This couple bought a 1970s hunting lodge in Calabogie and converted it into a boutique hotel
Before the pandemic hit, Joel Greaves dreamed of quitting his job in telecom marketing and buying an old motel in rural Ontario with his wife, Devon Vaillancourt, who looks after luxury homes. In January, they bought a property in Calabogie, four hours’ drive east of Toronto, and renovated it into the Somewhere Inn, which opened in September. Here’s how everything came together.
Devon: Joel and I met when a mutual friend invited us to a Jays game in 2010. But we didn’t start dating until four years later. I was working for Zebrano, a concierge service managing the upkeep of luxury homes. In 2017, I bought the business from its original owner.
Joel: Later that year, Devon and I got married. We were living in a rented 750-square-foot condo near Queen and Spadina, and soon bought a four-bedroom cottage on Leonard Lake in Muskoka for us to use and occasionally rent out. We renovated the kitchen, boathouse, bathrooms, decks and bedrooms. We also added an outdoor shower and sauna, and listed it on Airbnb for about $900 a night. It was very picturesque, and we were overwhelmed by how successful the cottage became soon after. We had people DMing us on Instagram asking to get on a waitlist.
Devon: After that first summer, we looked into buying more cottages in the Muskoka area to add to our rental roster.
Joel: I kept thinking about a road trip I’d taken a decade earlier from Vancouver to Palm Springs. I had stayed at scrappy motels all along the way—except in Portland, where I stayed at a converted boutique spot called Jupiter Hotel. It was so cool and nostalgic and whimsical. I thought, Why not buy a motel and turn it into a boutique experience?
Devon loved the idea. We developed a business plan in the summer of 2019 and recruited our friends, Keri MacLellan and Andrea Pierre from the design firm Westgrove, as our partners and co-founders. They helped us develop the vision of the motel and pitch it to investors. Then, I cold-called about a dozen motel properties all across the province to gauge if they were interested in selling. We wanted a location that was four-seasons and close to nature, so the place would feel like a cottage. At the time, I was burnt out at my job and ready for a change. Our plan was for me to quit my job in April of 2020 and commit full time to our motel idea, while Devon continued running her concierge company. But then came Covid, and the hospitality industry was completely decimated. I stayed at my job, and we put the motel plans on hold.
Devon: I was lucky that my company held strong during the pandemic. My clients have been extra busy renovating their homes and backyards.
Joel: In June of 2020, we noticed that mom-and-pop motels outside of the city were all fully booked and charging crazy-high rates, two or three times higher than normal. The demand for our rental cottage was also skyrocketing. So we went back to our motel plan. We originally had an eye on Penny’s Motel in Thornbury, but it quickly sold. That motivated us to begin cold-calling properties and talking to investors again. I’d work my day job until 7 p.m., then I’d spend my evenings and weekends focused on how to make the motel work.
By August, we had visited motel properties in Muskoka, Haliburton and Prince Edward County. But none of them were a great fit: either they weren’t winterized or they were too isolated. Then, a couple of months later, our realtor sent us a listing for a property in Calabogie, which is in the Ottawa Valley. Jocko’s was a motel built in the early 1970s, and it had changed hands nearly every decade ever since. It was aimed at people who were interested in fishing, snowmobiling and hunting, and it hadn’t been renovated in 20 years. There was grey industrial carpeting, crooked drop ceilings, beige-tiled bathrooms, pleated lampshades and brown coverlets.
Devon: I was like, “We gotta go see it.” I decided we were buying it before we even saw it. We have friends from Ottawa who know the region, and we know another couple who have a cabin in Calabogie. I felt like this was the one.
Joel: We drove three hours from our cottage in Muskoka to Calabogie. When we arrived, we saw that the structure was well-maintained. The interior was clean and spotless. The roof and some hot water tanks had recently been replaced. The foundation was solid. There are cinder blocks between the walls, like in an old school, and concrete flooring. And the location was perfect: it was two minutes from a ski hill and two minutes from Calabogie Village.
Devon: The motel is not on a highway—it’s set back from the road by about 300 feet. It sits on top of a hill with huge, mature trees and has beautiful views of Calabogie Lake with rolling mountains in the background. The grounds had a huge front lawn, and there were 11 rooms with kitchenettes. It felt like a motel on a cottage property.
Joel: It was listed for $750,000. We offered $695,000, conditional on inspections and financing, and it was accepted. We funded the purchase with money from our investor Balsam Venture Capital, a bunch of our own savings, and a loan from the Business Development Bank of Canada.
Devon: Before we closed the deal, we also wanted to stay for a couple of nights at the motel. In late November of 2020, we drove up with our design partners, Keri and Andrea. Over two days, we hatched a plan for how we’d redesign the property. Our ethos was based on the cottage experience. When you go to the cottage, your stress completely rolls off your back. We wanted to find a way to bottle that feeling and bring it to the motel. We came up with so many different names over the months, but we always went back to Somewhere Inn. We wanted to convey discovery and whimsy.
Joel: By early January, our purchase of the motel was finalized. I gave notice at my job in February, and we rented a nearby cabin the following month so we could be close by during renovations. I moved to Calabogie full time.
Devon: I stayed in Toronto for my job during the week, and I’d work on the motel during weekends.
Joel: It was a busy few months. We wanted to soft-launch in late summer and found a contractor who said they could finish the renovations in three months. But we encountered some snags along the way. For one, the electrical was outdated and we had to completely redo it. The floors were uneven and we had to grind them down and put down more cement. I was pitching in wherever I could—installing furnishings, smart locks and networking equipment; fine-tuning the landscaping; making lawn games. I was determined not to miss our opening date and willed it to happen. We launched our website in June and started taking reservations for August. We had a test run at the end of July with a bunch of my buddies from Queen’s. The construction came down to the wire: our contractors were installing the last of the countertops as my friends were arriving at the motel.
Devon: We upgraded all 11 rooms with cabin-inspired decor. We added tongue-and-groove boards to walls, removed the kitchenettes, installed fireplaces and added natural-wood furniture. We really wanted to transport guests to that feeling you get when you walk into a cabin in the woods—a place where it’s just as much about relaxing as it is about getting back to nature. We also built a new structure out front that would double as a lobby and bottle shop, and we created an outdoor lounge area with a fire pit. Given Covid, we’ve embraced technology for contactless check-ins. We’re also not offering turn-down service at the moment, and we focused on building communal spaces on the exterior grounds rather than indoors.
Joel: We worked 16-hour days for three months straight; we were super-tired. Finally, in early August, our first real guests arrived, with four or five check-ins on the first day. It was amazing to see everything we’d dreamed of come to fruition. The guests were mostly people in their 30s from Toronto and Ottawa. It was so cool to see people come through the doors, experiencing the bottle shop and the rooms.
Devon: We have four room types, all with extra spaces for lounging and fireplaces. The first has a king bed and a desk for those work-from-home moments. The second king room has an in-room soaker tub. The Couple of Queens room has two beds, and the Somewhere Super Suite has five beds in total, so it’s perfect for families or getaways with friends. It was important for us to source products from Canadian brands and makers. We hung Blacksaw alpaca blankets on our walls as art; sourced our vanities and kitchenettes from Coquo, a Montreal-based manufacturer of solid wood furniture; and Jeremy Kehoe, a Toronto-based bespoke furniture maker, built our benches and daybeds. Sundays Company, a Vancouver-based start-up, supplied our side tables and lounge chairs, and Cath Laporte, a Montreal-based artist, supplied most of the in-room art. We also partnered with Endy for mattresses, duvets and pillows.
Joel: Our first guests were lovely and so open to sharing feedback. There were some funny moments too. We planned to install floor-to-ceiling mirrors in the rooms but the mirrors arrived a bit late. One of our guests saw me carrying them around, and they were like, “Can you put one in our room?”
Devon: I’m still based in Toronto, and the plan is that Joel’s work week in Calabogie will be Wednesday to Sunday. Then he’ll come to visit me or I’ll drive to Calabogie to spend time with him. Most days I’m still focused on the concierge business. But Joel and I chat almost every hour. During my weekends at the inn, I work the front desk and restock our bottle shop.
Joel: We were booked solid every weekend during our August soft-launch. Now that we’re fully open, September bookings have been just as strong. For our food programming, I’ve been trying to coax food trucks from the Ottawa area to come down. One plant-based food truck did a pop-up, and they sold out by 5 p.m. Our long-term goal is to find a permanent food truck partner on the property that operates year-round as our restaurant.
Devon: We also want to add a sauna to the property, but we won’t do that until we feel like it would be safe to use, Covid-wise. The dream is to have a private area on the property for guest use with a little area to hang out and relax in nature. We’re also thinking of turning some cabins on the edge of the property into common areas to bring guests together once it’s safe to gather indoors.
Joel: I’m surprised how hard it’s been to take a day off. I’ve worked almost every day this summer. We have a very specific standard of hospitality, which requires lots of training for our staff. I check in with them after every shift to discuss how things are going and coach them through challenges and opportunities. We want them to be empathetic, approachable and helpful, and to share their passion for the outdoors with guests. I’m hopeful I’ll be able to spend more time in the background soon enough. At this point, I’m happy getting even a few hours on the dock at our cabin in Calabogie—even that is a little gift. Opening a motel has been one of the most humbling experiences of my life. It’s been exhausting and energizing at the same time, and I’m loving every minute of it. I’ve never worked harder in my life, but I’ve never been happier.