Over the seventeen years that Blain and I operated our cottage rental business out of an office in Unionville, we spent hundreds, and I do mean hundreds, of hours every year showing videos of cottages we represented. And yes, I do mean videos, as in VHS tapes. It was a very long time ago. In fact, it was BTI…Before The Internet (gasp!).

As we met and talked with our clients, we would ask them the same question: “What are you looking for in a cottage rental?” What we learned from their answers helped guide our company’s direction over the intervening years. What we learned is that a cottage vacation meant family time. Time to re-connect after a hectic year of soccer, hockey, work, school. Time to shut out the rest of the world and have the time to all sit down to dinner. A time to talk and a time to reflect. Or perhaps a time to gather spread out family that haven’t seen each other in a while. Television – if the cottage had one, that was nice, but not critical. They were at the cottage to be together.

Times of course, have changed. In the early years, we used to ask cottage owners if they had a telephone (i.e. land line thank you), and if so, was it a private line or a party line (one short, two long rings was yours). Now of course, we’re asking if they have Wi-Fi and if so, is the data allowance unlimited? It seems everyone in the family has at least one device and they all consume copious amounts of data. And satellite television is pretty much standard, at least in consumer expectations.

Just a few years ago, one of our clients ran up a rather substantial data charge for the internet. He wasn’t perturbed at all. It was the price he paid to entice his children to join them at the cottage. They wouldn’t go without internet access.

With the advent of the internet and our web site, we don’t sit down for hundreds of hours with our clients to view videos anymore. Clients select their own cottages, but we do see from their search criteria what appears to be important to them – at least in terms of physical amenities and facilities. But I wonder if they still yearn for that family time, that re-connect time. And if they do, is it achievable when everyone is sitting with their heads bent over a flickering screen instead of a blazing campfire?

One of the most revealing and touching experiences we had in our business life occurred after the horrendous tornado in July of 1995. It significantly many areas of the province but none more so than the Kennisis Lake area of Haliburton where we had quite a few families in cottages at the time. As soon as the road was cleared, we drove up to check on our clients. Fortunately, they were all fine, and to a person, everyone was determined to stay at the cottage – sans electricity. Which meant, no water, no refrigerator, no stove, no lights, fans etc. For all of them it meant pailing water for the toilets, boiling it for drinking, cooking on the barbecue, trekking in ice for coolers.

We ask renters to complete surveys at the conclusion of their holiday. The ones we received from the renters who toughed out the lack of hydro were illuminating. Every one of them commented on what a special holiday they had with their families. No TV meant games of scrabble, Monopoly or checkers (played by lantern), it meant all pulling together to get a meal prepared. And yet, and yet, they all had a wonderful time. How amazing.

Thirty years later, life is different, and yes, I understand some people couldn’t go on vacation if they didn’t have access to work via the internet. And we all enjoy the myriad avenues of entertainment available on our devices. But I wonder, have we lost the ability to truly value the experience of cottage life, returning to a more ‘natural’ setting, appreciating that environment, whether it’s a paddle around the bay and the haunting call of a loon or seeing your daughter catch her first fish.