What it’s like to open a resort during a pandemic

Photograph by Tara McMullen

In the fall of 2018, interior designer Shannon Hunter purchased a 1980s resort on West Lake in Prince Edward County, hoping to renovate, rename and reopen the property by July 2020 Covid has delayed that schedule by seven months. This is what launching a resort looked like during a pandemic.

—As said to Truc Nguyen

“I bought my first property in Prince Edward County in 2015, primarily as a family cottage. We also rented it on Airbnb, and over time it became more of a business. Everything went so well that in a few years I bought four more homes from Airbnb with a business partner, Danny Edell. I lived and worked in Toronto, and I traveled back and forth a lot.

“In 2018 a spot called Sunrise Cottage Resort was released, and we were intrigued. In an average year, Danny and I had 3,000 to 4,000 guests, so in a lot of ways we already run a hotel. It was just spread across the county instead of being in one place.

Wander the Resort features 10 spacious cabins with Nordic-inspired interiors and floor-to-ceiling windows

“Sunrise was on a four-and-a-half-acre L-shaped property with 500 feet of waterfront. The 10 sky-blue cabins, connected by roads, had been renovated in the early 2000s and well maintained since. We weren’t dealing with a lot of rot or that sort of thing, but it wasn’t what we wanted – it was cute and functional but not design-oriented. Interiors had clip-on vinyl floors and mismatched kitchen chairs. Also, the previous owners didn’t operate it as a four-season resort, so it wasn’t built for the winter.

“We made an offer in fall 2018 and closed in April 2019. The following month I effectively moved to PEC for the summer and ran Sunrise as is, renting the cabins for the busy season without bringing of modifications.

The property is L-shaped and includes 500 feet of waterfront. As of October 2019, the existing sky blue cabins were gutted and painted black

“After the summer season, Danny and I decided to change the name to Wander the Resort, inspired by our desire to build a place for guests with a travel spirit. In the days before, when my husband and I would go on a trip with our two children, we would say, “Well, it was a beautiful trip but it was not a vacation”. We did not come back more rested than when we left because these were activities for the children.

“At Wander, I wanted to create a place for summer camp-like experiences in a luxurious, elevated vacation setting. We were going to transform the cabins, expand the beach, build a clubhouse, and add a recreation area with a hot tub, two pools, and a raised sun bench.

“We innovated in October 2019 and gutted the cabins. The only things that have survived the renovation are the steel roofs, which we painted black. It probably would have been easier for us to just take them apart and start over, but that way we could keep the existing septic system in place. Our ambitious goal was to be open by July 2020.

Each cabin accommodates six people and has indoor and outdoor fireplaces

“It was supposed to be an eight month renovation and then the pandemic hit. We were going pretty hard until all construction stopped in March 2020. By this point we had completely torn up the site. It wasn’t like we could just go back and run it as Sunrise for the summer. We had removed the walls, windows and all the mechanics. We had dug the entire site to install a new natural gas line and lower all the plumbing 10 feet so we could be open year round. We just had a very expensive pile of soil and not much else.

“When all construction restrictions were lifted in June 2020, we started again at full speed. A few months later, Danny and I sold the Airbnbs to focus on Wander, and we completed major construction in mid-November. Then it was just details like landscaping and road finishing. We could have opened in December 2020 if the third lockdown had not taken place. Then we thought we were opening right after Christmas and we were good to go. Once again, there has been a lockdown. For about six months, we were in a phase of perpetual opening, always at dawn.

“We hired staff for the first opening in December and we made the difficult decision to keep them during the closings. We continued to pay them as if we were at full capacity. It was certainly very stressful carrying a full staff and not having the income. But we knew we would be in a much better position for the reopening.

here is the kitchen

“The first day we welcomed guests, all local and personally invited, was in February in eight of our cabins. We felt like we had finally righted the ship and started to function well. This opening lasted six weeks until another shutdown in early April.

“It was heartbreaking, but there was a plus: it gave us time to figure out how to make Wander feel as comfortable and welcoming in mid-February as it did in summer. We’ve added things like heated floors and interior and exterior fireplaces to each cabin. We also decided against televisions. It’s so nice when you walk around at night because everyone is on their patio, they are sitting around the fire.

“All of our reservations are now online and everyone is doing everything digitally, so there is no in-person check-in. Your welcome drink is already in your fridge, you can help yourself to a glass of wine as soon as you arrive. Fifteen minutes later, we’ll be on your patio telling you everything you need to know and answering all of your questions about the resort.

A selection of groceries that customers can order at the nearby agrarian market Photo by Tara McMullen

“We hope the pools, which were delayed by the last stay-at-home order, will open in July. Right now, we’re at the mercy of the PEC authorities for final inspections, and they’re overdue for closure for two months. For recreation, we offer tubing and wakeboarding lessons off our dock in partnership with a nearby school. We also have bikes for guests to take which have been very popular. The bikes are out all day, all the time. We’re right next to the Millennium Trail so it’s super easy to hike up and head to the vineyards.

“The last 15 months have nothing to do with what we expected. We have faced heartaches and challenges, but at the same time, the pandemic has made us appreciate our communities and our own backyards. At Wander, we had a comprehensive business plan that targeted the corporate market to fill booths Monday through Thursday and off season. But it was unnecessary; we are full until December.

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