Niagara-on-the-Lake resident Keith Simmonds was taken completely by surprise when he was announced as the recipient of the Innovative Leader Award as part of the 2022 Niagara Business Achievement Awards.
Announced as the recipient of one of four bestowed awards prior to last week’s ceremony hosted by the Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce, Simmonds was honoured as a prominent business leader who shows exemplary dedication to his community through volunteer efforts.
“I was not expecting that at all,” the vice-president and general manager of Great Wolf Lodge told The Local. “Personally, I see it as a reward for the lodge. I’m really just a small part of what we do there. Getting recognized for community things like this is pretty important to us, our pack is right into it.”
The ‘pack’ to which Simmonds refers is the staff of approximately 850 at Great Wolf Lodge, to whom he continuously gives much credit for getting behind any and all efforts the organization puts forward to contribute to the community at large.
Simmonds has been at the helm at the Niagara Falls resort since 2006. With the hotel and waterpark completely shut down for most of the pandemic, he instituted a below-cost food takeout program for his employees, whose source of income was put on pause. Simmonds says 40,000 meals were distributed through that initiative.
As well, to keep up morale, there were bi-weekly to monthly online gatherings of his management team members, and all employees received weekly email newsletters that included updates, trivia, exercise suggestions and recipes.
But it was largely his efforts to offer the lodge as a distribution centre for rapid testing kits in 2021 that caught the GNCC’s attention.
In introducing Simmonds to the audience at Thursday’s event, held at the Holiday Inn and Suites in St. Catharines, Peter Van Hezewyk of CAA Niagara outlined the importance of Simmonds’ move.
When the Ontario government procured the newly available kits, explained Van Hezewyk, it was announced they would be distributed to businesses free of charge through chambers of commerce. The idea was that employees would be able to self-test, learning of their asymptomatic COVID cases before entering the workplace and infecting others.
But with over 13,000 employers in Niagara, and a workforce of almost 250,000, the GNCC needed a distribution partner with facilities, staff, parking, and experience processing orders and moving people quickly and efficiently.
“The GNCC went to Keith,” remembered Van Hezewyk, “and Keith simply said, ‘we’re all in.’ When the program launched in May of 2021, businesses quickly saw the culture of efficiency and service that Keith had built.”
“From the outset we supported everything the Ontario Chamber of Commerce did,” Simmonds says. “We supported their ‘This is Our Shot’ vaccination awareness campaign. We offered our facility to the health care community as well. We were pleased as punch to see people pulling up to the building to pick up the testing kits.”
Over 150,000 rapid testing kits were distributed out of Great Wolf Lodge to more than 1,000 businesses and non-profit organizations. Hundreds of asymptomatic cases were identified and isolated before they could infect others in the workplace.
“Businesses heaped praise upon the program,” noted Van Hezewyk, “for improving the mental health of their employees who felt safe returning to work.”
Van Hezewyk added that through a full year of operations, there was not a single complaint about the pickup program.
“This speaks not only to Keith’s dedication to his community and willingness to serve others, but to the skill and professionalism with which he does it,” summed up the CAA Niagara president and CEO.
In his acceptance speech, Simmonds said, “Great Wolf Lodge believes that we are incredibly fortunate to be a part of the Niagara Region whether it be as an employer, a business partner or as parents in the community. To that end we are 100 per cent committed to working together in leveraging our resources in our community beyond business operations.”
This spring Great Wolf Lodge was able to hold its annual fundraising car wash for the first time in three years. Simmonds says it raised more than $160,000 for Campfire Circle, a privately funded charity that offers opportunities for families affected by childhood cancer to attend summer camps. Previous car washes have raised more than $250,000 for Sick Kids Hospital. As well, staff members have gathered to plant trees in Heartland Forest and have participated in rides to support Niagara Health.
Though they didn’t win awards Thursday night, two NOTL organizations were also nominated for awards last week.
Spirit in Niagara (SiN) Small Batch Distillery received a nod for the Environmental Leadership Award, which was won by Bench Brewing Company Inc. of Beamsville. Just over a year in operation, SiN uses waste fruit from Niagara tender fruit farms to create a number of different spirit products out of their Lakeshore Road facility. Owner Arnie Lepp and distiller Joshua Beach say their primary goal is to engage with the public about environmental initiatives.
Though CAA Niagara won the Business of the Year category, Shaw Festival was a finalist along with Kraun Electric and the Merani Hotel Group. Celebrating its 60th anniversary in 2022, Shaw was lauded for its employment of more than 600 people, its leadership as a destination theatre in Ontario, and for putting 60 of Canada’s most skilled costumers to work during the pandemic to create gowns, masks and PPE for local area hospitals, shelters, hospices and clinics locally.
A full list of the Niagara Business Achievement Award winners can be found at gncc.ca.