By Matt Corlett, as told to Tammie Burak
Sometime in the mid-1940’s, William (Bill) Hayhurst, a Jasper high school principal opened Sunwapta Tea House on lease land. He built some cabins. There was no power, no water. Bill was a bit of a wild man. He took people on hikes. His staff from the high school worked for him over the summer. They put ladders up to the rafters of the tea house and slept up there.
An Unusual Start
Bill was a charismatic, cavalier sort of fellow. His management of the place was unorthodox. There was a generator in the middle of the property with unprotected wires running to some of the buildings. When it rained, the wires threw sparks. There were gaps between the logs in the walls of the cabins. They needed work. The way Bill ran the business was bare bones, outback, something like a youth hostel.
Still, the location was unparalleled and it attracted many visitors. Some famous people stayed here in the 1950’s. Marilyn Monroe and Walt Disney were both guests here.
Bill had a son, but he wasn’t involved in his father’s business, so when Bill died the property changed hands a few times.
The Corlett Family Acquires Sunwapta Lodge
Two weeks after I was born, my dad, Paul Corlett, moved our family to Jasper. He had taken a job as the Toronto Dominion (TD) bank manager there. He is an astute business man and acquired so many accounts from the competition within the first six months that the TD flourished, but the other bank closed its doors.
The Sunwapta property came up for sale and Dad knew he could make it profitable. He thought he’d turn it around, flip it and make a quick profit. He and a partner purchased the place and Dad left his banking job.
My grandfather was vice president for Toronto Dominion’s western Canada operations. He was furious when Dad left banking. He was so angry, he couldn’t even talk to Dad about it. But Dad invited him to come out and see the Sunwapta property.
The first long weekend in summer, Grandpa came out for a visit. In those days, the property had a gas station. Grandpa saw this huge line of cars waiting for service at the pumps. He rolled up his sleeves and with a great big grin on his face, he pumped gas all day. At the end of the day, he looked at Dad and said, “If you ever have trouble with your partner, I’ll purchase his share of the business and enter the partnership with you.” It so happened, shortly afterward, that Dad’s partner left the business and Grandpa bought his share. He got his money back in a year.
Over the years, there have been a series of improvements. In the 1980’s we brought in modular cabins. In the 1990’s, we built an accommodation lodge for staff. We added a retail store and expanded the restaurant.
What might be surprising is the fact that the restaurant is not busy so much because of guests that stay here, but because of the visitors who are out to see the wildlife or want to walk on a glacier. People want to have a spiritual experience. I still get emotional about what we have. We all feel so blessed by the beauty of nature around us. Everyone who comes here wants to have a good time. For the most part, our clients are in a great mood. Sure, some get dragged on a vacation they don’t want to be on. It happens. But most people are here because they want a memorable experience that will last a lifetime.
Aside from the stunning location, there’s one thing that Sunwapta is best known for and that’s our service. We get the highest ratings on TripAdvisor for service and location. That’s because we really care about service. We help our guests plan their day. We walk people to their rooms and ask questions to help them make the most of their stay here. The rooms are important, but people don’t come to the Rockies to stay in a room or to play tennis. You can still do those things. But people come here for other reasons.
I go through the comment cards daily. The front desk regularly gets ratings of 10. That’s partly because of how we hire. We hire based not so much on an applicant’s skills, but more on their attitudes. We hire people who really care about our guests’ experience here. Our front desk staff aren’t afraid to give guests advice about what to do while they’re visiting.
Whenever we hire new staff, they’re high energy. They’re just as excited to be here as our guests are. We take them on local trips to orient them. Our staff have first-hand knowledge of where to go and what to see because they’ve experienced the wonders of this place for themselves.
Making a Difference, One Guest at a Time
People make the mistake of squeezing a one-night stay into their full travel itinerary. What are you going to do with one night? You can’t see anything around Jasper in a single day. When guests call to book, though, we take some time to talk with them. This is what our added value is and it’s really, really big. We have self-drive itineraries on site and we can customize them. We sell tickets for attractions and tours. We help guests organize their day at the front desk.
The number one regret people have every single time is this: They didn’t give themselves enough time here. People tell me, “I had no idea how much there is to see and do.” The reality is, people book flights and the travel agent doesn’t know anything about Icefields Parkway and the national parks. People have one day of sight-seeing. When that happens, I tell guests, “Don’t try to fit everything in. You’re not going to see everything. Everything is awesome. But sometimes less is more.
There’s a nameless stretch along the Parkway, about eight kilometres long. It’s a glacial wasteland – all jagged stone, nothing’s growing, the river has cut its way through. I like walking into that expansive nothingness. It feels like you’re on a planet. It feels so big. I like that feeling of rugged nothingness. It touches me deeply every time. It changes my perspective.
In Jasper National Park, there are so many activities and attractions – things you pay for – they’re great. But it’s those moments when you have a spiritual experience where you feel your own being in the world in a different way – those are the moments we want to have. We travel for these reasons. You can have that without doing touristy things. You can have that just by pulling over and strolling on a river bank, by stopping to look at the billions of different kinds of stones there. That’s super-enriching. You can still have that kind of experience if you’ve made the mistake of only booking one day here.
A Day at Sunwapta Falls Rocky Mountain Lodge
During the day, guests are out seeing things and making memories. There’s lots of road traffic. Tour buses are out and about – they’re like our extended family. When the drivers arrive here, we say, “Hey! Come on in!”
Later in the afternoon, things start to quieten down. Between 5:00 and 8:00 pm, people check into their hotels. Some of them are scared and stressed. “I’ve been driving for an hour and a half,” they say, “and I haven’t seen a single building!”
By 8:30 or 9:00, everything is quiet. You can hear the waterfall. The restaurant changes from deli-style to a blend of fine dining/casual. Guests dress casually, but they’re served very fine food, without the extravagant $90 a plate prices. We have a wonderful chef. Stewart Heckley has been our executive chef for six years. There are tablecloths on the tables and candles light up the original dining hall. The guests are all back talking about their day. It’s a wonderfully charming setting.
Next Generation: Matthew Corlett
When I was in my teens, I worked at the lodge during the summer pumping gas. That was my first job here. I went to school, got a degree in philosophy, started working on a PhD, did some teaching. But something was missing. I told my dad, “Dad, I’m in a jam.” He listened to me for a while and said, “It sounds like you’re looking for something new.”
So, in 2004, I started working at the lodge. It engaged every part of me. I love working with people. Managing people is so fulfilling for me. I managed the front desk for a while, then moved into the retail aspect of the business. I love sales.
We just feel lucky that we get to be in this part of the world, to be in the Rockies, to feel the power of nature. When I go out for a bike ride, for the first five minutes I feel terrified. I think, I’ll be eaten by a bear! But pretty soon, I start thinking about work. Then I look up and see the scenery. It’s sublime. It takes you outside of yourself. You become submerged in it. At first your mind is scurrying around with all these big, important details. But it all fizzles out in this setting. Being here gives you a new perspective. It’s a feeling that’s very deep. It’s those moments that alter people’s perspectives that make travel important. There’s an aspect of traveling in the Rockies that makes you feel small, almost at the whim of nature. I find it humbling.
There’s a caring, genuine ambience at Sunwapta. In a way, Dad has set a standard here. Dad’s a big, generous guy who loves people. He’s all about service. And when we deliver that level of service that changes a person’s experience so that they feel genuinely touched, I feel very proud of this place and the wonderful people who work here. Guests will come back at the end of the day and share what they saw. They hug the front desk staff. I feel that humans have great potential for love and peace. That’s all solidified in those kinds of moments. We support loving, peaceful experiences.