the logistics of taking two seasons worth of clients in one, the government wasn’t about to give you a double quota for the following year. 

Should you tell them that you already paid for most of the hunt costs associated with their hunt? Didn’t they realize that? And unless those clients paid for those expenses again, there was no way you could afford to take them in a following year?

You considered the option of simply returning what was left of the money your clients paid you to organize the hunt for them. Certainly, you could return the 10 percent profit you would have made on your client’s hunts, if they’d shown up. If you did that, it would mean you and your spouse would have to survive for the coming year by accessing your life’s savings account again, the money you’d both planned to retire on. There would be no retirement fund paying a monthly stipend when you grew too old to guide and outfit. So you had both worked hard to save some money for your golden years.

You could also return the food costs for the food you didn’t have to buy to feed the clients, because they never showed up for their hunts, that would add up to a few hundred dollars per client maybe. And there were the temporary guide fees that hadn’t been paid—you could return those savings to the clients as well. But when you sat down with your accountant and crunched the numbers, you came to the realization that, for the hunt the client paid $10,000 for, you’d already incurred and paid $7,000 of that client’s hunt expenses.

It was the most sickening feeling you’d ever had when you realized the most you could return to your clients, who had paid in full, was 30 percent—that was all that was left. You felt even worse when it became clear that because of the clients, the deadbeats, who hadn’t paid their balance in advance as their signed contract required them to, you couldn’t repay the punctual clients a penny. Insult to injury: you’d actually lost $2,000 on the deadbeat (although now seemingly prescient) client’s hunts.

About that point, the lowest point in your guiding and outfitting career, you started reaching for straws.

Government handouts? You put off telling the clients any bad news, because the Canadian government said they were going to do something to help small businesses and eventually they did, but not yours. Even if you had qualified for your fair share of the billions the government was doling out, it wouldn’t have solved the problem. It would have been like throwing popcorn at a charging bear.

What about trip and travel insurance for your clients? You grasped at that one as soon as you thought about it. Your literature to the clients clearly stated that you recommended they buy insurance for their trip. In fact, you even made them sign a form stating that they understood it was their responsibility to purchase trip and travel insurance. But when you canvassed all of your clients, only four had bothered to do so. Four clients who fortunately purchased the insurance before COVID was a foreseeable event, thereby ensuring they would be refunded the full amount, minus the insurance premium. Four clients you didn’t need to worry about.

From what you understood, the cost to purchase insurance for the trip was up to 25 percent of the hunt price, so the other 96 clients who booked one of your $10,000 hunts, gambled that nothing would keep them from being there for the hunt they booked.

Hindsight is 20/20, but you had warned them. They gambled. They lost. 

Eventually you sought legal council. You and your spouse discussed spending the few thousand dollars it would take to get that legal advice because, with the family finances in dire straits, it was a big decision. With your government’s COVID response, your income was non-existent. But you and your spouse deemed the expense necessary—you needed to know how the law interpreted your untenable situation.

The lawyer, for $500 an hour, explained that after seven hours of research, that what you were looking at was something called “Force Majeure,” triggered by an “Act of God” and that it was considered to be a “Frustrated Contract” which Canadian Case Law clearly stated that in the case of a “Frustrated Contract,” caused by “Force Majeure,” any “Qualified Expenses” incurred by the party tasked with providing the service, can be legally be claimed against the contracted price, BUT that there could be no “Unjust Enrichment” by either party.

Your first reaction was to throw up. Lawyers always tend to make outfitters feel this way. In all the years you’d been an outfitter, you’d never seen the inside of the courtroom, so even though you had the legal right to claim the $7,000 you’d spent to prepare for your clients’ hunts, and every right to return only $3,000 of the $10,000 they’d sent you, it didn’t sit well with you. It wasn’t your style. It wasn’t what hunting and hunters were about. Litigation was for other industries, not for the industry you loved. Besides, your clients still wanted to come on their hunts, and you still wanted to provide that hunt.

So, you agonized and lost sleep. You waited, for more than year, for the government to tell you what you could and could not do the following month. You waited for word that the border would open and your clients could once again be able to come to Canada for their dream hunts. Expenses rose and you paid, but the 2020 fall season was lost and then the 2021 spring season was lost, too. Your clients for three complete hunting seasons were unable to cross the border, to get to you and to their hunts and for that entire time, you had to constantly be ready, doors open, phonelines working, electricity on, accountants paid, bookkeepers paid, full time staff paid.

The expenses piled up and the revenues dried up.

You postponed the day of reckoning, the day you would have to share the bitter pill with those clients whose hunts were disrupted by COVID, those clients who believed they were being “understanding” by simply telling you to “roll their hunt dates over” to future seasons.

You reached out to your spouse again for the thousandth time in the previous months, needing their wisdom and advice, yes, but mostly to look into their eyes and know that they didn’t see what you saw in the mirror—a failure. This time you wanted their permission to seek legal advice once again, but not on “Frustrated Contract” law. This time it was for advice on bankruptcy.

The Reality Today for Canadian Outfitters

The Canadian border will be open soon, but most certainly with restrictions. It is likely that permission for non-Canadian citizens to enter Canada will only be granted for those providing proof of two COVID vaccines. Further, it’s possible that quarantine and testing requirements will also be part of the criteria for entry to Canada. When exactly the border will open, with restrictions or not, remains a matter of conjecture. Maybe tomorrow, maybe next month, maybe in the fall—nobody knows for sure.

For an absolute fact, the Canadian border will not stay shut forever. When that border opens, there are some facts that all non-Canadian clients, who had hunts booked with Canadian outfitters for the COVID affected seasons (and possibly even the 2021 fall season), need to be aware of.  

  1. Canadian outfitters, have had virtually zero income for over a year, but have incurred most of the expenses associated with operating their businesses for three seasons in a row.
  2. International clients (mostly from the USA) represent the vast majority of the demand for Canadian outfitters.
  3. Booking Canadian clients, as has been suggested as a viable option by Canadian government, has proven to be problematic unless prices are lowered to a point where most outfitters would have to operate at a net financial loss.
  4. In those cases where a client’s Canadian outfitter replaced their contracted international clients with Canadian clients during the COVID border shutdown, either at cut rate pricing or for full price, questions arise. Can the outfitter’s game inventory handle double the harvest number if that outfitter plans to “make up” the lost hunts in the following season, doubling those clients up with the clients they already had on the books for that season?
  5. All reputable Canadian outfitters suffered significant financial losses during the Canadian border COVID shutdown. The extent of the loss, however, is greater for fulltime outfitters and larger outfitters with greater overhead expenses than part time outfitters.
  6. Clients booked with the various Canadian outfitters presumably did so because they trusted that outfitter would do their best to provide the expected outfitted experience. This means clients expected the outfitter to be prepared in advance for the contracted hunt, which means spending money.
  7. Canadian outfitting situations are different in regard to expenses incurred before a scheduled hunt. Some have to book and pay for rooms ahead of time. Some have fulltime staff to pay. Some have more equipment to maintain than others. But ALL have up front expenses.
  8. A straw poll consensus of my contacts confirms that Canadian outfitters incur 30 to 70 percent of the total hunt price, before the actual hunt takes place.
  9. Over the two spring seasons and one fall season that have been lost to Canadian COVID border closures, straw polls confirm that hunt prices have risen by 15 to 30 percent, due to increased demand and general inflation brought on by COVID. The $10,000 hunt that the outfitter sold that was supposed to take place in the spring of 2020 will cost a client $11,500-13,000 to take that same hunt in 2022. In other words, if outfitters operated like airlines, giving a “credit” for the lost booking, the client would still be required to pay an extra $1,500 to $3,000 for the same service they originally paid for.
  10. Canadian outfitters are just now beginning to understand the ramifications of “inflation” on the costs of their contracted hunts. A $30 sheet of plywood, to repair damage to a cabin caused by a grizzly bear back in 2020, will now cost $130. The price of gas, vehicles, maintenance, and flying will all rise. All of which exacerbates the financial burden all Canadian outfitters are shouldering right now.
  11. Every Canadian outfitter’s situation is unique. But most want to live up to their contracted promise to take the clients affected by COVID on their hunts.
  12. Some Canadian outfitters are on a quota system, which allows them to take only so many animals in a season. Most outfitters in this situation lost their quotas for the seasons in which their hunters could not show up and, as of this moment, there is no indication by any of the Provincial or Territorial governments that those unused tags will be moved to future years.
  13. Virtually all the clients who booked with Canadian outfitters and who had their hunts affected by COVID had the opportunity to purchase trip and travel insurance. So expecting the Canadian outfitter to simply roll the hunt over to a future year is tantamount to expecting the Canadian outfitter to be the underwriter for the insurance policy—after the fact.  
  14. Many Canadian outfitters are avoiding the hard conversation with their COVID closure affected clients. They do not want to be the bearers of bad news: There has to be a COVID surcharge applied to the contracted amount. This is just to allow the outfitter to remain in business and be able to take those clients on their hunts.
  15. Many Canadian outfitters are willing to take a serious financial hit if it means they can live up to their responsibilities and take their COVID closure affected clients on their hunts.
  16. Many Canadian outfitters would survive financially, albeit with at least four future years of zero profit, if the clients paid a COVID surcharge of 20 to 40 percent of their full hunt cost to “roll over” their hunts to future years. It’s an amount that is approximately equal to the cost of paying for travel insurance or the contemporary price of the same hunt if booked today.
  17. The vast majority of Canadian outfitters want their clients to be happy and want to avoid litigation.
  18. Legal action results in lawyers being the only winners. The best advice for all parties concerned, is to negotiate, not litigate.

Post-Covid Recovery for Canadian Outfitters

Hopefully the craziness of the last year full of COVID anxiety, fear, and, in some cases, hysteria, will never be repeated. But it happened. And before moving on to a post-COVID world, we need closure. Closure not just from the confusing government COVID messaging and protocols, but closure in our own hunting industry. That closure—for clients who lost their hunts thanks to COVID rules and regulations, which were not in any way the result of actions by the Canadian outfitters—needs to come from a place of empathy. This is possible when those clients have the hard conversation with their outfitter.

I’ll say it again: Your Canadian outfitter and all Canadian outfitters, especially those who are fulltime outfitters, have been hurt financially. It’s an inalienable fact that recovery, if it comes at all, will be slow and painful for those outfitters. These people are some of the finest human beings to walk this earth. They have been there for you on your previous hunts and, given the chance, they will be there for you in the future. We need the hunting industry to be strong if we want our children and their children to enjoy the hunting tradition that we all hold in such high regard.

So before you make that call to your Canadian outfitter, ask yourself: Would the loss of one year’s worth of your discretionary holiday dollars affect your financial future? Will your life be different if your outfitter cannot return the full amount you paid? Or is it worth it to you if they require a 20 to 40 percent COVID surcharge to take you on the hunt you dreamed about—and that they want to deliver for you?