A couple of days into our visit we caught up on the new and the old. We talked of Baldwin Village Inn, www.baldwininn.com how it all started, how three more were added, where they are now, and what the future holds for them.
All four guesthouses belong to the group called Urban North Inns, www.urbannorthinns.com with the Baldwin House serving as the “mother” inn to the three other Sullivan inns.
I was fascinated that students, scientists, conference goers, medical-related professionals, writers, engineers, entertainers, educators, musicians, diplomats and tourists, make up the group of rotating guests at Baldwin Village Inn and its adjunct facilities in downtown Toronto.
We met an astrophysicist, a writer, a radiologist and a martial artist there. They come from many corners of the world and many have become regular guests and good, personal friends.
So, what draws this motley group to the Inns?
For many, the Inns are conveniently located near colleges and universities, hospitals, research facilities, museums and the Convention Center. Moreover, they are affordable and friendly, a home away from home managed by gracious owners, who are well-educated and well-traveled, affable, courteous and solicitous to their needs.
The Inns are highly recommended by numerous travel books, guides and magazines including Time Out Toronto - “Best Hotels”; Guardian (UK) Travel - “Top 10 Toronto Hotels”’; National Geographic Traveller –“Smart travel”; Routard, Arukikata, Michelin, Lonely Planet, and Frommer’s, describing the inn as a “delightful cross between a B&B and a hotel.”
The Concepcion family members -- Roger and Tess, their daughter Pia and sons Paolo and Luis -- are the Innkeepers.
The Start of It All
Roger Concepcion earned an economics degree from the University of the Philippines(UP) Diliman in 1969 while Tess Valenton is a business management graduate from Maryknoll College in Quezon City. They met while working at Ayala Corporation and again in UP while pursuing their respective MBAs. Marriage followed, a son thereafter, and the promise of a good life with excellent jobs.
However, political and economic uncertainties in the country at the time prompted them to try life elsewhere. They were young, adventurous and felt they had a good educational background to venture abroad. And so, driven by dreams and better prospects, they left the Philippines.
They went to Canada, settled in the suburbs and commuted to Toronto for their jobs. Roger worked as an investment and corporate banker with the Royal Bank of Canada, pioneered “Securitization” in Canada for Chrysler Financial and headed complex global contracts dealing with international tax lawyers and accountants.
Tess, in addition to her MBA, completed a CFA (Certificate in Financial Analysis of which there were only 7,000 globally at the time) and worked as a portfolio manager for Bell Canada.
A year after arriving, Roger and Tess purchased their first home in Mississauga, half an hour from Toronto. Their banking and investment experiences gave them confidence to buy investment properties in the ‘80s.
In addition to minding their work and growing family, they also helped their community. Roger helped set up a credit union and Atin Ito newspaper for Filipinos in the greater Toronto Metropolitan area. Tess volunteered at the Silayan Community Center and at the Office of the Guardian and Trustee of Ontario. Together, they spent hundreds of hours of their own time in spite of family responsibilities and demanding jobs.
In 2006 Tess left the pressures of the corporate world to spend more time with her three children. Roger as well thought of pursuing his own dream by working on his own.
A “Massive Dream”
The dot-com revolution of the ‘90s inspired many, including Roger and Tess, to try their own startup business. In 1999 Roger left the Royal Bank of Canada to pursue a “massive dream” as he describes it. Together with John Formosa, they founded Swurv, a software company that presaged cloud computing. They had two brilliant computer science professors and a dozen software engineers on their team, and financial investors.
Unfortunately, as Roger recounted, interrelated global events conspired to keep the company from succeeding. The dot-com bubble burst and the stock/equity markets tanked, depriving many investors of their fortune.
“I was physically exhausted and mentally drained from that experience,” Roger said. Their focus shifted towards reviewing their goals, and managing the real estate capital they had been accumulating in the ‘80s.
Visions of a B&B
The idea goes back to Mississauga. Their first two homes became revolving doors for relatives and friends, at one time accommodating a peak of 16 guests. There was, of course, the responsibility of housing, feeding, caring and entertaining them.
Their real estate investment properties prompted them to think of opening up a business that would combine their strengths at management and the joys of welcoming visitors. With a B&B they saw possibilities of meeting and enjoying the company of successful and interesting people of varied cultures, nationalities and professions, which would enrich their lives.
The Baldwin house, originally a rental property, was transformed into a B&B that they knew could be enjoyable, occupy their time and be profitable. They saw a great opportunity for creating a business platform for their children to emulate and nourish while encouraging teamwork and interest within the family.
They didn’t even make time to visit or research existing B&Bs. All they had were basic instincts in how to create a safe, secure and comfortable place for guests. They knew how they themselves would wish to be treated – with respect and showered with personal attention.
Not all was easy, though.
In the beginning Roger walked the neighborhood blocks distributing flyers and brochures of Baldwin Village Inn B&B. Those days they had to figure out to how to work seamlessly as husband and wife and iron out compatibility and operational strategies of managing the inns.
Excitement and encouragement defined their moods when their first guests from the scientific community checked in at Baldwin Village Inn. That was 10 years ago.
Now, a steady stream of guests comes to stay at the inns. Still counting, they have lodged approximately 10,000 guests.
In 2011 after five years of a great start for the inn, the family was overwhelmed with crippling health issues, especially for Tess. She suffered sudden blindness for three months. The best neurologists, ophthalmologists and surgeons could not provide an answer. The best guess was from Roger’s brother, a surgeon in Baltimore, that the culprit might have been a nasal spray that could cause adverse consequences for vision; it has not been proved. Her temporary blindness still remains a medical mystery.
About three months after Tess’ eyesight returned, she was diagnosed with cancer. However, with the advance of technology and science, treatment helped and now, approaching four years, Tess is cancer-free. Although the family feels relieved, the chances of cancer returning still shadows them. It is fortunate that one of the best research centers in Canada is only a few minutes walk from Baldwin Inn, providing them with some degree of support and assurance.
Roger recalls, “Much more so for Tess, it was a devastating period in our lives.” Those two successive life-changing events forced them to rethink their priorities.
Sustaining the Inns’ Success
While Roger and Tess still lead management of the inns, Pia has taken a major role and interest in helping manage them. She designs the inns’ interiors, supervises the renovations, while studying architecture and interior design. Paolo, who works in the film industry, and Luis, who works with IBM, help manage the inns on an as-needed basis.
One late morning while leafing through volumes of guest books on the dining table, I came upon this feedback. It sums up the guests’ impressions of Roger and Tess.
March 29, 2015
Dear Roger and Tess:
It’s hard to express how much I appreciate your warmth, humor and curiosity, kindness and open-heartedness. It’s not too much to say that the world is a better place because of the community you are building here. It’s wonderful to see the pride you take in your guests as part of an extended family. You are too modest to think so yourselves but you are a model of a life lived with intention, and are such a wonderful team as a couple who support each other with love and humor.
I thought I was coming here for a bed close to the Convention Center, and I got a delicious spiritual meal. I got the $20 back that I left in the sink!
Steve Jones, Philadelphia, USA.”
Into the Future
Each year Roger and Tess plan to step back incrementally. They feel a comfortable, guarded sense of accomplishment and are content; but they retain some trepidation as well. “One is never sure of the market. The key is to be aware of the shifting world,” Roger explains. They are well aware of the growing popularity of AirBnB and its burgeoning market share of places to choose from.
With their lives’ lows and highs, and everything in between, they now wrestle with “What now?” scenarios, collectively ruminating, deliberating and debating their lives’ possibilities and opportunities for the next 5 to 10 years.
Roger, with his entrepreneurial spirit, still checks on real estate properties along his neighborhood, evaluating their current and potential values. Tess, meanwhile, has taken up drawing and painting in her spare hours.
There has always been an exploratory spirit in Tess. During the embryonic stage of the B& B, her mind would wander to the Paris years of Gertrude Stein, when she created a familial place in her home, a salon where artists met, exhibited and sold their paintings, discussed the art world, jousted with ideas and shared life’s palettes. So Tess muses, why not mimic a similar setting here at the Inn?
Now she dreams of having a small art gallery attached to Baldwin House where artists could display and sell artworks, where friends, musicians, poets and writers could hang out, in a comfortable and relaxed home atmosphere accented with drinks and conversations. Tess says, “I would like the artworks’ net sales to go to an educational foundation for disadvantaged children.”
Whereas Tess strategizes on her art gallery and salon, Roger contemplates going back to writing as he once did during his early years of managing and writing for Atin Ito. Perhaps he’ll write his memoirs.
It has been a long roller coaster journey from the Philippines to Toronto, and it’s not over by a long shot.
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