Table of contents
- Minna Hu
- Muskoka, Ontario, Canada
- Started in 2020
- Self funded + Mortgage
- 25 employees
- 7 Figures in annual revenue
- 10,000 monthly website visitors
So Minna, what's your backstory?
I was raised in a quaint town in China, with both of my parents working as teachers. They held steadfast, reliable jobs until retirement. After earning my bachelor's and master's degrees in software engineering, I envisioned a life of stability: securing a steady job, purchasing a condo in Beijing, raising a family, and paying off a mortgage over three decades. The thought of entering the business world never crossed my mind.
Everything changed in 2013 when my director launched a new team in Silicon Valley. She extended an invitation for me to join. Moving to North America was not part of my original plan, but the opportunity was simply too good to pass up. Living in a rented space in Beijing, with no family ties to hold me back, I accepted the offer and relocated to California within a month. On my second day in the Golden State, I met the man who would later become my husband - the one who inspired me to become an entrepreneur.
When we first met, he owned several rental properties and was struggling to manage them alongside his full-time job. Having a knack for organization and communication, I offered to assist with property management. Two years into this arrangement, we jointly purchased a property, welcomed our first child, and assumed full control of property management. We juggled these responsibilities alongside our regular jobs, using any free time we had to manage the properties. As we continued to acquire more multi-family units, we stumbled upon a quaint inn for sale in 2019. I initially perceived this as another rental property. When my husband posed the question, "Do you understand what it means to run an inn?" I nonchalantly replied, "It's just like renting some rooms." If I had grasped the true implications of owning an inn - the hiring and firing, scheduling, leadership, housekeeping, channel sales, customer service, and selling our business vision to lenders, not to mention marketing - I would have thought twice before making the purchase.
Nevertheless, once I found myself in the owner's shoes, I adopted a step-by-step approach: learning something new, making an improvement, solving a problem, and engaging with a customer, all in a day's work. This gradual progression instilled in me an overwhelming sense of confidence and accomplishment in the hospitality industry.
What's lake side boutique inn and how did you come up with the idea?
I purchased the property before fully understanding what running an inn entailed. I naively thought it would be the same as leasing apartments long-term, something I had been doing since 2014. The property, a 1.7-acre lot in downtown Bracebridge, had a fantastic location. As the number one rule in real estate says, "location, location, location." In our haste, we didn't thoroughly consider our next steps post-purchase. We acquired the property in February 2020, and just a month later, the global lockdown began. Consequently, we faced two challenges at once: starting a new business and doing so during a pandemic.
Upon taking over the inn, we found the once-thriving property to be in distress. It had a leaking roof, damaged rooms, century-old appliances, cracked walls – you name it. Our resources were limited, so we couldn't fix everything at once. We started with the roof, then readied three rooms for booking. After that, we prepared two rooms, then another two, and then three more, until all the rooms were available. This process spanned over a year. Each time we opened a room, it brought in more revenue, which in turn created more jobs and stability for the staff.
Securing financing proved to be another challenge. Every lender I contacted had halted loans to hospitality businesses due to the pandemic. Fortunately, we had funds from selling our home in California. We invested all our cash into renovating the inn, enhancing the service, and paying our employees.
Through our real estate investment experience, we learned to identify a property's potential and invest in its improvement. This, in turn, enhances the property's cash flow and consequently increases its value. We planned to apply this strategy to the inn. However, we weren't prepared for the reality that, besides property improvements and renovations, running an inn is an active business. During the first year, we found ourselves working seven days a week, filling various roles - front desk, housekeeping, maintenance, management, and ownership - to keep staff costs down.
How did you attract your first handful of customers?
The first thing we did was get our website ready - innatthefalls.ca. As a software engineer, I managed to set up our website quite quickly. We chose a simple reservation system, which only cost us $25/month, compared to the $1000/month for a more sophisticated system. This straightforward system allowed people to book directly on the website. Although it required a fair amount of manual work due to its simplicity, it accomplished 60% of the task. I took all the pictures of the rooms and the property and posted them on the website. After that, we listed our inn on Google Business, Expedia, and Booking.com.
The Inn at the Falls enjoys a history of 40 years, and thus, the name carries a significant reputation. For this reason, we opted not to alter the name or the phone number when we took over. We were blessed that our inn is nestled in a favoured tourist spot. This proved to be a boon during the pandemic when global travel came to a standstill and people started exploring their local areas.
We noticed an influx of guests dropping by during their drives. To our interested guests, we would recount our journey of acquiring the inn, our move from California to manage it, and our ongoing efforts to improve the property. Once the Covid restrictions started to lift, we were thrilled to see that many of our guests, with whom we had shared our story, returned for another visit.
How did you get to a point where you had consistent guests staying at your inn?
In 2020, we found ourselves in the midst of a global pandemic. However, by 2021, we were already turning a profit. As occupancy rates rose, customers returned, and new guests discovered us through word-of-mouth recommendations from their friends or through positive online reviews. We didn't invest much in advertising. Instead, our focus was on ensuring our guests were treated to unbeatable hospitality. This commitment was reflected in our staff and location ratings, which consistently scored above 9 out of 10 on online travel agency platforms. All our online reviews echoed this sentiment. We also invested roughly two million dollars in capital improvements and remain committed to continually enhancing both the property and the guest experience.
Tell us about the distribution channels that you use to acquire customers.
A hotel room is unique among commodities due to its perishable nature - if it remains unbooked for a given day, the opportunity for revenue is lost. There are two primary strategies to elevate profits: enhancing occupancy and raising room prices. In our experience, particularly at the beginning, heightening occupancy was the priority to spread awareness about our hotel.
Our hotel leverages two main distribution channels: direct bookings via our website, www.innatthefalls.ca, and Online Travel Agents like Booking.com and Expedia. While we, as hotel operators, always advocate for direct bookings to avoid commission fees, Booking.com and Expedia serve as our key Online Travel Agent platforms. We streamline our operations by managing these two platforms as affiliate platforms draw their listings from them.
Right from the outset, more than half of our bookings have been direct, with the remainder coming from Expedia and Booking.com. This is a significant achievement for an independent hotel like ours. We attribute this success to our distinct identity as a boutique inn and independent brand. Guests remember us by our name and not merely as another local hotel. Moreover, our singular location, the only downtown hotel with views of the Muskoka River, always earns us high ratings. Our selective recruitment of front desk staff and housekeepers is reflected in our consistently high ratings for cleanliness and staff – critical factors that guests weigh when travelling.
Maintaining high occupancy remains our central objective, even as we encourage direct bookings. We view the commission fee of listing on Online Travel Agents as an investment in advertising, given the high visibility these platforms offer. Our approach to using Online Travel Agents includes displaying engaging photos, highlighting what sets us apart from other area hotels (location, view, and hospitality in our case), and conducting competitive price analysis. Despite our aspiration to be a leading hotel in the region, we have consciously avoided setting our prices as the highest, with high occupancy continuing to be our topmost goal.
Boosting direct bookings demands meticulous attention to detail. Our varied strategies include offering competitive rates, forging direct connections with guests (many of whom are repeat customers and have a personal rapport with our front desk agents), ensuring our website offers a seamless booking experience, and implementing a straightforward reservation system for our team to avoid any frustration when assisting guests with phone reservations.
You have other businesses, how have you manage to run all of your different businesses at the same time?
If you have a business partner, it's crucial to clearly define roles and responsibilities between yourselves. In 2020, my husband and I were juggling multiple businesses at once and felt stretched in various directions. We frequently argued over the same tasks until we sat down and outlined our respective roles and responsibilities.
Attempting to do everything yourself as a business owner can hinder both the growth and enjoyment of your business. In 2020, I was personally handling late-night phone calls for my inn without a phone menu system in place. I found myself fielding calls at all hours, often while preparing dinner for my family, about bookings months in advance. Despite feeling frustrated and overwhelmed, I resisted delegating this work because I believed I was the best customer service person for my business. In reality, I was growing impatient with customers, and the work was draining my energy. As a solution, I hired a third-party answering service to handle after-hours calls. As the business grew, we set up shifts for front desk agents.
Once the business revenue permits, hire employees so you can work on the business rather than in the business. At the inn, our culture is centred on customer service and open communication. While there can often be drama and negativity in hotels, we have zero tolerance for it. We've let go of several employees due to the negative impact they had on the team. Ensuring a positive work environment helps make the inn an enjoyable place to work. We also promote from within the team and encourage them to lead. This strategy has greatly assisted me in stepping away from daily operations, allowing me to focus on managing multiple businesses simultaneously.
How did you make the transition from side hustle to full-time entrepreneurship?
The first one was a change in my work situation. In 2016, prior to the birth of my older son, my work team was laid off during a reorganisation, leaving only me and seven other teammates. I lost momentum after this, and being a new mom caused further distractions from my career.
The second motivator was the growing demand from our business. That same year, my husband and I purchased a 25-unit building with apartments and commercial spaces. Taking over a new property entails a lot of work, like tenant management and renovations. We had previously owned more than 20 units, but had issues with the performance of our property manager, prompting us to decide to manage the units ourselves. This was complicated by the fact that our properties were in Canada while we were in California, leading to an increased workload.
The third factor was a desire for focus. Juggling family, business, and work left me feeling anxious and exhausted. This situation planted the seed for the question: could I quit my job to work on the business full-time, thereby gaining more flexibility and time for my family?
After my older son turned one and began daycare, my urgency to quit my job diminished. However, when my younger son was born in 2018, my husband and I began to seriously consider the transition. We calculated our income and expenses and realised that although things would be tighter with only my husband's income, we could manage it. We also anticipated that the business would be more profitable with me dedicating more time to it.
Even with all this consideration, it still took me four months to finally quit my job. I was worried about the success of the business and my capability to run it. I also feared being isolated from the world working from home and possible changes in my relationship with my husband. Yet, the thought of focusing solely on my business and family and having a flexible schedule excited and relieved me.
Ultimately, I decided to take the plunge and quit my job in October 2018.
The first six months of full-time entrepreneurship were stressful. I was delving into details because I had more time and thought I was supposed to handle everything myself. I later realised I was operating as a property manager rather than working on and managing the business. I felt a lack of connection and support and dealing with emails and tenants became draining. I also thought that looking after my newborn son would be a good way to prove my worth, not realising that it was like taking on another full-time job.
The turning point came when I decided to network with other real estate investors. I joined an online real estate investing summit and connected with a business coach who was one of the speakers. Despite some hesitation about the coaching cost, my husband and I decided it was worth the investment. This coaching experience, with someone who had achieved what I aspired to, broadened my mindset and strategies and helped me grow both professionally and personally. It was such a transformative experience that it later motivated me to become a business coach myself, helping other entrepreneurs and wannabe entrepreneurs to achieve their goals.
What specific tools have been most helpful in growing your business?
Jira, google task and calendar for managing work
LinkedIn for outreach and networking
Google workspace for team communication
Cloudbeds for reservation management
Whistle for guest communication and reputation management
What drives you to do what you do?
The driving force behind my actions is the freedom I have; the liberty to choose when and where I work, and with whom. Building a business and making a positive impact on both clients and employees is part of this freedom. Moreover, it's not just about leaving a legacy for my children, but also about teaching others to replicate my path. Growth from challenges is also a fundamental aspect. Following my growth, I further aim to impart my lessons learned to other entrepreneurs and wannabe entrepreneurs.
Who are some experts/entrepreneurs to follow to learn how to grow your business?
Any quotes you live by?
Life happened for you, not to you.