It was New Year’s Day, 2016. Sarah Sklash, HBA’07, and April Brown, BMOS’06, raised their glasses to a resolution that ultimately changed their lives.
“We cracked open a bottle of wine saying this would be the year we’d do something new and exciting,” Sklash said.
The toast marked the beginning of a journey, leading them to renovate a roadside motel, purchase a second one, and star in the new Netflix series, Motel Makeover.
Best friends turned business partners
Sklash and Brown met and became best friends at Western. Their early careers took them both to Toronto, where Brown worked for a public relations firm and Sklash for the government.
Ten years and a weekend of wine bootcamp in Picton, Ont., later, they left their day jobs behind.
“At first, it was just supposed to be a side hustle,” Sklash said. But recognizing an opportunity in a promising travel destination, they put it all on the line.
“A few months later, we owned this super dingy roadside motel in Prince Edward County,” Sklash said. “It was really popular with fishermen and hunters, but that didn’t fit our long-term vision.”
They ran the hotel ‘as is’ the first summer to gain some experience. The following year they borrowed some money, rolled up their sleeves and got to work rebranding “The Sportsman” into The June Motel.
“Neither of us had any experience in design or construction, but we renovated the whole place ourselves,” Sklash said. “It was such hard work, but we look back on it now as a real adventure.”
We had a lot of good times. And I don’t think I’ve ever worked so hard in my life.-Sarah Sklash
A different look, a different demo
One of the first things to go was the “no gutting fish in the room” signs. Today, the walls boast neon wall art promising good vibes, peace, love and wine. Brown’s “paint it pink mantra” set the tone for the motel doors. The Palm Springs-inspired, retro-chic decor provides Instagram-worthy backdrops to attract a clientele Sklash and Brow know best: millennial women.
“We’re proud of creating a place where we as friends would want to stay,” Sklash said. The Ivey Business School graduate also notes that “women make 70 per cent of all travel decisions, so it felt like a smart market to go after.”
Their instincts were right on target, with The June in Prince Edward County fast becoming a much-sought holiday spot, garnering reviews in The New York Times and Vogue.
Renovating on reality TV
Four years later, The June also captured the attention of television producer Jessica Nahmias, BA’07. She had stayed as a guest early on, and later dreamed up an idea for a reality television show. Instead of another home reno series, she envisioned a motel being fixed up by “millennial entrepreneurs following their dreams.” Sklash and Brown fit the bill.
“I felt a strong connection to April and Sarah’s story as women in their thirties who put their career ambitions first,” Nahmias said.
When she approached Sklash and Brown, they had just set their sights on their second “June.” It was another weary roadside motel. This time, in Sauble Beach, Ont., with bigger costs and greater risk, making it the perfect setting for Motel Makeover.
“Out of sheer luck, the timing worked out really well,” Sklash said.
That is, until the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
“It was winter 2020 and we were in the middle of renovating and filming the series. The entire motel was gutted, so there was no turning back. There was so much uncertainty, it was very frightening to move forward.”
Yet, they did, navigating the highs and lows of renovations along with the pressures of the pandemic.
Nahmias believes viewers will be inspired by Sklash and Brown’s friendship and resilience.
“They go with their gut and sometimes make mistakes, but they embrace it all. It’s not something I often see reflected on TV, especially in the design space.”
The show also features the pair’s protégé, Courtney Mann, BA’15. Mann joined The June’s team right after graduating from Western, showing potential to become project manager for the Sauble Beach site.
“It’s been an exciting journey filled with learning experiences and growth opportunities,” Mann said. “Doing it all on camera for the Netflix series made it that much more chaotic, but I’m lucky to have April and Sarah as such great mentors.”
Things don’t always go as smoothly as originally predicted in front of the camera, but Sklash sees that as “part of the fun” she and Brown have always shared. “Having fun’s part of the soul of The June,” she said. “There’s friendship at the root of it.”
Sklash and Brown are proud to have set up businesses in small, rural areas, where they are happy to support other female entrepreneurs and promote surrounding attractions.
“Finding these tired motels in destinations that are sometimes off the radar for people is something we both really love,” Sklash said. “We can’t wait to find and renovate the next one. We don’t have an exact motel in mind yet, but we’re keeping our eyes open.”
The six-episode series of Motel Makeover premieres Aug. 25 on Netflix