Meet Kenny Osehan: Motelier & Community Builder
Through The Mirror is our video series in which we illuminate some of the magic that our friends and customers bring into the world, and how self-care is at the heart of their successes. In this video we peel back the layers of life as a successful California entrepreneur changing the motel scene with Kenny Osehan
Hi Kenny! Thank you so much for sitting down and talking to us today. To start, why don't you give us a little background into who you are, what you do and how you got started?
My name is Kenny Osehan and my occupation, I don't know! I have a company called Shelter Social Club, and it's an umbrella company for the Capri Hotel, the Ojai Rancho Inn, and the Alamo Motel. I guess you could call me a Motelier.
I grew up in the motel business. When I was 9 years old, my parents moved to Santa Barbara to be the live-in managers of the Traveler’s Motel which is now the Agave Inn. The Agave is branded under the Shelter Social Club, but I don’t operate it. My aunt operates it. We were the live-in managers from when I was 9 to when I was 18. My parents and sister and I lived in the managers unit. A one bedroom manager’s unit for 9 years, and we all ran the motel together.
That's incredible! You don’t often hear about people who started their careers at such a young age. Did you always know that you would end up doing this?
I always swore up and down that I would never be in the motel business, but I moved away and then moved back to Santa Barbara to help my parents. My ex and I thought, ‘how do we build a community in Santa Barbara where all the creative people were, and how do we make friends.’ We had no friends in Santa Barbara, so we were just trying to find interesting people to hangout with.
We thought it would be great to create a venue to bring people together, to have art shows, and have live music playing. Just a community space, basically! We thought it would be cool if it was a venue that actually was sustainable and had a sustainable way of making money and income.
It was a good starting point, and we brought different artists to do the rooms. We could only afford IKEA furniture at the time so it was all IKEA’d out, but people appreciated it because it was more of an experience rather than just a place to stay. It kind of filled this niche in Santa Barbara that was the in-between of lodging from budget to luxury.
You really tapped into a market didn’t exist and found the sweet spot between a luxury hotel and the standard motel experience.
Part of the philosophy is to have the hotels be something that is accessible to most people and have it not feel pretentious. To have an experience that is different than what you what have in a luxury hotel or something like that.
What do you think it is about your motels that draws people in? Obviously it’s a different experience than a hotel or the motels people imagine. What do you think is the biggest differentiating factor for you?
It feels more intimate. That's the thing about these motels, besides making it accessible to people, it is the preservation aspect because there's so many of these roadside motels and they have that nostalgic, American, road trip feel. At the Rancho, so many people come as adults in their 30s and 40s with their babies and they’re like, ‘this was the first pool that I swam in as a baby and now this will be my baby’s first time swimming in a pool.’ People are always super happy about [coming back] because they feel that we’ve preserved the space, and it feels how it felt before but with an updated twist to it that is more relevant for today.
When you update motels, do you feel like you try and preserve something intrinsic to that space? How do you integrate an update while preserving something that is special about that specific place?
Well the Rancho already felt super special, so the updates needed were really minimal. I guess it's all about preserving the soul of each property and to make sure to not strip it of its character and instead enhancing the character of each building. The Rancho [in the 50s] was referred to as a social club where people would come and hang by the pool, and it was a social club. That's how we got the name Shelter Social Club because we thought it's not just lodging we provide, it's about community too.
As you continue to embark on this journey, now with The Capri, how do you see your newer properties? Do you find them to be more like a blank canvas or are they similar to the ones you started with like the Rancho?
The Capri needed a lot more work than the Rancho. The rooms themselves, nothing was salvageable. We redid everything: the floors, the painting, the furniture, the bathrooms, everything. It has been the biggest project I have ever done. I wanted to go with an Italian, 60s type of feel but then some like Bauhaus crept in and I wanted it to feel really feminine so the colors are really rich. Again, I just really wanted to enhance the property but it actually has been really fun to redo everything, at least in the rooms. It's on a whole different level, creatively, then I have ever been able to work on. It has been really scary. I have been working through my self doubt with it, but it has also been really fun.
How do you navigate those moments of self doubt? Because really, you have your self to lean on in this and that can be stressful. Where do you find the courage to make these big choices?
I honestly just look at all of my friends that are really creative and doing really inspiring things. What inspires me the most is seeing people put themselves out there and not worrying about what others will think. Just having that trust that what they put out there, even if it's not good, is a part of them. It's something that’s true to who they are so I'm just trying to remind myself of that and trying to stay as true to what I like and what I find interesting.
It’s also so fun to work with other artists that I find too and just knowing that everyone that involved in the project is a creative person and good at what they do. I feel like if I put them all together, it is hard to mess it up.
One of the first things I heard about you is that you work with a lot of artists you know. You source most of the art and the furniture through people you know and you like their work personally, right?
Yeah, that's the fun part of it for sure. Before the motel was renovated, these UCSB art kids asked if they could have a show at the motel, and we were like, “sure!” These two girls did this installation with laminate decals. They had it going up the wall onto the ceiling and it was when street art was cool, so we were really into what they did. We asked them to do these decal murals in all the rooms and just bought all the materials. They did it just for fun and the exposure.
That's awesome! I think that’s super mutually beneficial. It gets people's art on the map.
It's great to see everyone grow together. Heather Levine did the ceramic lights at The Rancho. She was just kind of doing them on the side when I met her because I had a shop in the motel in Santa Barbara and I carried her mobiles. I knew that she made these lights too so I thought it would be great to honor Beatrice Wood because she is a big part of Ojai and she is a well known ceramicist. So we asked Heather to do the lighting, and now it is her full time career. I knew all of these talented women from the store, and I thought, “How can I use all of this stuff at the new motel?
Now that you are working on multiple projects at once, what does your day-to-day look like?
It’s always different and it's always changing. I come to Ojai once a week and I'll be here for a day or two but I come to The Capri and check on renovations, meet with the contractors, the project managers and try out different things in the rooms, like different chairs or rugs. Then I go and check on The Rancho. I just have different meetings throughout the time that I am here with various contractors and suppliers and things like that. It's always changing.
How do you fit self care into that?
There's a foot massage place between The Capri and The Rancho so, I stop in for quickies. A 60-minute massage goes far. And then in LA, I go to Korean Spa all of the time. I have to go to yoga everyday so I can just to get things out to be focused and feel clear.
What is your personal philosophy when it comes to difficult moments? In this business you end up working with other people a lot, which can be difficult. What is a way that you navigate working with people or what is some wisdom you tell yourself when you experience moments of struggle.
Well, I feel like I have been really lucky with the whole team of people that I have. Everyone is like family and really cares about me, the business and the properties. I have intimate conversations and I feel like the more open you are, the more compassionate and empathetic you are then you can relate to everyone on a human to human level. Sometimes I am a therapist, a mother, a sister and a worst enemy all at the same time.
That’s such a refreshing point of view. What do you think is the biggest achievement you’ve had so far with your projects?
Anytime people say they have a really nice time at the properties and it’s their home away from home, that to me, is the biggest achievement. To know that people do feel that comfortable at the properties and they look forward to coming and it makes them feel good, inspired, relaxed and renewed afterwards, I feel like that is the biggest achievement.
You do a lot of events as well, right? Like weddings and deck the halls?
Yeah, so many events! Music, pop-ups, films. Every week we always have something going on at one of the properties. People that are traveling are able to come, experience this community, become friends with locals and get ideas of where to go and their recommendations. It makes people's experience so much better while they’re traveling.
Kenny, you have so many interesting stories. What was your first job?
I was working at a motel. Not my parents’ motel, but their friends' down the street. I was the front desk person.
Is that when you feel like you started to have the first interaction with people coming to stay somewhere?
No. I mean, when I was 9, when we moved into the motel together, we all ran it together. I have been taking reservations and checking people in since I was basically 9. I remember I was taking a reservation on the phone and asked for their credit card and someone asked me how old I was. I was just like, "Do you want the room or not, doesn’t matter, this is my last room."
That’s incredible. Since you’ve been working this way for so long, what do you do when you're not doing hotels? What are your hobbies? What are the things you do that bring you joy?
Like I mentioned earlier, it’s yoga, Korean Spa. I took some hand building/ceramic classes at Zen, so now I just have a little set up at home. So, I'll work on some ceramics sometimes and I can get it fired at my friends’ studio in Ojai. So, I do a little bit of that. Traveling, when I can. I was just in Majorca and Paris. I love being by water. It brings me a lot of joy. Maybe it's the double Cancer in me.
In terms of taking care of your body, what is your routine?
I like to use the Ocean Cleanser mixed with the Probiotic Polish. It's such a nice texture when you mix it together and it really brightens my skin up. I use it when I'm feeling a little tired and burnt out. It is like a light scrub on your skin. It definitely makes me look more refreshed and awake.
When do you think taking care of your body is the most important for you? Are you more of a morning or night person?
I feel like when I wake up and when I go to sleep. That's when I need to do it, both in the morning and in the evening. It makes such a big difference. Just to have that circulation in my skin. If I need a refresh in the middle of the day I'll wash my face. If I don't have access to washing my face, I’ll use the Vitamin Sea Serum to give a little pick me up.
Ok, last question. What kind of wisdom would you give to someone wanting to go into an industry like this? Like a young person, just out of college, who has big dreams of creating community spaces.
I would say it's always easier to take over a property that is existing rather than building from the ground up and dealing with all the permits. Then you just have to jump in, as long as you have experience in the hospitality industry. If you don't have experience in the industry that you want to be in, then you should work somewhere and gain the experience and then jump in from there.
I have realized that everything always works out. Everything is temporary. And to not stress out so much over all the little things because at the end of the day, everything ends up getting solved one way or another, even if it's not the way you wanted to or the solution you wanted. Later on you’ll realize that it happened for a reason and you learn from it and it usually ends up better in some way, shape or form.
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