In the early 1980s, Rogie and Tess Concepcion were living in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga with their young family. Ardent admirers of urban planning guru Jane Jacobs , already they had visions of Toronto becoming a vibrant, diversified metropolis like New York.
Rogie, an investment and corporate banker with the Royal Bank of Canada, and Tess, a portfolio investment manager with BCE (Bell Canada Enterprises) put their thinking caps together and started buying small properties in the downtown core populated by Jewish and Chinese shops. At this time, many local residents had started relocating out of the city into upscale areas like Forest Hill, or the rapidly growing suburb of Scarborough.
This investing-savvy couple who understood markets gradually picked up a few properties, assuming that their value would eventually appreciate, and turned them into long-term rentals. Once their youngest child started university, they moved to Toronto and began to look at their real estate portfolio in a different light. In the meantime, Tess had taken early retirement, Rogie had become interested in entrepreneurship and they started looking for business opportunities.
In September 2006, they opened their first “bed and breakfast” at 9 Baldwin Street, already known for its small quaint restaurants serving international cuisine. They had had no prior business experience in the hospitality industry but, according to Tess, it was simply an extension of what they were doing, renting out houses, except that “instead of long-term rentals, we have shorter stays.” Also, she adds, their Mississauga home had been “house central” to many visiting relatives and friends they had hosted over the years. The only difference, Rogie adds with a smile, is that “today we charge people to stay and even accept credit cards.” Even now, the hospitable innkeepers still host numerous friends and relatives, without charge, and certainly do not accept their credit cards.
From the start, the Concepcions were intent on providing a comfortable and safe “home away from home” for their guests. The integrity of this couple is such that they spared no expense in turning their first property into a guesthouse. The century-old building was extensively renovated. Electricals, plumbing, sewers, heating and air-conditioning were brought up to modern standards. Water heaters and water purifiers were put in. Rooms were re-arranged, three washrooms and a kitchen were installed. Their daughter, Pia, an interior designer, was instrumental in creating the contemporary look and cozy ambiance in the living quarters, a contrast to the traditional façade of the older building.
Baldwin Village Inn is a six-room B & B within walking distance to the University of Toronto campus, Queen’s Park Legislature, Toronto General Hospital, Wellesley Hospital, and the towering Hydro and other corporate offices . A pale yellow–bricked Victorian two-storey house, it has become a retreat for academes, scientists and creative types on overnight or short-term stays, perhaps participating in seminars, giving lectures, or attending business or professional meetings. Pleasure travellers love it for its proximity to the tony shops of Bloor Street and Yorkville, the Royal Ontario Museum, Roy Thomson Hall, and the Art Gallery of Ontario. There is shopping for the hip on Queen Street West, and Chinatown and Kensington Market for the more adventurous and unconventional.
There were, of course, many sacrifices in the early years. They took a hands-on approach to running the inn. They made sure that one of them was always around or on call. They even took separate vacations. Very often, they meet throughout the day and, Tess explains, “While there is more work involved, the yields are also higher.”
When Tess talks about “yields,” she is definitely not talking just about profits or “the bottom line”. From the outset, she and Rogie had defined their intention to establish an urban inn. What had started out as a play on real estate morphed into an opportunity to improve the income on their properties. But, more than that, the driving force was their curiosity and desire to do something new; little did they realize that their involvement in the inns would become a way of life. Given that they are very warm and likeable “people people,” they have created a nurturing environment as they try to get to know each of their guests as individuals and provide a safe and friendly haven in a city away from home.
Not surprisingly, Baldwin Village Inn has become an urban oasis for travellers from all over the world. These have included scientists, professors, and doctors as well as writers, artists, musicians, and curators, many of whom are at the top of their fields. Indeed, one of their guests is a Nobel Prize winner in mathematics. Their day starts with breakfast at a communal table; in this friendly and relaxed atmosphere, the conversations can become mind-boggling. A physicist can be chatting with an artist, a doctor with a writer of fiction. Indeed, a veritable salon a la Gertrude Stein. “The intellectual stimulation is priceless and that is hard to duplicate. Sometimes it makes my head spin,” Rogie says of their many gifted guests. “It has been an amazing 10-year run, meeting people I would never have dreamt of encountering. It would be hard to duplicate the human richness in any setting.” The “return on investment” has indeed been incalculable.
They now manage a cluster of five guesthouses known as Urban North Inns. Opened recently, Nest Inn, Aerie Inn and Burrow Inn are on tree-lined Sullivan Street, only a few blocks away. Newly renovated, they have light streaming in from glass ceilings and large windows; again, the wall colours, the furnishings and accessories exude warmth and create a feel of coming home. A one-bedroom furnished apartment, Major House, is located in the same area on Major Street.
Over 12,000 visitors have stayed in these modestly-priced Urban North Inns (www.urbannorthinns.com). They are recommended in over 20 travel guides including Lonely Planet, Michelin and Time Out. The Guardian Travel (UK) has named Baldwin Village Inn as a Top 10 Toronto Hotel. Many of their guests are repeat customers. They also have a few institutional clients (hospital, universities, non-profit organizations).
Given that their business venture has proved to be a big success (in more ways than one), I asked the Concepcions if they have thought of franchising their inns. This is definitely not in the works. Their succession plan, Plan A, of course, had included their three children who, at least for now, are pursuing careers of their own. In the meantime, they consider themselves “actively retired” and enjoying the lifestyle they chose 10 years ago. Plan B will have to wait as they happily attend to their urban oases and welcome the stimulating company of their guests.