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The Pines Resort:  Surviving and Thriving During the Shutdown

The Pines Resort–the only four-season lakeside resort in Eastern Madera County

The Pines Resort has a long and storied past—for me, at least. I’d never even heard of Bass Lake until we took a family vacation here in November 1989. After arriving from Orange County at midnight, getting lost and almost giving up hope, we arrived at our destination. The Pines Resort. I stepped out of the car onto Bass Lake soil and vowed, “this will be my home.” Not The Pines Resort precisely, but that weekend my daughter and I made an offer on a home nearby in Bass Lake Annex. The rest, as they say, is History.

Much has already been written about The Pines Resort as well as Kyu Sun and Sun Wah Choe’s acquisition of it. In fact a documentary featuring the Choes’ acquisition of the Pines Resort has recently been produced for OnDemandKorea, a streaming service which is the Korean version of Netflix.

In contrast, this story aims to focus on the unique challenges that surfaced for the Pines Resort (and all businesses in Eastern Madera County and beyond) during the trying months of the shutdown.

In 2020 the entire mountain area suffered the triple whammy of the pandemic and shutdown, the massive Creek Fire that engulfed much of the area to the north of the Pines Resort and the unprecedented “wind event” that caused huge damage throughout the area in mid-January.

If the Pines Resort had “gone under” as a result of these events, it would have broken my heart, so I reached out to Mark Choe, the son of Kyu Sun and Sun Wah, who relocated from Vancouver, British Columbia in 2014 to join the family business as General Manager. I wanted to find out how they fared, what they learned and how they see the future as area businesses begin to open again.

Sun Wah, Kyu Sun and Mark Choe, owners of The Pines Resort

Except for short periods, the Pines Resort remained open the entire time. Mark says, “we had the option to shut down as most of the resorts and hotels did, but we decided that it is much better to be a part of the solution than wait around for ‘things to go back to normal. This way we are employing staff, providing a great escape for our guests, bringing in tax revenue that supported the community and the tourism bureau, and we just believed that we would be greatly rewarded for coming up with solutions and being leaders through this crisis.”

The only part of the Pines to close its doors was the bar, and only a small number of employees became furloughed when the shutdown was first announced. All employees who wished to work were able to do so within a matter of weeks. The shutdown, in fact, operated in the Pines’ favor as they were able to bring on board some great managers and staff to carry forward the operations.

Asked how The Pines Resort could continue to host guests during the shutdown, Mark said that hotels were deemed essential businesses and not subject to the closures. In fact, since it is primarily an outdoor property, they encountered no issues with social distancing for guests. In addition, Mark says, “we created our own COVID safety committee, got certified ‘Clean & Safe’ by the California Hotel and Lodging Association and abided by OSHA protocols. Throughout the entire COVID experience not one person, guest or staff, has contracted COVID from the resort up until this point. We have also brought mobile COVID testing to our facility early on as well had mobile vaccine with Yosemite Drug here twice.”

The very day the shutdown was announced, The Pines made a clear decision that the property would carry on “business as usual,” whatever “usual” looked like in the new reality. That day Ducey’s on the Lake switched from meals on-site to family meals for pickup or delivery, implementing COVID protocols on their own even before the formal protocols were announced. At the time they took this action, they were the only supplier of restaurant food in the area. My own family can attest to the value of the service they offered as well as the quality of the cuisine provided, a welcome respite from the chores of home cooking during the long shelter-in-place.

Word of mouth let the community know what the Pines was doing, and their commitment to communications with guests and staff alike grew their audience even more. They emphasized the measures they were taking to keep everyone safe during a very trying time.

The Pines Resort’s bottom line definitely didn’t reach 2020 goals and declined further with the Creek Fire. Mark says. “Although revenue was down in 2020 due to the pandemic and throw on top of there an epic wildfire which shut us down for one whole month, we have been doing record numbers since after the fire.”

While most local restaurants closed their doors temporarily, and some permanently, during the pandemic, The Pines took pains to make their service shine. Among their innovations (which other businesses mirrored as the pandemic dragged on), Mark cites the following:

  • Provided family meals and delivery.
  • Moved to outdoor dining on the gazebo while maintaining required social distancing and golf-carting food from the remote kitchen to the dining area.
  • Initiated contactless check-in.
  • Immediately implemented stringent cleaning protocols
  • Turned the closed bar into an outdoor dining area renamed “The Pines Café.”
  • Presented a Bass Lake Live concert virtually via Facebook.
  • Purchased a dinghy to do boat deliveries from Ducey’s. This is no longer in operation; however it may be brought back at some time in the future.
  • Changed marketing strategy and started producing their own communication videos.
  • Implemented a late- night food delivery option for our guests.
  • Held “micro” weddings during the shutdown, but The Pines Resort is now back to business-as-usual as a premier wedding destination. Also on top of refunding all brides non-refundable deposits during COVID, they awarded one couple whose wedding got cancelled a free wedding.

Mark Choe marries Shahnaz Sodager May 5, 2021, at The Pines Resort

On the human-interest side of the story, Mark Choe became part of the Pines Resort wedding history when he married wife Shahnaz at the Pines on May 5, 2021.

Asked what problems face The Pines Resort as it emerges from the shutdown, Mark echoes what many local businesses state:  finding individuals who are ready and willing to work. Because they stayed open during the majority of the shutdown, they had key staff in place for most areas, but they still want to hire additional staff to continue to improve operations going forward.’

Plans for future growth are to add a concierge to further advance service to guests as well as adding more events to their calendar. New additions to the slate of offerings are luxury vacation rentals.

In parting, Mark told me, “For us, this pandemic, wildfires, wild storms and now short staffing were situations that gave us a chance to practice our leadership when the people we serve needed it the most. Our staff needed a job and a purpose. Helping guests and the community really buffered the psychological effect of covid. It’s hard to feel bad for yourself while you’re busy helping others. We helped our guests by providing them a nice mental health break where they could get away from the noise and lock down of the city and enjoy nature. We helped our community by providing services as well much needed tax dollars.”

As the only place in the mountain area with a majestic fireworks display, The Pines Resort looks forward to hosting Bass Lake and the surrounding communities on Independence Day 2021, featuring a BBQ, live music and party favors. What a super way to celebrate our own Independence Day.  Check out The Pines Resort at basslake.com, as well as its Facebook page. Photos courtesy of The Pines Resort.

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