It turned out to be just the start.
“We realized that we were most passionate about finding those diamond-in-the-rough motels and figuring out what that next up-and-coming destination is,” Brown said. “So we were on the hunt pretty quickly after opening the first motel.”
Their process of transforming a second Ontario property, in Lake Huron’s Sauble Beach, is documented in “Motel Makeover,” a Netflix series that debuted last month — and has found a worldwide fan base.
We spoke to the college buddies turned co-stars about the motel movement, the many challenges of DIY and their upcoming travel plans.
(Editor’s note: This Q&A has been edited for clarity and length.)
Where do you think we’re at in terms of the motel-revival period? Are we still in the early stages, or is it in full swing now?
Sklash: I think it’s still in the early stages, but in the last year, due to covid, we see a lot more motels being renovated and transformed. I certainly think the pandemic has sparked this “Oh, motels make a lot of sense.” You don’t have to go into lobbies and elevators; you can just drive right up to your door. It’s really cool because these are really, for the most part, dated, forgotten buildings that deserve to be revived.
I think there’s also a bit of a generational shift as well. I think a lot of [motels] have been family-operated for decades, and you’re starting to see those people want to retire and sell. There’s a lot of fresh energy.
I’m sure I stayed at a few motels in my childhood, but in general, we saw motels have a bad reputation. Now I think they’re starting to have this cool, trendy, “let’s try something new” kind of cutting edge-ness to bringing them back.
There’s also the “Schitt’s Creek” effect, where everyone just kind of got charmed by the motel [on the show].
Why do you think your properties and the motel-revival concept is so popular?
Brown: I think people are looking for unique travel experiences. They’re after one-of-a-kind experiences and that human interaction element as well. We see it in places that we travel to as well, places you feel an emotional connection to. We design our spaces to thrive as that environment.
We talk about Instagrammable moments, but to us they’re even more than just the way the hotel looks: It’s the entire experience of staying at a motel. When you pull up in front of [the June Motel in] Prince Edward County, you instantly have this moment with the bright-pink doors. You walk into the lobby and there’s a neon sign that says “Peace, Love, Wine.” In Sauble Beach, it’s hanging by the pool with friends and lounging in a hammock, or listening to a record in the shop and drinking a coffee.
So yes, it’s all about those Instagrammable moments, the design and the backdrop, but it’s also about really authentic experiences and creating these spaces for people to truly come together.
In the Instagram age, it’s so important to have a place that’s aesthetically pleasing. Can you go through the process of making the June Motel so beautiful?
Brown: Our first motel, in Prince Edward County, we had a really, really small budget. We didn’t have experience in renovation or any kind of credibility in the space. So in terms of financing, we were really, really limited, which meant that Sarah and I did the bulk of the work ourselves.
We learned how to lay flooring, how to wallpaper, painted all the rooms, tiled the lobby. We obviously outsourced the electrical and plumbing, things like that, but we were so, so hands-on because we had no other choice.
Then when it came to Sauble Beach, now we have one existing motel and staff, and we’re building a company. We couldn’t really just turn all of that off and lay flooring all day. At this point, we have some credibility, and it’s a little easier to get access to money. So we hired a construction crew, which was a huge game-changer for us. It was also a much bigger project with a lot more challenges.
Our first motel was 16 rooms and a tiny lobby bar. But in Sauble Beach, it was 24 rooms, a pool — which we had never done before — there was a lobby shop building, a big indoor-outdoor restaurant, which we’d also never done before. We had our work cut out for us. Then you layer on filming a TV show on top of that; then layer on covid, which hit when our rooms were gutted in March 2020. It was really scary. There was no turning back. We didn’t have a motel to operate, so the only way for us was going forward.
With the early renovation work, did you find it difficult to learn to do those things, or were you naturals?
Sklash: We are not naturals. I think with design and styling, we have a lot of fun. April and I love to take on DIY projects, and then we love to just complain basically the whole time we’re doing them.
Some tasks were maybe a little more fun than the others, but we’re always keeping our eye on the prize, eye on where we’re trying to go. April and I went through crazy things to get there, laying flooring for days on end.
But we also had good times. We’d tell friends to come visit for the weekend, then they learned to install wallpaper. Depending on skill level, other friends assembled furniture. It was just weekend after weekend [that] we had different people come through. In the end, so many people contributed to making that first motel happen.
What are some of guests’ favorite things about the motels?
Brown: We are really excited to get back to the service and experience in a post-covid world when we can have more human interaction. That was always such a part of our brand, and I think it really set us apart. Showing up, getting that welcome glass of rosé in Prince Edward County, we’d pull out a map and circle our favorite wineries to go to, where to eat dinner. We were really playing that concierge role.
We’ve totally relied on technology for the last few years, so I think that in-person connection has not been as easy. It requires people to read more text, read the in-room signage. It’s not the same as being able to chat and ask, “What kind of food do you like? Let’s send you here.”
Honestly, the Heydays patio [at Sauble Beach] has been a highlight for our guests — for ourselves, then, [too]. The great thing about both of our motels is that so much of the experience is outdoors already.
If you see the show, you’ll see that we didn’t even do the interior of the [Heydays] restaurant because we ran out of time and money and no one was eating inside anyway. We really created this amazing outdoor patio for Heydays, and the whole vibe of it is like the good old days. It’s really retro. They’re pouring glasses of rosé, you’re eating lobster rolls, there’s string lights out there. You have a view of the pool.
But seeing people kind of be able to safely come together — it didn’t feel like the vibe suffered from covid restrictions. People are six feet apart and all of that; the music is playing. They’re having a great time eating amazing food with a few bottles of wine and their friends in the middle of the afternoon. It’s really fun to observe.
So when did the Netflix show come about?
Brown: It was a long time in the making. We started shooting at the beginning of 2020, but we had started conversations about it at the end of 2018.
Our graphic designer we’ve been working with since day one, one of her really good friends was a television producer who came to stay at the first motel back in 2017. We got an email from her at the end of 2018 saying that she’d just stayed at another renovated motel and was lying there in bed and thought, “Man, those girls from the June Motel just did this.”
I think she really connected with us female entrepreneurs, who are constantly putting our career first and hustling to make our dreams happen. She loved that story, and she really thought that it needed to be told. She came up with the whole concept of the show, pitched it to Proper Television — a Canadian production company — who we ended up working with to actually make the show. And Proper Television is the one that got Netflix on board.
How has the show impacted your business?
Sklash: It’s hard to say, to be honest. We were sold out before the show.
Our Instagram following doubled in the first week of the show, which was crazy. People are reaching out from all over the world. We get messages from people in Australia and Brazil and Malaysia saying, “I watch the show. I’m so inspired. I can’t wait to do something like this myself.”
That really means a lot to hear from these people, who do need that source of inspiration, that sort of “they’re regular people, and if they can do it, I can do it” kind of mentality.
It’ll be interesting to see as we continue forward and launch reservations for next year, how does the show financially impact our business, or how does it contribute to our growth and scale?
Do you have plans in the works for future properties?
Sklash: Yeah, we do. Like April said, we’ve really realized our favorite thing is finding those diamond-in-the-rough properties. So we’re slowly starting the hunt for the next one now.
That feels like a good excuse to travel. You’re both avid travelers; you both love hunting for the best places to go when you’re on the road. How do you plan your trips?
Brown: Often our trips start with “Where do we want to stay?” and then we build our trip around that. If we discovered a really cool, beautiful hotel in California, we’d be like, “OK, great, let’s Google what’s around that hotel. Let’s read a bunch of reviews. Let’s see what travel articles have been written about that destination.”
We read all of the travel articles, all the travel magazines. We have our go-to travel resources. We get a lot of recommendations now on Instagram. Then we just kind of start to put it all together.
Do you have destinations on your list to visit for inspiration next?
Brown: Yes, we’re actually going to go to Miami at the end of this year, take our team and go through a bunch of amazing hotels. We actually call them “inspo trips,” and it’s one of our favorite things to do to refuel and see new things and what other hotels are doing, both from a design perspective but also a service perspective.
We really still need to make it to Austin and go to all of the Bunkhouse motel properties, which are high on our list of sources of inspiration over the years.
We can’t wait to travel. It’s such a huge part of what inspires us to do what we do, and we really haven’t been able to travel anywhere for the last two years. We’re long overdue.