“We received more than 200 applications”: This woman created a new work-from-cottage program in Muskoka
After working from a 650-square-foot Fort York condo for five months, software developer Tricia Jose was looking for a change in scenery. On a remote-working road trip, she conceived the idea for her pop-up work-cation company, Mamalli. Less than a year later, in April of 2021, she launched a test run in Gravenhurst. Here’s how it all came together.
—As told to Andrea Yu
“I moved from Vancouver to Toronto in 2015 to complete a master’s degree in biomedical engineering at U of T. During my master’s, I entered a student competition for social enterprises that assist low-income families. I built an app to help precariously employed individuals save and manage their money, which turned into my first company, Vicis Labs. Then, I joined RBC Ventures in 2017, and there I co-founded another fintech platform, Arrive, to help new Canadians with their financial and career goals.
“When the pandemic hit, I started working from home. My kitchen was my office, and my living room was my gym. At 5 p.m., I would take my laptop, move to my couch and keep working from there. I was totally uninspired, and felt like I was stuck in a rut. To make matters worse, my partner, Marshall, who works as a systems administrator, was also working from my place because his shared living space was too small.
“In July of 2020, as things started to open up, Marshall and I decided to visit B.C. for two months to see my family—my grandfather had recently passed away, and my mom was recovering from Stage 2 breast cancer. We would still be productive, since we could work remotely. Later that month, we drove for five days from Toronto to Vancouver, and spent a few days catching up with family. Then, we headed out to explore the Sunshine Coast and the interior of the province.
“We booked all sorts of places to stay on our way there and in B.C., including Airbnbs, cabins and hotels. One problem we kept encountering was unreliable Wi-Fi. For example, we were staying at a stunning cabin overlooking a lake in Banff, but we couldn’t do video calls or get much work done. On the other hand, hotels usually had reliable internet, but they felt sterile and lacked hominess.
“Our two months on the road were so invigorating. They reminded me that the world was a beautiful place. I was much more energized than I’d felt in months. That got me thinking about how people might want this feeling too.
“Meanwhile, back home in Toronto in September, I was watching the news stories about offices going fully remote or planning permanent hybrid workplaces, even after the pandemic was over. I began sketching out a business, like Airbnb but specifically for workers, with great Wi-Fi and an opportunity to be out in nature and work in front of awe-inspiring vistas. Individuals could book the stays to get away from their cramped spaces in the city. And small companies could book a cottage for their team as a team-building exercise.
“During their stays, we’d facilitate community events, like group wellness classes, beer tastings and coffee meetings. The business would also bring cash flow to rural towns that had felt the brunt of Covid. All the group activities with other participants would be outdoors to maximize social distance.
“It wouldn’t be a retreat—as in, every hour of your day wouldn’t be planned. But, I hoped the community social activities and co-living with like-minded remote workers would set us apart from staying at an Airbnb or booking your own room at the same resort. Plus, we guarantee great Wi-Fi, which from my experience is not necessarily a given.
“In the fall of 2020, I got on the phone with regional economic developers across the country to figure out if any small towns would be interested in participating. Jeff Loney, one of the people I spoke with, was trying to draw in a more diverse set of visitors to Gravenhurst in the hopes that some of them might become permanent residents. We decided to work together and by January of 2021, we had planned our first work-cation for 25 guests over two weeks in April.
“The accommodations Jeff and I selected in Gravenhurst were like a choose-your-own-adventure, depending on what you or your company was interested in. For example, there were cottages for small businesses to book something together in one location, or an individual could stay in a room or suite in a resort privately, or with another remote worker.
“It costs $850 to $1,600 a week for shared accommodations and $1,600 to $3,200 for solo accommodations. A group stay that sleeps up to eight people starts at $5,175. I’d find the resorts and owner-operated cottages through local listing searches or through recommendations from Loney. This eliminates secondary booking websites like Airbnb and means the full value of their stays went to the properties themselves. I’d book the rooms and cottage on behalf of guests, then Mamalli guests would pay me for their stay and experience. I’d then collect a commission for each stay.
“I put in about $20,000 of my own savings toward incorporating the business, marketing, technology and other start-up costs, and decided to name the company Mamalli in honour of my mom, Liza, whom we fondly call Mama Li. We’re Filipino, and like many Filipino women, my mom is welcoming, hospitable and warm. That was the kind of the spirit that I wanted to embody.
“To get people to register, I posted about Mamalli in different Facebook groups, like ones for my neighbourhood, women in STEM, and accelerator and entrepreneur groups. Then, our story got picked up by BlogTO in March, and we received more than 200 applications from workers living in the city who wanted to attend the program. I scheduled phone calls with about 100 people to understand what they were hoping to get out of it. I was so amazed at how my experience resonated with people—potential clients told me they also needed a break. They felt cramped, drained and uninspired, especially through the winter.
“The program wasn’t a great fit for everyone. Some people were just looking for a non-working getaway for themselves and their partner or a friend. Others weren’t really interested in making connections with other remote workers. The 25 participants we ended up booking were those most interested in both aspects of the program.
“A few days before our first test run, another lockdown was issued, and we had to cancel the 10 participants who would be sharing rooms with strangers. We also had to cancel the community mingling events too. Instead, we offered a self-guided itinerary with activities like walks through downtown Gravenhurst and a starry night visit to the Torrance Barrens Dark-Sky Preserve.
“For our April cohort, all the spaces were paid for by the visiting participants (we’re hoping to add employer-led payment models soon). One group that had bubbled together worked in media and communications, and they wanted some away-time to collaborate. We also had a group of start-up founders, who lived together in Toronto, but wanted a change of scenery.
“We got great feedback from our first cohort. They loved the accommodations and told us how relaxing it was to go out and walk by a lake during breaks. It completely changed their mindset. One group ended up taking a day off together to kayak, paddle and enjoy the lakefront. We’re making some upgrades based on participant feedback as well. For example in cottages, we’re offering to set up workstations in a separate room from where everyone else is working, as a phone booth.
“For our next cohort in September, I’m hoping to include more community-building events like yoga classes on the dock and social drinks at the local brewery—Covid-willing, of course. We’ve filled about 16 spots with people who couldn’t make it in March so far, and I’ve also received an additional 50 registrations since then.
“I’ll be seeking investor funding for my company next year. In the next few years, I’m hoping to grow and expand Mamalli and host more people in other locations around the country, and maybe even the world. In May, I met a potential partner from Mexico, and now we’re planning on hosting a two-week work-cation in Cabo at the end of September for 25 guests.
“I think most of the country is moving to a flexible hybrid-work model, and work-cations will outlast the pandemic. I’ve learned that people still crave human interaction, and even if they are not commuting to a traditional office every day, they still want to be around other people. I don’t think that is going to go away.”