PORT DUFFERIN – With absolutely no connection to Nova Scotia, a couple from a Toronto suburb took a leap of faith in July. Neil and Cheryl MacLean purchased a new business and in September made the move to Port Dufferin on the Eastern Shore.
The MacLeans have been married for 22 years and have three children – Emma, 19; Zoey, 16 and Finn, seven – all still in school.
Cheryl shared their experience in an email interview with The Journal.
When the couple initially looked in Ontario for similar accommodation properties, the costs were close to a million dollars – and would have required renovations. The former Marquis of Dufferin Motel they purchased in Port Dufferin was four acres, ocean front, with a three-bedroom house and a nine-room motel for under $350,000.
“When you factor in what we sold our home for, and how far our money could stretch, moving to the Eastern Shore was a no-brainer financially. It allowed us to quit our jobs, move our family and plan for a six-month window to do renovations. We never would have been able to do that if we chose to stay in Ontario.”
Their story, MacLean explained, is not all that unique.
“There are loads of people who will read this and wish they were doing something different and on their own terms. The pandemic was our external factor that pushed us towards change. It's so easy to manufacture a list of reasons why you shouldn't do something or what could go wrong,” she said.
“The hardest part of our move was making the decision. My sincere wish for anyone who is struggling with a similar decision is to have faith in yourself. We aren't millionaires and we don't have any special or extraordinary skills. We just decided it was time to bet on us.”
Starting with a dream while on vacation in Mexico in December of 2019, the couple didn’t realize then the opportunity the unexpected global pandemic would present to them. In Mexico, as they were daydreaming of their plans, they started looking in Ontario and quickly realized prices and availability of properties were far out of reach.
“We were inspired to start looking at coastal properties … and we first found the listing for the former Marquis of Dufferin. The property had everything we were looking for – an accommodation business, a separate house for our family, ocean views and a large property,” recalled MacLean. “Little did we know that COVID would hit only a few months later and change the course of our lives!”
In downtown Toronto, the pandemic all but closed the Fairmont Royal York Hotel where Neil, at 42, had worked for 23 years. Cheryl, a marketing executive for various entrepreneurial global organizations, began working from home and the kids were homeschooling. By the end of May, the family had many late-night conversations about the property they had found in Nova Scotia and what it could or would take to make it a reality.
“I spent a weekend pulling together a business plan and sent it to a trusted business mentor. I figured if he didn't think we were crazy for wanting to start a business in the middle of a global pandemic, then maybe we had something viable.”
In July, the MacLean family listed their house for sale – and it sold in three days.
“It was so fast we sort of just looked at each other and said ‘now what?’”
Their offer on the Port Dufferin property was accepted and within two months the family had packed up and moved into their new Nova Scotia home.
“We never actually saw the property ourselves before we moved in. If asked a year ago, we would have laughed at anyone who suggested we would sell everything and move to a small rural town in Nova Scotia. The process was a bit unnerving and we definitely hit a few emotional speed bumps along the way, but it was the best decision we have ever made.”
The pandemic has not had any adverse effect on the purchase, other than not being able to fly to Nova Scotia prior to purchase to see the property.
“We've had some family members express concern over the risk we are taking and suggest we wait until travel and tourism resumes to more ‘normal’ levels, but we believe that we purchased and will be open at the exact right time,” she wrote.
“The Marmalade Motel will be a premium motel accommodation. We are bucking the traditional roadside motel trend and creating a destination motel that will attract local tourists who want to spend quality time on the Eastern Shore.
“We are renovating all nine rooms with a 'modern boho' vibe – putting in all new furniture, flooring, bathrooms, etc. We want to create peaceful rooms that take full advantage of the amazing ocean views. We are on track to open the motel in the spring of 2021, although we will continue to improve the property throughout the rest of the year – tackling the grounds, motel exterior and eventually adding in a food and beverage element.”
MacLean worked for many entrepreneurs over her career in marketing and communications. She led the building of brands globally – designing and opening many retail stores, restaurants and experience centres.
“My background in business is quite deep across many disciplines – marketing, finance, operations and sales. Neil's experience is on the guest services side of our business,” she said.
“His attention to detail and ability to anticipate what guests may want or need during their stay is what will make our guests want to return over and over again. Where I am more analytical and methodical, Neil is hospitable and generous. We are the perfect complement to each other.”
The couple’s parenting style is very inclusive, she said, and they chose to involve their kids in the decision-making process of this life-changing plan. While considerations were being made about a move to another province, they discussed all potential scenarios.
“Ultimately, we made the final decision to move, but we did it as a family,” she said. “Our eldest daughter was already in her first year attending Durham College in Ontario in Fine Arts. We gave her the opportunity to transfer schools or stay back. She chose to stay in her program. We miss her everyday but it has allowed her to develop independence. Emma is planning to move here as soon as her studies are complete in 2022.”
The MacLeans said the other children are adjusting well to life in the Maritimes and getting back to school in September at Marine Drive Academy has provided stability for the two younger ones.
“Zoey is an avid horseback rider and Finn – a designer and builder at heart – enjoys math. Our kids miss their friends and our extended family, but they are quickly finding their way here and we couldn't be prouder of them,” she said.
Moving to a province they had only visited a decade earlier on vacation proved to be a nice surprise for the family.
“The only way to describe how it's going for us is that it feels like a big warm hug. From the day we got here, we’ve had nothing but a warm welcome. People have offered to help do work on the motel, get us groceries while we were self-isolating, provide history and stories about the property – it has truly been amazing.”
In their new community the family intends to get out and meet as many people as they can. They soon realized their story of leaving Ontario and moving east isn't all that unique.
“There are so many people living on the Eastern Shore who made very similar moves to ours and it's comforting to know we have that in common with others,” shared MacLean. “As our business gets closer to opening, we hope to get more involved with the local community. We are looking forward to joining the local Chamber of Commerce and tourism organizations. It's an important part of how we will advocate and grow our business.”
Finding support as they progress through the renovation process has proven invaluable as in “…. amazing people pointing us in the right direction. We've spent countless hours online doing research and reading articles. We ask questions to anyone who is willing to listen. We've met and talked to other local business owners in the tourism industry and leveraged our professional networks from the last 20-plus years,” MacLean said. “But I think the biggest source of support comes from the local business and chamber community. They've been instrumental in helping us get answers and move our ideas along.”
The new business owners said they are confident the break-even point will be accelerated. They believe as the world moves through the pandemic challenges, tourism will resume locally first.
“We saw some of this during the summer of 2020 – with the Maritime bubble. It was – and still is – one of the safest places in Canada to be. Locals will be looking for new and exciting places to visit and we plan to be on their list. The name, The Marmalade Motel, was inspired by the type of property we wanted to create. We wanted a name that evoked a feeling of comfort and long summer days,” MacLean said.
“I think the nicest surprise is the sense of community and sincere kindness that everyone has shown us. As Ontarians, we hear about the East Coast hospitality, but we have been overwhelmed by the power of it. Everyone has just been so generous and supportive – expressing how excited they are for us to be here and investing in the community.”
Janice Christie, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Guysborough Journal