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Generational Business: Perseverance and hard work keep Mattawa hoteliers going

Sudawan and Quaisar Butt have transformed 140-year-old Le Voyageur Inn into a cozy tourist haven

When Sudawan and Quaisar Butt purchased Le Voyageur Inn sight unseen in 2006, it was an act of faith that would be tested time and again over the next 15 years.

The landmark Mattawa hotel has hosted many a traveller in its more than century of operation, but it had seen better days by the time the entrepreneurial couple decided to take on the massive job of its restoration.

“At that time, we were planning to do some investments in Canada, but we didn't plan to come here yet,” said Sudawan, who hails from Bangkok, Thailand.

“We wanted to buy some property and some businesses, and then we were going to let the employees take care of the businesses.”

Entrusting a Toronto-area friend with oversight of the transaction, the ink on the contract was already dry by the time the Butts first laid eyes on their new asset.

“When we arrived, it was just a shock when we saw the building,” said Sudawan, who recalled her disappointment after touring the shabby hotel, which clearly hadn't been updated in recent years.

Rather than the hands-off, managerial role they were envisioning, she and her husband quickly realized they would need to devote all the time, money, and effort they could muster to bring the hotel up to a contemporary standard expected of a modern traveller.

That’s when their newcomer journey to Canada began.

“We had a business in Thailand, but when we bought (the hotel), we knew that if we're not going to be here, it's not going to run (well),” Sudawan said.

Long history of newcomers to area

Their story mirrors that of immigrants from an earlier time who also arrived in Mattawa following the promise of opportunity.

Situated at the confluence of the Mattawa and Ottawa Rivers, east of North Bay, the Mattawa area was inhabited for centuries by Indigenous peoples who used the river system as a critical transportation corridor.

As early as the 1820s, European workers began flocking to the area to secure work in the fur trade, logging, and prospecting, and by the end of the century, the area's first non-Indigenous settlers began to set down roots there.

Needing a place to house them all, Cleo Lamarche built the Le Voyageur Inn – then the Mattawa House Hotel – in 1881, and it’s operated as accommodations consistently ever since.

Today, Mattawa – which translates from Ojibwe to “meeting of the waters” – is a popular destination for outdoor enthusiasts who come to the area for its top-notch fishing, snowmobiling, camping, hiking, hunting, canoeing and kayaking.

Transformation of an area landmark begins

Despite the initial shock following their acquisition, the Butts and their three children arrived in Mattawa ready to work.

But the list of tasks needing to be done seemed to never end.

Asbestos insulation had to be removed. Most of the furniture was old and worn and needed replacing. Many rooms had common washrooms, so the Butts reduced the number of rooms from 26 to 20 so that each had a private bathroom. And the entire hotel required deep cleaning to get rid of the musty smell that had set in with age.

An engineer by training, Quaisar took on much of the work himself.

After months of renovations, the Butts were finally ready to open their doors to the public when a microburst – channelling wind gusts of up to 170 kilometres an hour – whirled its way through town, tearing the roof apart.

“It was a week before the Voyageur Days (annual festival), and we had a lot of reservations already,” Sudawan said. “So we couldn't open that year either. That gave us a nightmare.”

It was far from the last challenge they would face.

Just a few years later, Tembec permanently closed the local sawmill, putting 59 people out of work and taking a good chunk of the inn’s regular clientele with it.

"The younger people who lived in town and worked in it moved out west to get a job,” Sudawan said. “The (hotel's) bar used to have 40, 50 people on the weekend, then nothing – five people, 10 people.”

Entrepreneurs face food-led cultural clash

Finding the right balance of cultural dishes to serve at the restaurant presented an entirely different dilemma.

Upon arriving in Mattawa, the Butts started offering a mix of Thai and Indian cuisine to reflect their respective heritages (Quaisar is Pakistani).

“We come from Bangkok, which has a population of 12 million, and any foreign restaurant is working very well there,” Sudawan said. “We’re thinking this is a tourist place, but we opened it and it doesn’t work.”

So, they brought back a mostly Canadian menu featuring dishes like burgers and fries, but that didn’t take either.

With all the effort they had put into upgrading the hotel and the restaurant, the Butts couldn’t figure out what they were doing wrong. It was disheartening.

“This time, I planned that, if it didn’t work, we were going to sell and go back home,” Sudawan said.

“Whatever we earned in our life before we came to Canada, we were going to lose everything, and we were going to go home bankrupt.”

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Ever persistent, the couple made one last push, determined to turn around their fortunes, and in the early part of 2013, something clicked.

Diners suddenly couldn’t get enough of the restaurant’s freshly prepared Thai dishes, which are professed by many as some of the most authentic in the North.

After reconfiguring the bar to prevent sound transfer to the rooms upstairs, guests were waking refreshed from a quiet, restful sleep.

Patrons repeatedly praised Sudawan and her staff for the attention to detail and impeccable customer service they provided.

Positive customer reviews started popping up online, garnering the hotel multiple Certificates of Excellence from review sites like TripAdvisor and Booking.com.

The hotel even hosted a crew working on the 2015 movie “The Witch” while they were filming in the area.

Following years of struggle, Le Voyageur Inn was reborn as a newly minted gem nestled in the heart of Voyageur Country.

COVID-19 no match for hoteliers

COVID-19 was just the latest in a long line of setbacks, but Sudawan has remained upbeat through much of it.

Being able to access many of the government-led small-business subsidies has been a boon to help keep the inn financially afloat. And it’s an advantage Sudawan recognizes as distinctly Canadian.

“I’m thankful that I’m Canadian right now,” she said. “I don’t have to worry for my workers; I have the subsidy to help me. I don’t have to worry about paying rent.

“I don’t have any profit, but I’m not dying. I can move on in running my place.”

Government grants have allowed her and Quaisar to implement new protocols to ensure their guests’ safety, installing a hands-free door at the main entrance and switching over all their door locks to a key card system, which is easier to sanitize.

With the province starting to open up and prime tourism season underway, the inn is booked at about 70 per cent occupancy, and Sudawan is optimistic that will increase through the summer.

They’re even planning to open the restaurant for lunch and extend its evening hours to 10 p.m.

Reflection brings clarity

With all the hurdles they’ve had to overcome, the Butts aren’t as far ahead in their venture as they'd anticipated they'd be at this point, and Sudawan does have some regrets.

The biggest is that putting so much effort into growing the business left less time for her and Quaisar to spend with their children while they were growing up.

But she’s hopeful their persistence and hard work have set a good example.

“I feel like any challenge to come in my life right now is nothing for me,” she said.

Kind words from grateful patrons motivate Sudawan to keep going.

One early-morning phone call from a recent, first-time guest brought Sudawan to happy tears when she vowed to make Le Voyageur Inn her go-to stop for all future trips through Mattawa.

“In our blood, I think we are business people,” Sudawan said in reflection. “It was hard, but I can say we made it.”

This article is one in a series focused on the rich histories, journeys and long-term successes of generational businesses in Northern Ontario.