When April Brown and Sarah Sklash decided to transform a rundown Ontario motel into a trendy inn, they had no idea that motels were already enjoying a high-profile boost. Schitt’s Creek, a TV show about a rich family forced to relocate to a decrepit one, debuted in 2015 and was starting to take off.
The CBC comedy eventually won bucketloads of awards, and by the final season a few characters launched a franchise that would revamp motels for a new generation. Sklash and Brown, meanwhile, overhauled the 1970-era Sportsman Motel in Prince Edward County. They renamed it The June Motel and targeted it at a younger clientele, who embraced the Instagram-ready esthetic and retro charm.
It was such a success that the two bought a second 1970s-era motel — the Knight’s Inn in Sauble Beach, Ont. Their work on that property is chronicled in the six-part Netflix docuseries Motel Makeover, now streaming.
“We actually didn’t start watching Schitt’s Creek until 2016 when we were already living in a motel,” says Sklash. “So we would finish our day of work and then go watch Schitt’s Creek, and be like, ‘It’s like watching our own life.’”
They didn’t always see the motel business as their future, though. The two met as students at Western University and moved to Toronto to start their careers. Sklash landed a job as a project manager and business analyst with the government, and Brown worked in PR with brands like Nike. What they had in common was a passion for travel, design and transforming spaces.
“There are a few reasons why we chose motels. One, we love the retro bones to them and The June is all about a throwback to the good old days. What better sense of that than road-trip culture and creating really amazing outdoor communal spaces?” says Brown.
“The other side is that when we got into this business it was 2016 and we knew nothing about hospitality, renovations or design. Motels are affordable and a kind forgotten asset. Our friends were buying houses in Toronto for the same price that we bought a motel in Prince Edward County.”
That doesn’t mean that the process was easy. Their first motel has 16 guest rooms and a small lobby bar, but the second has 24 guest rooms, a swimming pool, restaurant, gift shop and lounge. Plus, they were working amid a global pandemic and they’d be filmed the whole time.
Sklash and Brown got to work in winter 2020. They planned the designs, undertook construction, chose a colour palette (think 1970s sunset), thrifted decor pieces and took care of all the business details. Rooms now feature neon signage, palm tree-covered wallpaper, lots of plants and do-not-disturb door hangers that say things like “not ready to adult yet.”
“When we first moved into an apartment in the residence, it was all old ’70s wood-panelled walls and the restaurant has the same wood panelling, and the shop has tons of wood panelling,” says Brown. “We’ve really, over the course of the last couple of years, embraced all the wood panelling. And now we’re incredibly charmed by it all.”
Looking ahead, two plan to grow the franchise and hope to find a third motel to transform this fall.
“I think the show’s going to be hopefully really inspiring for people to watch Sarah and I — who are not professional designers, who didn’t have experience in hospitality before — go down this path,” says Brown.
“Hopefully they feel inspired to take those leaps themselves and shoot for the stars. Yes, it’s a lot of hard work, and we don’t always have to have the answer … (But) it’s not about getting it right the first time, it’s about keep trying until it is right.”