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Talking Shop With April Brown & Sarah Sklash, Founders of The June

In a 2017 episode of the wildly popular TV show Schitt's Creek, Johnny Rose (Eugene Levy) and Stevie Budd (Emily Hampshire) team up to run what becomes the Rosebud Motel. That series made a lot of people think about motels in a different way, but as it turns out, April Brown and Sarah Sklash were ahead of the curb. The best-friends-turned-business-partners had purchased a motel in Prince Edward County, a municipality in southern Ontario, back in 2016 and transformed it into The June, a spot where those same millennials who watch Schitt's Creek would be thrilled to visit. 
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Though The June might have benefited from the increased exposure motels received from the show, its look and feel is even more alluring than that of the Rosebud's — no offense to Johnny and Stevie. Together, Brown and Sklash curated a breathtaking spot with Instagram-worthy interiors and exciting experiences. Since then, they've gone on to open an additional location in Sauble Beach as well as an online shop where visitors can find everything from wallpaper to hammocks so they can bring The June vibe home with them.
In this edition of Talking Shop, April Brown and Sarah Sklash share how they manage to be trendsetters in the thriving motel scene. They also talk about their design process, building community through travel experiences, and what it was like to open a new motel in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. 
Walk me through the process of launching The June.
April Brown: We don't have a background in hospitality. I worked for a PR agency in Toronto and Sarah was working for the government. We met at university and have been friends for about 17 years. I think we've always had a bit of an entrepreneurial spirit so we were always bouncing ideas off of each other, but it was never really the right time. Then, at the beginning of 2016, we were both in a rut, living in Toronto. It wasn't as glamorous as it had once been. We were looking for this change in our careers and our lives so we sat down, cracked open a bottle of wine, and brainstormed like 40 or 50 ideas over the course of a weekend. One of the ideas we were really drawn to was adult wine camp. Most of the ideas that we came up with were centered around providing amazing travel experiences for people because we were really passionate about that. We knew of this place, Prince Edward County, a couple of hours from Toronto. It had an up-and-coming winery, brewery, food scene so we saw that there was a ton of opportunity to do something there. We were passionate about all these things but didn't really know how to put it all together at that moment.
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When we came up with this idea of adult wine camp, at that point, we were thinking of it as a side hustle. We were looking for a place to host it, and this motel came up in conversations. Sarah was like "What if we took this dingy, roadside motel over for the weekend and revamped it and made an experience out of it?" That process of thinking that weekend through made us realize we should just buy that motel, and it was really, really quick after that. We drove out, looked at it in the middle of a snowstorm in the winter, and by June of that year, we were quite literally moving into this motel. It was called Sportsman Motel. It was designed for fishermen and hunters for the last 30 years, and immediately, we saw the vision to create the next boutique-style property in Prince Edward County. There really weren't a lot of options for millennials at that time. Competition in the area was other roadside motels that really didn't have any appeal to millennials and traditional B&Bs. There wasn't really much else, but there was a ton of demand for places to stay.
So we moved in, ran it as is for the first summer, learned everything we needed to learn about how to run a motel, and then we started the renovation. With the first motel, we were so, so hands-on. Our budget on the renovation side was extremely limited. We had a lot to prove to be honest so it was us ripping up the floors, laying new flooring, learning how to tile, wallpapering every room, painting. There were a lot of weekends with family and friends and a lot of favors called in, but in the end, we saw our vision come to life over the course of that year, painted the doors pink, put up statement wallpaper behind the beds, and hung a neon sign where guests arrive. We saw the potential to create these really memorable design moments. A lot of those choices are what propelled our social media account and really got us started as The June at the beginning of our brand. Five years later, we're sitting here actually in Sauble Beach, which is where our second motel is. It's been a crazy journey.
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Did either of you have any background in business?
Sarah Sklash: Both of us studied business in school, but then we went into our own different streams. I worked for the government in birth registration, which couldn't be more different than what we're doing now. Both of us can recall taking accounting classes 10 years ago, so that's definitely been helpful. I find, as an entrepreneur, you really need to have that well-rounded business sense, but at the same time, right from the beginning we found the right people to collaborate with. It's important to understand a little bit, but you can then find a really great accountant, you find a great lawyer, you find a great branding expert. As an entrepreneur, you just can't do it all, but you need to, at the end of the day, own each of those processes.
Did the skills you gained at your previous jobs help in starting and running The June?
SS: I actually believe it's really important to get some work experience out of school before starting your own business. I'm sure it can be done other ways, but we're building a company, we're hiring staff, we're leading people, and it's really great to have had that work experience and to have seen how others do it. And there are definitely transferable skills from whatever industry you're coming into, even working for the government, which again, couldn't be more different. But also as an entrepreneur, you do need to understand how to work with different levels of government, especially going through COVID and applying for these grants and loans.
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AB: Coming from a marketing and PR background, I felt like, as entrepreneurs, we had a bit of an upper hand in the sense that we had great immediate relationships to bring into our business. We had influencer connections, and a lot of that knowledge and those relationships that I had built in my previous career certainly helped launch The June five years ago.
SS: We also got project management experience, which is another really important thing. In just about every industry, you're working through projects, and at the end of the day, creating these new motels is all about projects.
AB: Right. Managing budgets, putting the right teams in place, and managing people.
Have you received any funding for the business? If so, what kind?
SS: One of the interesting things with motels is that they're going up in price, but you can still find amazing deals. Getting a motel was actually less expensive than buying a house in Toronto. Our first one was a steal. Our second one was kind of a steal too. With the first motel, instead of going to a traditional bank, we actually had a mortgage with the sellers of the motel; it's called a vendor take-back mortgage. I think it could have been a challenge to get traditional financing for that first one. We then found a small business bank, which lent us the money to do the renovations.
Our renovation budget for that first motel — 16 guest rooms, 16 bathrooms, a lobby — was $250,000, which is a very, very small budget, and we needed to stretch it really, really far. So as April said, we were very, very hands-on on that first one. We also mastered that high, low mix, so lots of big box stores. We've assembled so much Ikea and we've painted so many walls. Then for the second motel, we now had a bit of a proven track record so we were able to work with a more traditional bank to get a larger loan. We refinanced the first property to help fund the renovations of that motel. 
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The financing side is getting a little easier as we build our track record. We still haven't worked with traditional investors, but again, I think now we have this model where, when we probably eventually do go out for investment, we can say, "We have five years of experience in this." We can demonstrate that it's a profitable model, which is so important.
You mentioned you were able to get the first motel for a steal. Has the motel market changed since then? I'm curious if you've seen motels become more trendy thanks to things like Schitt's Creek.
SS: Yeah, definitely. I'd say, to some degree, we've probably influenced others as well. And there were others that we saw too like Liz Lambert — she's a Texan who started doing this. Everyone takes their inspiration from somewhere, but motels are a serious trend right now. I think this is just the start of it because they're also awesome. They have these cool retro bones, and I think our generation’s not looking for that cookie-cutter experience. We're looking for individual, unique, authentic properties.
On the other hand, people hadn't really heard of Prince Edward County when we first purchased the first motel. And Sauble Beach, where we are now, felt like this kind of forgotten beach town. We purchased this motel that probably hadn't been updated since the '90s and the restaurant hadn't operated in a decade. So, as an earlier entrepreneur, you're not following the trend. You're the trendsetter in the destinations because that's when you can afford it.
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AB: It's more expensive to walk into like the most desirable tourist destination so it's more about what are those undiscovered places that we know people will want to visit?
SS: It's hard sometimes because we really do want one in The Hamptons, but it's literally like twenty times the price. 
How do you go about finding those more undiscovered areas? Do you two travel around to experience them yourselves or is it done through social media?
AB: It's a little bit of both. I think we start to discover things on social media, like seeing little hints that this could be a cool destination to check out, but we love traveling and we get a ton of inspiration from discovering new places, experiencing it for ourselves, and staying at other really cool boutique hotels. We actually did go to The Hamptons and that served as an inspiration trip for Sauble Beach because we thought it had a similar east coast beach town feel. So yeah, there's a lot of travel and discovery, and Sarah scans the real estate websites constantly.
SS: Yeah, I'm addicted to LoopNet and Realtor and sometimes the motels that I come across are total gems. Then we start to look at what's around those motels so that really helps us discover places. The first time we came to Sauble Beach, we stayed here before we purchased it, and it just felt like this magical, super retro beach town, where everyone just lives in flip-flops. Picking the next hot spots partly comes down to gut feel. We're always looking for, is there a brewery close by? Is there a vegan restaurant? Is there stunning scenery? Those are some indicators of what's going to be trendy, but it's that balance of finding the perfect property and just a feeling. It's great because we're our own target markets so we ask ourselves, "Would I come here on vacation?"
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You mentioned that millennials aren't looking for a cookie-cutter experience, and I definitely agree with that. I think unique aesthetics are especially important for this generation of travelers, and The June motels really cater to that. How do you two approach the design process? Where does your inspiration come from?
AB: We are not designers by trade at all. Before The June, both of us had dabbled in our own personal renovations like our condos, and Sarah bought a cottage, and I think through that, we developed a love for it. To do that on a commercial level, though, was a whole different ball game, but it was also what we were most drawn to because it meant we would be able to tap into that creativity. We always say our design mantra is "find that one piece that you just love so much and then start to build around it." That approach breaks down things a little bit more. In our first motel, it was that classic palm print wallpaper. We found that wallpaper and we just built everything around that. To this day, it's still one of the most iconic things about The June, and it's very recognizable so that's really cool. 
We have worked with interior designers on some of the commercial spaces, like our lobby bar so we definitely have hired consultants in that space to help us with technical drawings and things like that. The design process is what we're really excited about.
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SS: The other thing we do is we like to personify June, and we think of this retro woman. It's really fun, and I can't wait for the next motel so we can do this again. For Sauble Beach, it was like, "Okay, June is a woman in the 1970s, and she's just bought a beach house." We really think about the design through this personified version of our brand. We also walk around the property with a bottle of wine and some glasses and just sit and stare and brainstorm.
With more than one motel now, how many employees do you have?
SS: We have a core team that has actually grown. For many years, it was just April and I, and then we'd have some seasonal staff come on, but we now have six full-time staff. Then each property has a general manager, and during the season, they'll each have about 20 staff as well, so that's everything from housekeeping to we call them motelier concierges, who are at the front desks.
In Sauble Beach, we have a restaurant, Heydays. We had mastered motel operations, but when we bought this motel that has a restaurant on it, we quickly realized, Okay, we have no idea what we're doing here. It was very scary so we actually found partners for the restaurant. It's people who really shared the same vision and values so we were able to really focus on the design and concept, but find people who complement our skills and love making and serving food. So they actually have their own team of seven.
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What has been your biggest business challenge so far? I'd imagine the pandemic posed quite a challenge since it has had such a big impact on the hospitality industry.
AB: We opened the Sauble Beach location in 2020 during COVID. When COVID hit, it was March, and we were supposed to open that summer. We had a completely gutted motel. We were in the thick of a renovation. I think there were two or three months there that we honestly sat down almost every day and debated our options. Do we try to put it back together in a really cheap way, not open this as The June, and then just wait until we can do this properly with the right budget? Do we not open at all and just keep the renovation going but give ourselves another year to open? Do we try to find all of the loans and government support to make this thing happen by the end of summer so that we could at least get a short fall season? It's a super seasonal beach town, so you make all your money in July and August. 
We opened up at the end of August 2020, and it was a challenge to get all the supplies, the wood, the labor. It was a grind right to the end. The timelines of everything were so messed up. You couldn't get lumber, and we had this half-built wooden pool deck a week before opening and there was no pool. So it was a really, really stressful summer. We felt like we were fighting an uphill battle every single day but not getting anywhere. In the end, it all came together. Magically, somehow we pulled it off. We opened and had this amazing grand opening weekend.
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The property completely shined during COVID. I think people were so excited to have somewhere new to travel that was close to home. They didn't have to get on an airplane. Everyone's vacations had been canceled that summer, but here was this little resort in Ontario where there was a pool, an outdoor restaurant serving lobster rolls and frozé, and live music that you could watch from your balcony while you laid in your hammock. It was really cool and magical to see what that experience brought to people's lives when they really needed it. Similarly this year, we're completely sold out at both properties until later in September, and it's a testament to the fact that everyone needs something to look forward to. The fact that we can be that little escape is just so rewarding. It's more rewarding than it's ever been.
So it sounds like you two were ultimately able to turn that huge challenge into a win. What's another big business win for The June?
SS: When we first opened the first motel, we really wanted to create communal spaces. I think that's part of what sets The June aside from other places you could stay; You feel like you're arriving at your friend's place in wine country. In the evening, we have a firepit, and all the rooms come together. In those moments, we're always like, "Okay, we've created something so special." Looking out and seeing people come together, we know they are creating lifelong memories. They're having the best time they've had this year. Definitely with COVID, we have heard that a lot. I think travel is so, so important, and for me, it's those moments that I spend with my family, my husband, and my friends that are really, really precious. So when you get to sit back and witness people having those moments, it's so special and rewarding.
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What is your ultimate goal for The June?
B: I think what Sarah and I have realized in creating this business is that we are super passionate about finding those hidden gems, creating the vision, creating this whole new experience around motels, and creating those communal spaces that really actually bring people together. I think ultimately our goal is to do a lot more of that; finding the next destinations that people want to travel to, opening up more motels, and building an amazing team of women who want to help bring that dream to life.
SS: I think the other legacy is that we hope people see April and I, and are like, Oh, they're just like me. If they can do it then I can go after my goal or I can start my business. That's why we really love to share our story. We just hope that it helps others take that leap.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
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