Wholly Trinity

15 Sep 2011

Small business acumen and entrepreneurial spirit have put Newfoundland town’s bustling seasonal tourism industry on the map

By Rob Antle
Atlantic Business Magazine
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On a sun-kissed mid-summer afternoon, more than 100 tourists are congregating on the road near the entrance to Rising Tide Theatre. Off in the distance, orange-jacketed kayakers serenely drift by on the placid waters of Trinity Bay. A tour bus pulls up and disgorges dozens more people into the main historic district of Trinity.

Donna Butt, Rising Tide’s artistic and executive director, addresses the crowd before the start of this afternoon’s performance of the Trinity Pageant. “This is how we began our venture here,” she tells the audience. “It all started with the pageant.”

Members of the Rising Tide Theatre company perform a scene called "District Court of Assizes, 1845" at the Trinity Pageant as audience members look on. Rising Tide has become a major generator of economic activity in the town since putting off its first show there in 1993. (Photo by Rob Antle)

The twice-weekly pageant is an at-times rollicking, two-and-a-half hour period piece that wends its way through the town, telling the tales of a number of local historical events. The pageant kicked off in 1993, at a time when Trinity, like many other rural Newfoundland towns, was devastated by the just-imposed cod moratorium. At the time, officials were floundering for economic ideas to replace Newfoundland’s iconic fishery. Butt thought the theatre idea could work.               

Now, less than two decades later, Trinity is experiencing a seasonal bustle and boom, thanks to small businesses like Rising Tide and the owners of the many bed and breakfast and vacation homes that have sprung up and multiplied.

Trinity has carved out a niche in Newfoundland as a place where history, scenery, culture and theatre all co-exist, a pleasant mélange that has driven tourism in the town — and employment for the region’s residents.

“We’re players in the community in all kinds of ways that are fairly important,” Butt says. During the summer peak, Rising Tide employs roughly 50 people in the community. And there are other positive economic impacts, such as house rentals for cast members and local partnerships to help restore historic buildings in the town.

The professional theatre company’s operations in Trinity have come a long way from the early 1990s, when the pageant was Rising Tide’s only event there. This year, more than a dozen separate productions are on the schedule, with at least one play showing every night. Some days, there are as many as three performances.

“It’s not the only attraction, by any means,” Butt says of Rising Tide’s suite of productions. “There (are) great places to stay, and there’s fabulous trails and there’s sights … But clearly the theatre brings in a pretty significant number of people, and I think if you plucked it out of the agenda, you would notice it pretty fast.”

Rising Tide’s success in the town has made a big difference to the lives of local residents, she notes. Many of those who work at the theatre — costume staff, crew members, stage managers — are all from the area. “So their lives have changed significantly as a result of this, because they took a totally different path than what they had (been on). And how many of them would still be here? Probably a lot of them would have gone. A lot of young people, they’re leaving this area in droves.”

The Trinity tourism industry — though still seasonal — is now a well- established one. “It’s a destination point, and none of that was the case at the time (in 1993 when Rising Tide did its first show)… “I think that both us, and the people who have businesses here, have all helped to contribute to making it so.”

On the other side of town, Tineke Gow and her daughter Marieke Gow are preparing for another busy weekend night. The Gows run Artisan Inn Trinity, which boasts fine dining at the Twine Loft restaurant and an array of accommodations options in the town.

It all began nearly two decades ago, when the Gows opened Campbell House, a heritage home built in 1840 for an Irish teacher. They turned it into a “living” museum and themed B&B, welcoming their first guests in 1992, the year before Rising Tide came to town. Today, the family offers accommodations in a number of historic properties, and manages fourstar- and-above vacation homes for owners who don’t live in the area.

Tineke Gow, who was born in Holland, says she saw the beauty of the area through European eyes. “This was a little bit of the Old World tucked into the New World.”

Tineke Gow and her daughter Marieke Gow run Artisan Inn Trinity, which includes the Twine Loft restaurant. (Photo by Rob Antle)

According to the Gows, only about 15 per cent of their guests hail from Newfoundland. Most of them are from Ontario and British Columbia, the United States and Europe. Over the years, the family has widened the range of services provided. They opened a casual fine-dining restaurant, for example, and Marieke became a trained sommelier.

They offer not just accommodations, Tineke says, but a destination. “Every year we’ve actually managed to get a little extra… you cannot just sit and think everything is going fine, because people are always looking for something new and different.”

The business has become a true family affair. Marieke says she “never intended” to stay working in Trinity — or in Newfoundland, for that matter. But she now lives the “dream life,” working in the town for six months of the year and travelling for the other six.

The transformation of the town has been significant. Tineke says there are an amazing amount of services available when you consider that just three dozen or so people live in Trinity year-round. “We have a bank, we have a post office, we have a theatre, we have fine dining, a place with a latte machine, we have fast internet, we have a harbour… What else do you want?”
Just up the road, Vintage Newfoundland owns two homes it rents out to visitors. Morris Manor dates back to 1863, and underwent a $90,000 renovation five years ago. The company recently added Bartlett Manor, another property nearby.

“This will be our best year in Trinity thus far, with only seven home nights available between both Morris and Bartlett Manor between (mid-July) and Labour Day,” Vintage Newfoundland owner Neal Jackman says.

The province “is really becoming a destination now and one of the main places people like to see is Trinity. It is one of a few spots on the island that has really kept (its) architecture from a bygone era, and some leaders in the community really work hard to ensure that this demonstration of tradition is maintained.”

That tradition has turned into a lucrative one for the area, from a town devastated by the closure of the fishery to a seasonal tourism success story.