Kerfoot Canopy: Eyes on the Horizon
Growing up helping his family run the Gunflint Lodge, Lee Kerfoot has the outdoors and adventure in his DNA. While a pandemic and recession isn’t the fun type of adventure, Kerfoot is still preparing with the same gusto he would have for the Boundary Water canoe trips he led as a young adult.
Driven by the desire to help others enjoy outdoor recreation, Lee Kerfoot and his wife opened their zip line course in 2013, complete with 14 lines. His business, Kerfoot Canopy Tours, is closed for the beginning of its season due to the threat of coronavirus. But Kerfoot is still finding respite in nature.
The whole family finds time to get outside everyday, rain or sunshine. Though they can’t get people on zip lines right now, Kerfoot is looking for ways to provide the thrills of the outdoors in a post-pandemic society.
TCB: Could you briefly describe what you do and what Kerfoot Canopy’s role in the business community is?
Kerfoot | My grandmother, Justine Kerfoot, was a big pioneer on the Gunflint Trail and really was a big influence on our family on perseverance and grit and helping people recreate outdoors.
Fortunately for me, my wife loves outdoor adventure, and she comes from a service family-–her father owned an independent restaurant for 40 plus years. And so we got married and we eventually moved to the Twin Cities, and we said, “Gosh, we love the outdoors and recreating outdoors. And we want to do something to help people, recreate outdoors, because it’s such a core value for us.” So we looked around, and we decided there weren’t a lot of zipline tours in Minnesota, and that we would try to open one. So then in June 2013, we opened Kerfoot Canopy Tour, and we’ve really been incredibly focused on trying to deliver a high-quality experience of a premium zipline experience.
Q: How has your work been disrupted by Coronavirus? I’m guessing you’re still closed.
A | We’re definitely closed. We think that the business is well-positioned going forward in the sense that we all have been sheltering at home. So we’re all getting cabin fever and we need to recreate outdoors. So, first off, that is a nice alignment. The second thing is that we operate in really small groups. The maximum group size right now is 10 guests. In the age of social distancing, you don’t want to be around a lot of people, and so we’re really conscientious about that. When we do reopen, we’re probably going to make the groups even smaller, because that’s what we need to do right now to help everyone. And that’s what people want. That’s one of the many, many things that we’re looking at. We’re really detail oriented about a lot of small touches.
We chose to keep everyone on, all the leadership on. … Keeping our year-round employees on payroll is also about helping provide security for them and their families. This is a financial sacrifice for Eva and myself, but it is one that we feel is necessary to make for as long as possible.
Q: And would you normally be open for this season at this point?
A | Yeah, we would. We’d definitely be taking people up. April is a month that always is very weather dependent. And this year, it appears it’s going to be a really nice warm April [aside from our lovely April snowstorm]. And so it’s hurting. That’s just kind of the cost of the environment we’re in. Fortunately, one of the things that we’re doing and we do it every spring is from April 1 to April 22, we have the gift certificate sale. And we offer discounts twice a year, a gift certificate sale at Christmas and then around Earth Day, leading up to the summer season.
Q: Is there anything you’re able to do right now to compensate for the lost business or create new streams of revenue? If you’re normally seeing some groups come in during April, are these gift certificates the main way that you’re able to do that?
A | That’s the alternative in lieu of coming to the zipline. You could get the midweek gift certificate, and then that would allow you to have the flexibility of when you can get everyone together to come back this summer. We’re also looking at what we can do that’s consistent along the lines of the social distancing going. We’re doing a lot of brainstorming.
The Aerial Adventure Park [the high ropes course], for example, could be a great experience because you can have the distance. You can bring your friends out with you, and you’d be that six, eight, 10, 12 feet apart from each other, and still have a great experience. But we haven’t pushed to reopen it because I think there’d be pushback. We’re also looking at new experiences that we could offer.
Q: When restrictions are lifted, do you anticipate business bouncing back pretty quickly?
A | There is a pent-up demand to get outdoors and socialize and do stuff. I think people will be price sensitive. I think the family experiences are going to be the first to bounce back.
But I think the corporate groups are going to be a little more reluctant. They’re extra sensitive to the congregating together. Maybe they’ll want to. Maybe they’ve been so isolated and apart from each other. We’ve all been suffering at home working remotely over Zoom. Maybe they will want to get together in person. And I hope that is the case. But I think businesses are going to be really sensitive to bringing too many people together in one spot at the same time. So I think that corporate group business is going to be slower to rebound.
Q: Out of all of this, are you able to find any bright spots in the crisis?
A | I think it’s hard. The ambiguity of the situation is disappointing. There’s no doubt about it. I’m really bummed that there’s likely to be a recession, that there’s likely to be really high unemployment. On the positive side, when you have a great company with a great experience, it’s going to attract the best people. And you might not have had the opportunity to get them before because of unemployment being so low. And so I’m really excited that we’re going to get some great people that want to join our team and be site guides.
The other positive side is that when people are finally able to really get together and recreate, they’re gonna want to recreate outdoors. And we as a family firmly believe that people need more vitamin N — vitamin nature. We need to recreate more outdoors. It’s healthy for us. There’s a lot of research and studies that show we need to spend more time outdoors connecting with each other instead of staring at a screen. We don’t need more screen time. We need more adventure time, more forest bathing, more time outdoors, or time together. So I think that’s going to be a positive and that people are really going to appreciate that more.
Q: What are some ways that you’re keeping morale up for yourself and your employees and your family right now?
As a family, we’re definitely focusing on our schoolwork in the morning. We’ve got a couple of kids, and we work really hard to ensure they stay focused and disciplined. And then in the afternoon, we really make an effort to get out every single day. And we’ve got to be outside for a couple of hours.
But, you know, even when it rains, you’ve got to get out there and go for a walk every single day. And I think when you’re out there, walking, you see more of your neighbors walking the neighborhood than you’ve ever seen
And then as a business, you know, it’s really just trying to focus on how to elevate the experience for the guests. What can we do to make the guests more comfortable? How can we be cognizant that people are going to be sensitive to every area that they’re touching?
Q: What is some of your best advice to everyone while staying at home?
Rather than go down the wormhole of the internet, let’s go out just for five minutes with the kids. Let’s play catch. Let’s go for a walk. Get that fresh air, get the blood flowing, and then come back and all of a sudden I find that I’m a lot more focused and a lot more productive. The distraction of the internet, or the news of the moment has less of a pull on me.