All the Comforts of Home

Noralta Lodge

As every traveler knows, few things are better than staying at a hotel that not only makes you feel welcome, but gives you the comforts of home. For the hard-working men and women in Western Canada’s oil and gas industries, Noralta Lodge continues to provide unrivaled accommodations, fresh and nutritious home-cooked meals, exercise facilities, high-speed connectivity and a host of other amenities to make stays as comfortable and stress free as possible.
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Operating nine facilities near Northern Alberta’s oil and gas drilling and exploration areas, Noralta Lodge remains a proud, family-owned business. The company’s founder had spent a number of years in Alberta’s work camps. At the time, these were industrial-looking facilities, utilitarian and devoid of home-like touches, often serving thawed and reheated frozen meals. Sleeping arrangements were no better, with workers spending their nights on thin mattresses or cots.

“He just thought, ‘there has to be a market, and there has to be a better way to do this,” says Corey Smith, President and chief executive officer at Noralta Lodge.

Noralta Lodge’s founder set about creating accommodations that provided not only restful sleep, but quality meals, clean and modern exercise facilities, lounge areas, reliable high-speed internet, pillow-top mattresses and other comforts of home.

“These people are working hard to drive the Alberta economy, and it should be an opportunity to come home to a facility that emulates, as much as possible, the comforts of home, with simple things like home-cooked food and the ability to have a quiet, restful sleep.”

To help create an inviting, home-like atmosphere, Noralta chose to use the word ‘lodge’ – which has a warmer feeling – instead of ‘camp’. Noralta Lodge has grown significantly since being formed in 1997. Starting off with just fifteen rooms, the founder’s wife running the grocery order and his parents also involved in the business, Noralta Lodge today has nine lodges with 5,200 rooms and is growing.

The company’s first phase of growth was focused on conventional oil and gas activity, primarily in north and central Alberta, often following seasonal patterns, with considerable drilling sites being accessed in winter months. Noralta Lodge expanded to Fort McMurray in 2007-2008, where oil and gas activity was happening year-round.

“We are an Alberta-based company; we know the unique aspects and challenges of the Athabasca Oil Sands very well, and that is where we focus,” says Smith, who had experienced the company as a customer prior to joining in 2013.

Smith was aware, from his experience working for airports, of the logistics similarities between airports and the hospitality industry since both have lounge areas, hotels and restaurants.

“You can draw a lot of comparables to the complexity of logistics that it takes to successfully provide a quality end-user experience in a remote setting,” he says of Noralta Lodge, which also has its own aviation department. Staff fly in and out of the worksites, spending twenty days on site and ten days off.

The ongoing success of Noralta Lodge over the past eighteen years did not happen by chance but is the result of considerable research, first-hand experience and hard work. As anyone who has been a part of the oil and gas industry knows, the better the quality of sleep, the more productive employees are during the day.

“We can absolutely connect the attributes of a quality lodging experience to workplace safety and productivity,” says Smith.

One of the unique aspects of Noralta Lodge is its ability to serve not only employees of existing oil and gas facilities, but workers engaged in the construction of new projects. A new build can take five years to complete, and accommodation is required for workers from inception to completion. Once an oil or gas project build finishes, the need for maintenance, support and other staff is ongoing, and these individuals also require facilities like those provided by Noralta Lodge.

Large works, or megaprojects, take not only half a decade to complete, but require the expertise of 5,000 to 10,000 workers on site during that time. Since these project sites are far removed from municipal areas, worker camps were traditionally used to house them during the build phase.

Unlike stark old-fashioned camps, Noralta Lodge provides a true, home-like feel for workers not only during the construction phase of a megaproject, but for ongoing maintenance staff when the site is operational.

Aware of projects under construction far in advance, Noralta Lodge comfortably accommodates the needs of guests for a wide range of periods. Some stay for two to three months, performing annual maintenance at oil and gas sites while workers on megaprojects sometimes remain for several years. No matter the length of the stay, all guests are assured of quality, friendly service from staff who genuinely care and make visitors feel at home and appreciated.

“We get to know these guests quite well,” says Smith. “One of the things we maintain, is our culture and keeping a small enough footprint that all of our front desk staff get to know all customers by name. It feels quite boutique as opposed to industrial. We will never built anything larger than 750 rooms because we believe that with anything beyond that, you begin to lose that boutique sense, and we try to maintain that ‘home away from home feel’ that we achieve.”

Noralta Lodge offers unparalleled service to a range of clients in strategically-positioned, accessible locations. Located close to work sites, the company’s Fort McMurray Village, situated just 26 kilometres northwest of Fort McMurray, Alberta, was opened in 2008.

This site was expanded in 2013 and can now house over 3,000 people in five lodges: Bighorn Lodge, Black Bear Lodge, Buffalo Lodge, Lynx Lodge and Wolverine Lodge.

Its other locations across Alberta include its Firebag Lodge, Red Earth Lodge, Wabasca Lodge, Grey Wolf Lodge and Willow Lake Lodge.

It is, says Smith, the little touches that really go a long way toward providing a positive end-user experience for guests. Comfortable and well-maintained private rooms feature Comfort Sleeper pillow top mattress (designed exclusively for Noralta Lodge by Natural Rest Bedding). All rooms feature blackout curtains to ensure guests receive enough rest. For relaxation, work, entertainment and keeping in touch, all rooms are outfitted with desk areas, a flat-screen LCD monitor, unlimited access to HD TV channels, unlimited wireless high-speed Internet and telephone service.

Along with fresh bedding and towels, guests wishing to do their own laundry can take advantage of washers, dryers and drying racks, conveniently located in each wing.

Unlike old-fashioned camps where workers had to endure frozen meals trucked-in, thawed and reheated, guests at Noralta Lodge’s nine lodge locations can eat gourmet dishes. Delicious, nutritious meals include not just traditional favorites, but ethnic-inspired dishes, fresh fruit and an extensive selection of baked goods and desserts made fresh daily.

Food is prepared for shift workers twenty-four hours a day by Red Seal chefs and served in large, comfortable dining rooms outfitted with cathedral ceilings and natural light.

And since oil and gas industry workers are often on the job at night and follow different usage patterns, staff at Noralta Lodge can serve them dinner meals at any time of the day to accommodate their needs. Guests can also pack their own lunches with a choice of eighteen different sandwiches, freshly-made salads and even takeout meals or microwave-safe dishes.

Noralta Lodge has equipped their facilities with state-of-the-art fitness centers with options for resistance training, free weights, indoor cycling, elliptical machines, treadmills and more. With guests working on different shifts, fitness facilities are in use at all times of day or night.

In addition to classes such as yoga, guests can choose to relax in the games room, watch sports on big-screen TVs, play video games, enjoy cards, play foosball and more.

Since the majority of guests are away from friends and family, connectivity remains extremely important and high-speed internet is available.

A great believer in working with local communities, the company has entered into a strategic partnership with the business arm of Fort McMurray #468 First Nation, Christina River Enterprises. This business partnership focuses on three areas: employment, jointly offering a facilities management business and running lodges for others, and the building of a new lodge called Willow Lake Lodge on Fort McMurray first Nations land near Anzac, Alberta. Goals are for this lodge to be up and running by late spring or early summer of this year.

“The plans are hot off the press, and we have done some land prep, but that will be our next project, and it will be in partnership with local First Nations,” states Smith. “That is a new avenue of growth for us, and a partner that shares our values. The Fort McMurray #468 First Nation did a great job building a robust business in that region, and that supports the needs of the oil sands development.”

To create employment and apprenticeship opportunities in trades and the kitchen, Noralta Lodge has formed an exciting partnership with the Athabasca Tribal Council (ATC) called Building Essential Skills Training (BEST). The BEST program provides training and employment opportunity for residents of the Athabasca Tribal Council region who want to pursue a career in hospitality.

In August of this year, Noralta Lodge’s Fort McMurray Village site will make history when it hosts accommodations for the 2,500 athletes taking part in the Western Canada Summer Games. Two of the company’s lodges will serve as villages for athletes over two weeks.

“It will be the first time we have used the lodge for that type of use,” says Smith of the endeavour. “It is a huge community initiative and really allowed us to engage with the Fort McMurray community.”

From very humble beginnings and just a few rooms, Noralta Lodge continues to look to the future.

“I see, for us, continued growth not only in building and operating our own facilities, but also in providing our services to operate our customers’ facilities, so taking the Noralta Lodge brand on the road, so to speak,” he says.

“Our partnership with Christina River Enterprises will open up tremendous areas of growth.” While he believes that the company’s comfort region lies within the Athabasca Oil Sands, at some future time, it will look at expanding geographically into Saskatchewan and British Columbia, to sustain future growth.

March 28, 2017, 9:45 AM EDT