What It's Really Like to Run the Insta-Perfect Roadside Inn, The June Motel

In our 9–5 series, we profile women at the top of their game. This week, co-owners of Prince Edward County's new June Motel–and long-time BFFs—April Brown and Sarah Sklash chat with us about transforming a basic motel into the most Instagrammable spot in PEC

Names: April Brown and Sarah Sklash

Ages: April is 33, Sarah is 32

Instagram handles: @aprilkbrown and @ssklash

Education: April has a degree in public relations from the University of Western Ontario; Sarah graduated from the Ivey Business School at the University of Western Ontario

Length of time as moteliers: “One year and 37 days to be exact.”

The June Motel owners Sarah Sklash and April Brown sit on a white love seat outside their motel's pink doors

Sarah Sklash and April Brown (Photo: Courtesy of The June Motel)

How long have you been friends?

 April: 14 years and counting!

What is it like working with a good friend? What is the best part and the biggest challenge?

April: Everyone warned us about the dangers of getting into business with a friend, but it’s been the best decision we’ve made. I couldn’t imagine doing this with anyone else; we compliment each other so well. The best part is you get double the creativity, and you always have someone to share a bottle of rosé with!

Sarah: There have certainly been challenges and tough days with the motel, but when one of us is having a bad day, the other one knows how to cheer the other up. You get to know and appreciate a friend in a whole new light when you work with them.

What were your jobs prior to starting The June Motel?

April: I worked in PR and social media at High Road agency on the Amex and Nike accounts. It was a lot of fun, but in the end I was burnt out and needed a big change in my life.

Sarah: I worked for the Ontario Public Service. I enjoyed it, learned a lot that I continue to apply to my work now and I am proud of what I accomplished.  Still, it didn’t fulfill my entrepreneurial and creative spirit.

How did you make the career change and become moteliers?

April: Sarah and I were looking for that next chapter in both our careers and personal lives. The daily grind in Toronto was no longer as fulfilling as it once was when we were in our early 20s. We started to dream about having something of our own and a new creative outlet. Meanwhile, Sarah and I had been coming out to Prince Edward County (PEC) with our friends for years. She and her boyfriend had recently bought a cottage in the area, so we had seen first-hand how the area had grown in popularity year-over-year. There was a little fate in how it all worked out as well. This motel (the Sportsman Motel) had merely come up in conversation, but we instantly thought “we should buy that motel.” We drove out to look at it and two months after, put in an offer. Less than six months from that initial conversation, we moved into the dingy roadside motel that it once was.

What opportunity did you see in PEC?

When we bought the motel in 2016, PEC was becoming the new hot spot and had just been named one of the top places to visit by Travel & Leisure. But despite the popularity of the area, everyone seemed to struggle to find a place to stay. We had struggled ourselves on several occasions, so the we knew the demand was there. Buying a vintage roadside motel introduced us to a whole new world. We were suddenly challenged in new ways, and we had endless opportunities to be creative in how we transformed not only the look and feel of the place, but the entire experience of staying at a motel.

A pink neon sign that reads "rosé all day"

(Photo: Courtesy of The June Motel)

Was the motel still operating when you bought it?

April: The previous owners had been operating the motel for 30 years, so it was definitely operational. We took possession on June 1, 2016 and operated as the Sportsman Motel until the end of October, and then we closed down. We closed from November to May 2017. We finished the renovations on May 4 and reopened on May 5!

How involved were you in the renovation and design process and when did you call in a designer/decorator?

April: We were REALLY involved from the very beginning. Sarah and I weren’t afraid to roll up our sleeves and tile the lobby and wallpaper the rooms! Full disclosure: we hired an electrician and called in our friends and family often. When it came to the lobby, we called on a friend who’s an incredible interior designer—Keri MacLellan of 4Walls Interiors, a boutique interior design studio.

Sarah: We had a tight budget that we wanted to stretch far for the renovations. This meant putting in a lot of hard work ourselves. We’re happy to have moved on to the phase where we’re operating, but we definitely created a lot of memories during the renovation.

Do either of you have interior design or decorating experience, or a real interest in it?

Sarah: We both had a strong interest—or Pinterest, if you will—in design.

April: Sarah had renovated her cottage, and we had dabbled in design enough to realize that we loved the idea of transforming a space. This whole thing was about designing experiences and spaces, and we really wanted that creative platform. I’m so happy we worked with Keri for the lobby because she brought it to the next level, but we didn’t want to outsource the whole project.

Where did you look for design inspiration?

April: Everywhere—places we’ve travelled to, restaurants, fashion trends and social media. I travelled around California last fall and was so inspired by other motel transformations, such as The Goodland in Santa Barbara. I came back obsessed with macramé, and now we’ve got macramé above the beds in the Wine Studio rooms (rooms at The June Motel designed specifically for wine lovers).

Sarah: Between Instagram and Pinterest, we were able to explore and collect so many inspirational photos. I just counted—we have 35 Pinterest boards for the motel!

A motel room at The June with pink and green floral-patterned wallpaper, white curtains and white bedding

(Photo: Courtesy of The June Motel)

What would you say are the main differences between a motel and a hotel?

Sarah: The most technical response is that motel comes from the words “motor-lodge.” You do still drive up right to the door of your room, which is kind of funny because I think a lot of our guests haven’t stayed in motels before so it is something that we do need to give pretty specific directions for. But the broader answer is that motels are a more casual space, as opposed to a formal, five-star hotel.

Describe your typical work day, from when you get up to when you finish working for the day.

April: It’s never the same. Some days, we’re pouring wine and chatting with guests and other days we’re out networking and exploring the County. Keeping up with the newest hot spots is part of the job. It’s a tough one, but someone has to do it!

Sarah: I find there’s usually at least one really cool experience, like an amazing guest, a cool photo shoot or a wine tasting, and one not-so-fun issue that needs to be solved. It always keeps me on my toes.

Is owning your own business scary? If so, why?

April: It’s not scary at all, it’s mostly just so exciting and adventurous! At times it can feel daunting, but that’s when having a business partner can really help. We take turns relieving each other when we’re feeling overwhelmed.

Sarah: Despite being new entrepreneurs, we’re both smart and pragmatic. We’ve never been scared, because we analyze, plan ahead and are good at determining solutions to problems.

Would you say social media is an integral part of your business? How do you set yourself apart?

April: It’s a huge component of The June. We designed this place with the millennial traveller in mind. We know he/she is Instagram-obsessed and we realized it was important to design visual experiences that they’d want to share during their stay with us–a funky neon sign when they check-in, a statement wallpaper behind the bed and pink doors. Further to that, we’ve invested a lot in beautiful photography, which lends itself well to Instagram and other social platforms. I think working with professionals to get beautiful photos that tell your brand story and brand experience is not only powerful, but essential in today’s social media-obsessed culture.

Sarah: [It’s important to] be thoughtful and strategic with social media. To understand the difference between a personal account and your business’s. To put in effort. The number of people who have told us that they learned about our business through Instagram is pretty amazing. We haven’t yet spent any money on traditional advertising.

The June Motel owners Sarah Sklash and April Brown in the lobby of their motel, seated on a tan leather couch with green plants behind it

(Photo: Courtesy of The June Motel)

How many employees do you have?

April: We’ve got a small team of six and we’re eager to grow the team and the business!

Is this your first time being a “boss”? If so, what’s the most important thing you’ve learned in being a boss? And the biggest challenge?

April: I managed teams in my last position, so that’s not necessarily new. However, I’ve always said that people management is one of the most challenging aspects of any business and the most important. We’re finding that it’s really important to make time for your employees, provide really specific direction and create moments to bring everyone together for a little bit of fun—the latter is critical for team morale, particularly in the busy summer months when we’re all a little worn-down.

Sarah: I am new to being an “employer.” I definitely feel a new amount of responsibility to our staff that they are safe, happy and treated well and fairly. I’m happy that our staff have so far had positive things to say about our management. We truly value the hard work our staff put in that is so essential to ensuring guests of The June have a good experience.

What advice would you have for people thinking of starting their own business in the hospitality industry?

April: Just do it. Trust your instincts and don’t be afraid to take the leap. While you can do the necessary research and crunch the numbers, you’ll never have a glass ball outlining your future, so you just have to trust yourself in the end.

Sarah: As a hospitality business, you are almost definitely part of a larger business community. Build those relationships. Support one another. We were surprised when we first started that it wasn’t competitive, in fact we are constantly sending each other business. Also, don’t let lack of experience in the industry stop you from trying. Build upon your open personal experiences and desires and it should work out.

The bar of The June Motel with wicker bar seats and glasses of rosé wine poured

(Photo: Courtesy of The June Motel)

What’s the best part about your job? The most challenging?

April: The best part is creating; creating new designs and new experiences. I’ve loved seeing the transformation of old and forgotten to new and beautiful.

Sarah: I love catching glimpses of guests in the midst of moments that I know will be highlights of their summers. Travels with friends and family have always been precious to me, and I love now being on the other side. The work-life balance is tough now, particularly being further away from close friends, family, and my boyfriend who are all in Toronto and Windsor, but we’ll improve that balance as we progress.

How are you working towards achieving “work-life balance”?

April: It doesn’t come naturally, I’ll say that. When you own your own business, particularly one that’s 24/7, it’s all-consuming. Life is work and work is life. That said, we took the leap to become moteliers so that we could enjoy life more, so we’re forcing each other to take two personal days every week and actually leave the motel. We both have condos in Toronto, so we typically escape with a little city life. Mainly we eat all the delicious things we can’t get in the County, and of course see our friends! The drastic change of scenery allows for a real mental break from motelier life.

Sarah: Toronto is where we now go to decompress a little bit—which is so ironic—and to eat Thai food. But we love the city more now that we’re not living in it and working the 9-to-5. We’ve been able to actually experience the best parts of the city that we were too busy to experience before.

The saying “Do what you love, and you’ll never work another day in your life” has some truth to it. We’re developing good friendships with many of the businesses we work with and our guests are pretty fabulous; both of these things help to make the fact that we’re working a lot of hours every week more OK.

How do you unwind?

April: Escaping to the city and seeing my friends is how I unwind… of course all of that with a glass of wine in hand!

Sarah: Spending time with my boyfriend at our cottage, biking, kayaking or most luxuriously, watching Netflix with a glass of wine in hand.

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