Designers, artists and hotelier to transform Skwachays Lodge

EAST VANCOUVER, BC—Starting later this year, visitors to Vancouver will be able to stay at Canada’s first Aboriginal arts hotel.

Corrine Hunt, artist; Sharon Bortolotto & Madeline Eng, BBA Design.

Corrine Hunt, artist; Sharon Bortolotto & Madeline Eng, BBA Design.

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EAST VANCOUVER, BC—Starting later this year, visitors to Vancouver will be able to stay at Canada’s first Aboriginal arts hotel. It will feature 18 rooms designed by the Aboriginal artists, who share the multi-use building, in conjunction with Vancouver hotel designers.

Located on West Pender Street in Vancouver’s downtown East Side, the building includes an Aboriginal Art Gallery, 25 residential units for the artists, and the hotel rooms on the top two floors.

Skwachays (pronounced SK-WATCH-EYES) Lodge and Urban Aboriginal Art Gallery, opened by the Vancouver Native Housing Society (VNHS) in 2012, is undergoing an incredible transformation this Spring, with the help of twelve of Vancouver’s leading interior designers and Aboriginal artists.

Once a century-old single room occupancy welfare hotel, the VNHS acquired funding to salvage the building facade and build the subsidized housing units and the art gallery.

The Lodge and Gallery were originally conceived as social enterprises that would support the VNHS mandate, which is to provide support and housing for urban Aboriginals and to provide Aboriginal friendly accommodation to those guests coming from rural and remote areas in the province for medical purposes.

The renovations are underway said Jon Zwickel, the Skwachays transformation project manager. Z

Jon Zwickel, the Skwachays transformation project manager.

wickel is also principal of InnVentures and president and CEO of the Canadian Resort Development Association (CRDA).

Jon Zwickel, the Skwachays transformation project manager.

Accidental involvement

Zwickel got involved in the project almost by accident, while touring friends with an interest in Aboriginal art around the city. When they got to the art gallery, there was a guy with a mop and bucket, dealing with a leak. “He told us to come back later. That guy turned out to be Dave Eddy, president and CEO of VNHS. We became friendly, and he told me the story of the history of the building.

“The building addressed head on, two issues that bother me—welfare and homelessness,” Zwickel told CLN. The gallery was profitable, but the hotel needed to attract a broader clientele in order to make money.

“As I looked at the location, target market and other criteria for a hotel, it dawned on me that there was no cultural connection between the residents of the building and the gallery to relate to guests—there must be some way to get the gallery and the guests connected.”

It was Zwickel’s idea to connect six resident visionary artists with six Vancouver interior designers. The artists would provide the vision and the concept, and the interior designers would transform their ideas into a functional hotel space.

“The first six interior designers I approached said yes,” Zwickel said.

The decision to transition 18 rooms into a luxury boutique hotel that will immerse guests in Aboriginal culture and experiences was not taken lightly, as the goal is for the business to become a fully self-sustaining entity in support of the artists. Wherever possible, the project is relying on donations of time and supplies, complemented by a campaign to raise $180,000 to make up any potential shortfall.

Faced with a limited budget, Zwickel approached his contacts including designers and industry suppliers. “Things fell into place, with donations including flooring, window treatments, bedding, mattress sets and plumbing.

“There are still a few gaps in FF&E we are looking to fill,” said Zwickel, adding that these items include new, flatscreen televisions and in-room safes.

The $180,000 will cover some of these items plus stipends for the volunteer Aboriginal artists. “We are just over 20 per cent there,” he added.

First Aboriginal arts hotel

When it is completed, rooms will  go for about $225 a night, a rate that is comparable to other Vancouver boutique hotels.

The focus will be on experiential travel. For example, if a guest yearns to learn wood carving, there could be a package for them. It might consist of a half-day interpretive tour of the Stanley Park totems and the Museum of Anthropology. Then they would work with an artist in the hotel workshop, with a mallet and a chisel in hand. In addition to the carving they produce, the guest would have priceless memories of their stay.

“This has been an emotional and transformational experience for all involved, especially for the artists our gallery supports, to see how our community has rallied around the vision,” said Vancouver Native Housing Society CEO, Dave Eddy.

“We want to express our gratitude to the interior designers, suppliers, trades and many others who are working with us along the way as well as  those donors who have already made contributions.”

“Boutique, experiential style hotels with a conscience are gaining popularity worldwide,” said Zwickel.

“It was important for me and many others on this renovation to volunteer our time and energy not only because this new hotel would be unique to Vancouver and a great draw for tourists from around the world, but also because of the opportunity it presents to demonstrate how a business can sustain itself as well as provide direct social enterprise benefits in the local community.”

More information can be found on the Skwachays Lodge website at