I bought a former fishermen’s inn and converted it into a boutique hotel
Renda Abdo ran three successful restaurants in Toronto before setting her sights on Prince Edward County. In 2018, she bought an old 10-room budget lodge in Wellington and renovated it into the Lakeside Motel, which opened in May of 2019. Here’s her story.
—As told to Andrea Yu
“After high school, I moved from Kingston to Toronto. I’d always wanted to live in the big city. I got a job as a server at a café called Chez Cappuccino. I thought, What a great, crazy industry this is. I’ll open my own restaurant one day. A year later, I moved on from the café to a casual dining restaurant in Bayview Village called Sunshine’s.
“About three years later, when I was 20, I sold my car, borrowed money from my parents and opened a 24-hour comfort food spot, 7 West at Yonge and Charles, with some business partners. We became known among the 3 a.m. crowd for our chicken penne. Many people have told me that our pasta cured what would have been a pretty bad hangover.
“A little over a decade later, I opened my second restaurant, Wish, across the street from 7 West in the former Chez Cappuccino location. By 2016, I had three restaurants and they were in full swing and doing well. By then, I was in my 40s and I started easing into retirement. I had assembled a great team around me, so I scaled my working hours from 16 to eight hours a day.
“I’d always thought about weaning myself out of the restaurant industry and buying a small inn or hotel. My parents had a vacation home in Prince Edward County so I’d visit the area often. I knew it was a beautiful spot and I was seeing all sorts of places pop up, like the Drake Devonshire and boutique wineries.
“I started to look at a few motel properties in PEC. Then, in the spring of 2017, I drove past the Lakeside Village Inn in Wellington, which had a For Sale sign out front. I walked in and asked to see a room. The 10-room motel was built in 1965 for fishermen and hadn’t been renovated in decades. The floors were linoleum, and there was no soundproofing or air conditioning. There were also two houses on the property—the former owner’s house and a bungalow that maintenance staff used for storage.
“I saw so much potential. The motel sat on a double lot, with two acres of land and about 120 feet of water frontage. I walked to the water’s edge and I thought, This is incredible. It had beautiful views of Sandbanks Provincial Park and on a clear day you could see as far as Rochester. The property faced west, so there would be beautiful sunsets.
“I imagined gutting and renovating all the rooms with a clean, minimal design—and adding a few more. I pictured putting in a pool, a deck and fire pits so that people could sip cocktails or roast marshmallows by the water.
“The motel was listed at $1.96 million. A few weeks after my visit, I put in an offer for $1.5 million but I didn’t get a response. Then I went up to $1.7 million. It became clear that the owner was holding onto his number and wasn’t going to budge.
“I waited almost a year, and by February of 2018, I still couldn’t get the property out of my head. I thought, I’m just gonna dive into this. I really feel there’s something good here. I was able to secure financing to go in at asking price. I got the keys a month later.
“The owner gave me one piece of advice, which was never to miss a season. So the first year we took over, we swapped in new furniture and bedding, painted everything white, but stayed in the same price range, around $225 a night. We had a great summer.
“In October, we closed and began the first stage of renovations, which involved gutting and refinishing all of the rooms. The electrical was so old that we had to replace everything. The system couldn’t support adding one air conditioner, let alone 10. Even the plumbing needed to be replaced.
“We raised the ceiling to add some more openness to the space. And we replaced the front windows with gorgeous double doors that let in a ton of light. We bought furniture and decor items like old baseball gloves, side tables and chairs from local antique shops, and put fireplaces in every room so that we could operate all year long.
“The first phase was completed on time and we were ready to open in May of 2019 as the Lakeside Motel. We had an incredible season. I was nervous because we had nearly doubled our price point, but we were able to fill the rooms. We had a lot of millennial couples and bachelorette parties, and families rented out the houses, which sleep six people each. Guests told us that they loved the design of the place; they felt very comfortable and welcomed.
“At the end of our second season, we started our next phase of renovations. I planned to add a new strip of six motel rooms, a pool, a deck, fire pits and a boardwalk down to the lake. People thought I was crazy for putting in a pool when we were right by Lake Ontario. But there’s nothing like lounging in a pool with a cocktail in your hand and a view of the lake. Wellington sits on a bed of rock so we had to find a company that was able to blast through.
“I also wanted to put in a deck along the waterfront that could seat 150 people. The idea was to serve food and drinks so we could attract visitors from outside of the hotel. In the fall of 2019, we outlined the deck and blasted rock to dig out the pool. We couldn’t go too deep, just four and a half feet. But the pool was meant for lounging, not diving. The plan was to finish those projects in the spring of 2020 after temperatures rose.
“Then, of course, came Covid. I had to shut down the three restaurants in Toronto, but I decided to go all-in on the motel, banking on the idea that we were going to be allowed to open come summer 2020. If it didn’t, I would need to re-mortgage my home.
“We did have to scale back our plans with Covid, but luckily we were given the go-ahead to open in June. We put the boardwalk on hold, along with the new strip of motel rooms. We added glamping tents instead. I figured it was a better bet to invest in the outdoor space since most of the restrictions were on indoor dining, so we pushed ahead with the pool and the fire pits.
“We have about 60 people on our team—about 30 servers and 30 people in maintenance, cleaning and in the office. Thankfully we didn’t have to furlough anyone. There was a month-long period, during training, when we kept everyone on payroll before we could open and start earning revenue, which was stressful. Two of our restaurants in Toronto were closed as well. And 7 West was only taking UberEats orders.
“The 150-seat deck opened for drinks in June of 2020 and the pool was ready a few weeks later. It turned out to be a good bet. Because international flights were so limited, people were travelling locally instead. Everyone was coming to Prince Edward County. We didn’t have an empty room that entire summer. We even had a long waitlist for cancellations. Our patio at the Lakeside was full every day. We had the space to distance, and since dining was limited everywhere else, more customers came to the Lakeside.
“It was such a relief to see that the risk paid off. But every day I’d wonder, Are they going to lock us down again? That thought hung over our heads, and it still does. I’ve also been praying every day that nobody on my team gets sick. So far they haven’t.
“In the summer months, I was working 12 hours a day, seven days a week. What was supposed to be my retirement plan turned out to be no downtime at all. We stayed open over the winter of 2020. We were always meant to be four-seasons, and we know it’ll take some time to build up winter traffic. But with all the delays and lockdowns, we needed to recoup our losses.
“The summer of 2021 was another incredible season. Once again, we were fully booked. It felt good to know that people were embracing our vision. We’re planning to add a skating pad soon. Things quiet down over the winter, so I’m spending two or three days a week in Prince Edward County and the rest of my time in Toronto. I’m hoping to see more winter traffic this year.
“I feel confident that the Lakeside Motel will stay busy after the pandemic. In a couple of years, I’ll get to take more time for myself. Prince Edward County is on the map—I don’t see the trend dying down. People are getting more used to these little local getaways, rather than big trips around the world. I think that trend will stick around for a long time.”