THERE have been countless times over the past 15 months when Colin McAllister and Justin Ryan feared they may have bitten off more than they could chew.
The isolation. The sky-high run of unexpected expenses that pushed their budget – and sanity – to the limits. The night they slept in shifts as a ferocious Atlantic storm battered the hotel they were painstakingly refurbishing, leaving them sloshing about ankle-deep in water.
Then there was the moment that the Scots TV presenters and interior design duo heard from Channel 5 that the fly-on-the-wall documentary following their progress had a new name.
“The working title was Colin & Justin’s Great Canadian Adventure. Which sounds lovely and very Enid Blyton, doesn’t it?” says McAllister. “It is only when someone says, ‘It is now called Colin & Justin’s Hotel Nightmare’ that you go, ‘Oh …’ because it truly was. Everything that could have gone wrong unfortunately did go wrong.”
The four-part series – which begins tomorrow evening under the (again) revised moniker of Colin & Justin’s Hotel Hell – is packed with twists and turns. “Do you know the film The Shining with Jack Nicholson?” asks Ryan. “He went slowly crazy over his tenure at the Overlook Hotel. It was a bit like that.” They both laugh.
First, let’s rewind. In 2021, the couple – known for TV shows such as The Million Pound Property Experiment, Trading Up and How Not to Decorate – bought the former Point of View Suites in Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia.
Their plan: to breathe new life into the rundown hotel complex and turn it into a luxury boutique destination on Canada’s eastern seaboard.
Ryan and McAllister have spent the past decade based in Toronto where they have built a successful TV career hosting rustic renovation series Cabin Pressure and Great Canadian Cottages, as well as publishing a bestselling book, Escapology, and growing their eponymous interior design product line.
Opening a hotel felt like the next step in expanding their property business empire. It was Ryan, 55, who spotted the potential in the dilapidated lodgings.
McAllister, 54, chuckles as he recalls how his partner would spend hours online perusing the estate agent listing and ruminating over every permutation for a full-scale revamp. “I called it his ‘property porn,’” he says. “Justin looked at this hotel every single day for two years.”
Ryan cheerily confirms this summary. “I was obsessed with the hotel,” he says. “I would get up in the morning and look at it on the internet. Every day I would think, ‘What could we do to that? Could this be the dream hotel we have always wanted to run?’”
McAllister needed a bit more convincing about taking on the gargantuan project and upping sticks from the hustle and bustle of downtown Toronto to the tiny and remote fishing village of Louisbourg (population circa 700).
Billed as “the biggest gamble of their lives”, the pair spent $1 million (£600,000) on buying the hotel, which has 22 bedrooms and six buildings spread across five acres of ocean-facing grounds. Their renovation budget was around £400,000.
Colin & Justin’s Hotel Hell captures the excitement and trepidation as they pack up their busy lives in Toronto and head to Louisbourg where a slew of mishaps, mayhem and meltdowns unfold.
It is a white-knuckle ride as the couple contend with structural problems, global supply chain issues and the worst ravages of stormy winter weather. The strain on their relationship – personally and professionally – is a tough watch at times.
As Ryan states in the opening episode: “This isn’t a charity. This is a midlife crisis side hustle that we need to get right. We can’t have a disaster on our hands.”
Colin & Justin’s Hotel Hell. Picture: Channel 5
It is a Monday afternoon in early September when their smiling faces pop up on Zoom. The pair sit side-by-side in an airy living space at the hotel. Ryan has laryngitis and should be resting his voice yet is insistent on chatting away alongside McAllister.
They are a consummate double act, each taking it in turns to speak, as the other one occasionally wanders off to check on something or quietly scrolls through incoming messages on their shared mobile phone.
The dream of running a hotel, say Ryan and McAllister, is something they had often talked about over the years, but it wasn’t until the pandemic clipped their wings that they began to give it serious thought.
On paper, it seemed simple: escape and adventure. The reality – as the aptly named Colin & Justin’s Hotel Hell will lay bare – would pan out somewhat differently.
“I was desperate to do this,” says Ryan. “It is such a majestic piece of property on a crashing ocean front with amazing views and such scope for potential, but Colin just couldn’t see it. I tried everything to persuade him but couldn’t make it happen.”
In the end, it took an old-fashioned, grand gesture. “I decided to disappear for a day and write him a letter,” says Ryan. “I composed a long letter about my belief in this project. I said, ‘The only way that I am going to be able to convey my positivity and confidence is to consign it to pen and paper.’
“I don’t recall having ever felt as passionate about an adventure or project. Colin and I have been together for such a long time and done so many different things together business-wise, but this was the first time that we hadn’t seen eye to eye.
“It was the nearest that Colin and I have ever come to, not a break-up, but any type of proper hardcore battle. I was obsessed with the hotel, and I couldn’t get Colin to see it, but the letter did the trick.”
Beside him, McAllister takes up the thread. “You have to support your partner,” he says. “Even if you don’t automatically get it or agree. If someone is passionate about something and you are passionate about them, then it is your duty to try and encourage them.
“If I didn’t want to be here, I wouldn’t be here. It was a bit stressful for Justin because when things went wrong – and a lot of things did go wrong because we were trying to open a hotel in a remote fishing village during a pandemic – he sometimes felt that all the pressure was on him.”
Was there any point that they regretted having the TV cameras following them? “Every day,” exclaims McAllister. “Television is weird because the worse things are, the better the programme. But, at the same time, if you’re having a super s*** day, do you want to share it with other people? Sometimes you want to quietly lick your wounds or have a seethe to yourself.”
The couple have been together since 1985 when they met in a Glasgow nightclub. At the time, Ryan was still at university and McAllister was working for the council. They moved in together a couple of years later, getting their foot on the property ladder with a flat bought for £26,000.
McAllister has fond memories of those early days and how it stoked their creativity. “When we first got together, we didn’t have two beans to rub together,” he says. “Justin and I are great believers in necessity being the mother of invention.
“We bought an apartment in an old warehouse on Miller Street in Glasgow. That apartment had been repossessed by the bank and when we bought it there was no kitchen and whoever had it before had torched part of it.
“We went to skips and second-hand stores. We borrowed things from friends. We pieced it together and turned it into a really nice home. Then we sold it and made some money on it. That kick-started our whole property journey. It was all born out of necessity.”
It is a philosophy they tapped into when global supply chain issues and eye-watering shipping costs threw a spanner in the works during the refurbishment of the hotel.
“We couldn’t get furniture for the dining room, so we found a sawmill, got some great live-edge timber, and made our own furniture,” says McAllister. “Rather than do without, we thought, ‘OK, let’s make it even better by using materials on our doorstep.’”
Was there any stage during the demanding renovations that they worried about doing irreparable damage to their personal or professional relationship?
“I think we both knew we would get through it,” says Ryan. “But it was a huge amount of pressure because we had spent an absolute fortune buying the hotel and had to create a secondary budget to refurbish it.
“Every time we were spending money, the pandemic still wasn’t finished, and we were thinking, ‘Have we done this at the wrong time?’ I am glad that we had the cameras there because had we not had that commitment to finish, I could quite easily have said, ‘OK, let’s take this more slowly …’
“But had I done that, we would have lost our momentum. The whole project put immeasurable pressure on both of us – more than we have ever had before. We were in this tiny bubble through the winter months, where it was just me and Colin going, ‘We have to make it work …’”
Colin & Justin’s Hotel Hell. Picture: Channel 5
McAllister echoes this sentiment. “When I look back now, it was probably the most stressful thing we have ever done,” he says. “It was a test of our business sense, and it was a huge test on the strength of our relationship.
“It is super difficult to be in a tiny village of 700 people, working 24/7 with your partner on something that is stressful and there is no escape. There is no-one else to talk to because you don’t have your touchstones, the people you can go to and say, ‘That Justin is driving me bananas today …’
“That puts even more pressure on you because there was no downtime and no time for Colin and Justin the couple.”
The isolation of the pandemic felt magnified, adds Ryan. “We were in this microcosm,” he says. “It couldn’t be more remote. It is a seasonal economy and in winter everything goes into hibernation. They say that in places like this there are only two seasons: summer and Netflix.”
That first winter in Atlantic Canada certainly pushed them to their limits. “Normally in winter the hotel would be boarded up because it is on the hurricane path,” says McAllister. “But we didn’t board it up because we were working in it.
“The first huge storm that came, all the doors upstairs, every single one of them gave way, and water came pouring into the rooms down below. We had one night – the most horrific night I have ever had in my entire life – where it was like we had five sick children.
“There were five sliding doors that kept leaking,” he explains. “We would get towels and put them along the bottom of these doors, come down here, go to sleep for an hour, then walk back up in the storm.
“We would put the wet towels in a bucket, put some dry towels down, wring the wet towels out, put them in the dryer and wait for them to dry. An hour later, we would swap them over again. We had to do that for three days.”
Today, they have settled into the rhythm and routine of running a busy hotel. The property – now relaunched as North Star – is coming to the end of its first full season in its new incarnation.
“I felt a full sense of responsibility every time something happened that didn’t go well,” says Ryan. “And I still do. It is not plain sailing yet. We are up and running and the hotel is doing incredibly well. The restaurant has been fully booked almost every single evening.
“The hotel is running at 90 per cent occupancy which is unheard of in normal times, but especially on the tail-end of a pandemic. We started with four staff and now have 20. Now my neurosis is how do we keep it this busy and make sure the business doesn’t lose momentum.”
There is still a rawness apparent as they reflect. What did they learn about each other? “I learned that if your partner says, ‘Let’s buy a hotel’, you run away …” jokes McAllister. “After initially being resistant, I got into the groove of making Justin’s dream come true and got a lot of pleasure from being part of that.
“We had to keep our sense of humour. Even in difficult situations, a problem shared is a problem halved. We were working as a team to make it happen. There were so many curve balls and things we didn’t expect and anticipate that made it a challenge every day.
“But the flipside is there would be these little moments where you would think, ‘OK, wow.’ I remember a wet, wet, wet Sunday, I think in March or April, with icy rain – which was most of the winter here – when we had a delivery of crockery.
“The box was sodden,” he recounts. “It was wet and falling apart. Everything was smashed. There was barely [an intact] piece in there. Water was running down my glasses and nose. I looked at Justin and said, ‘I don’t know if I am supposed to be here.’ I was thinking, ‘It’s too much …’
“Then, at that exact moment, this little hatchback car pulled up and a tiny lady called Dot Blanchard rolled her window down. She said, ‘Hello, the ladies at the United Church and I thought you might need lunch?’
“I said, ‘I am starving, what have you got?’ She replied, ‘Homemade soup and sandwiches.’ I said, ‘You know what, Dot? At this moment, I need something to eat but I actually need a signal from the universe that someone else cares, so thank you.’”
The close-knit community has clearly taken the couple to their hearts. “This little town has gone through so much in the last few years,” says Ryan. “The fishing industry has been compromised. The local school and petrol station closed. The population dwindled. Everyone said that Louisbourg was in trouble.
“I was part of a lovely conversation one day over breakfast with a crowd of locals. One old guy said, ‘Do you know what? We don’t need to worry any more because 2022 was the year that Colin and Justin came.’ It made me shiver when he said it.
“However, that laid the pressure on even more because people had such a massive expectation of us that we would come and fix this town,” he muses. “We couldn’t fix an entire town, but we can certainly help breathe confidence back into it.
“New stuff is happening. Our hotel North Star has opened. Another lovely restaurant called Spoondrift has opened. There is a new art gallery opening. Property is selling faster than it has done in years. People are buying and renovating places.
“You can feel a tangible and palpable sense of future. We can’t take the glory for that, but we can be part of the change.”
Colin & Justin’s Hotel Hell begins on Channel 5 and My5, tomorrow, 9pm