In May 1995, Simon and Suki Yi made the decision to emigrate from South Korea to British Columbia.
In spite of Simon’s stable career with a construction company, they wanted to give their daughters better opportunities. Restarting in Canada during the second half of the 1990s, they came to the hotel business after learning the English language in the retail industry. Since 2005, they have been the owners and successful hands-on operators of the Quality Inn in Quesnel.
Simon’s immediate family fled from their native North Korea to South Korea shortly before the start of the Korean War, correctly sensing that Communism would greatly alter lives in their native region. Simon was born in South Korea just six months prior to the outbreak of hostilities. His family had been quite prosperous in the north, making them an easy target for the new regime. Life in South Korea turned out to be incredibly hard for the Yi family as they, like many others, faced intense poverty after the end of the Korean War. Tragically, Simon’s mother and sister both passed away when he was young due to lack of nutrition and poor medical service. To this day, Simon is unsure of the status of those members of his family who stayed behind in North Korea.
Shaped by the experience of poverty and growing up in a divided nation, Simon worked hard to create a better life for himself and his future family. He had a passion for art, wanting to become a painter, but ended up studying civil engineering and architecture on the urging of his father who wanted him to get a university degree and pursue a stable career. Looking back, Simon is grateful for having followed his father’s advice as his training as an architect allowed him both to live out his artistic skills and prosper in the thriving construction sector of South Korea.
The family’s decision to move to Canada came as a result of Simon’s passionate response to realizing his daughters were not well served by South Korea’s education system. A test question, which focused on memorization instead of applied knowledge, left his older daughter Dianne in tears. After discussing the matter at home, Simon and Suki decided to leave South Korea to give their children better opportunities. In May 1995, the family landed in Vancouver. For the next few years, the Yis lived in two worlds at the same time, as Simon went back to South Korea for three years to oversee some major builds for his former employer before returning to Canada for good in 1999.
Starting their new life in Canada was challenging for Simon and Suki as they struggled at first with the English language and culture. They opened a dollar store in Vancouver, seeing it as an opportunity to gradually learn English and earn an income to support their family while their daughters were enrolled in English language programs. Simon and Suki kept running that store until a friend, a Korean immigrant like themselves who had established himself as a hotelier, suggested they explore the hospitality business because owning a hotel would give them better stability.
Prior to entering the hotel industry, Simon and Suki made sure to do their research. The family took a road trip across Canada from Vancouver to Halifax, staying in hotels all over the country. Determined to learn as much as possible, Simon would ask the front desk staff at each location they visited questions about how to run a hotel. Sometimes he even came down from their room in the middle of the night to learn about the night audit. “The next morning I would meet with the manager or owner, sit down together with them at breakfast, ask questions and write down their answers,” Simon recalls of his first exposure to the hospitality industry.
In 2005, the opportunity presented itself for Simon and Suki to become hoteliers in Quesnel, as the owners of the local Talisman Inn were looking to retire. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, a booming lumber industry had supported local hospitality businesses due to workers and specialists employed by the lumber mills and by companies servicing the industry needing places to stay over extended periods of time. By 2005, increased automation had resulted in reduced employment and was hurting the community, leading to Quesnel appearing to be a city in decline.
Simon saw potential instead: “I learned in school that once a city has grown to a certain size, it becomes a self-supporting capacity. When one business disappears, another one comes, and it will still be running. Most people don’t see it that way but I see potential from there.”
Simon and Suki purchased the hotel and kept some of its staff in order to learn from them and have them help with the transition. That way, the Yis quickly became familiar with every aspect of being hands-on hoteliers. Suki developed her own housekeeping standards, doing whatever necessary to keep the property clean and leading their operation towards winning awards for its cleanliness, while Simon worked the front desk. After operating for five years, the Yis joined hotel franchise Choice in 2012. While going through some old files, Simon had stumbled upon an invitation to join another hotel franchise brand, left behind by the previous owners. He was intrigued by the idea of franchising, did some research and contacted Choice in late 2010.
With Choice’s help, the Yis renovated their hotel, making sure they spent money in the right areas in order to help it grow. Through Choice, Simon learned about marketing and how to increase bookings through the addition of Choice’s reservation systems. “Without help from Choice Hotels Canada, I don’t think we’d have come to where we are today,” Simon and Suki sum up their experience.
Simon, Suki and their staff focus on providing guests with “good sleep, good food, and a good environment.” They cater to business professionals, tourists, and families coming to Quesnel for hockey and other sports tournaments. Kitchenettes in many of their rooms allow them to accommodate longer-term guests including lumber industry maintenance crews occupying the entire hotel while servicing machinery. During the 2017 forest wildfires, the Quesnel Quality Inn provided a safe haven for evacuees, as the fires ravaged through British Columbia. The Yis and their staff supplied people staying at their hotel with everything they needed, from phone chargers to toiletries to give them some semblance of comfort in a harrowing situation. In 2013, their hotel won an APEX Award for Most Improved RevPAR (national and regional winner) from Choice.
More than 20 years since coming to Canada in search of better opportunities for their children, Simon and Suki look back on a career as hotel entrepreneurs and couldn’t be any more proud of their daughters, with Dianne holding a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology and researching Alzheimer’s as a professor at the National University in South Korea and Emma being in the process of launching her acting career in Canada.
This article first appeared in a Choice Hotels Canada publication.