A 10-Year Dream Becomes Reality for Holly Watson

Winner of the PARO New Business of the Year Award

Holly Watson, member of the Painted Feather Métis Tribe, from Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada, is the proud owner of the Haven Hostel, and recently won the New Business of the Year award from the PARO Centre for Women’s Enterprises.

Ever since Watson was a little girl, she always wanted to travel. “When I was younger I never really fit in anywhere and always lived vicariously through friends’ and family’s stories of far-away travel,” said Watson. “I fantasized about travelling and finding somewhere I might better fit in and be inspired.”

It wasn’t until she was 18 years old that Watson was able to travel outside of Canada, and her passion for traveling the world grew. Watson spent many winters in her twenties travelling around the world, experiences that were afforded by becoming submersed in the hostel culture.

But it was actually in Canada itself where Watson was first introduced to hostel-style accommodations at 20 years old, when she stayed at the Turtle Hostel in Victoria, British Columbia. “My mind was blown at the communal atmosphere, being surrounded by so many colourful and inspiring individuals,” said Watson. Drawn in particular to the owners and staff of the hostels where she stayed, Watson learned all about the best places to go in each region.

Watson soon began dreaming of opening her own hostel, and spent the next decade planning as she travelled.  “I always knew in the back of my mind my beautiful hometown was the only place where I could find the support and decently priced real estate,” said Watson. “I just had to get the travels out first and find myself.”

After the oil and gas industry in British Columbia, where Watson worked for a number of years, began to decline, Watson went overseas to work at a hostel in Scotland for a few months. While in Scotland, she applied for the Starter Program of the Community Economic Development Commission (CEDC). When she returned home to Thunder Bay, she began to put her years of planning into action, creating a business plan and looking for the perfect location for her hostel.


Left to right: Ann Paterson from MNP (MNP sponsored the New Business of the Year Award), Holly Watson (Owner of Haven Hostel), and Rosalind Lockyer (Executive Director of PARO Centre for Women’s Enterprise).

Photo credit: Flashback Photography, Laura Paxton






After a year of searching, she found the perfect spot in downtown Port Arthur, but the building, while having dropped in price, was still just out of her range. “I knew I had to find a secondary complementary business for a revenue stream in order to pull it off.” She connected with mentor and friend, Paul Pepe who dreamed of opening a gear rental shop, and shortly after Get Out Gear Rentals began renting paddle boards, bicycles and kayaks three months after the hostel opened.

But before this Watson still had to overcome one of the biggest hurdles to open the Haven Hostel: receiving funding to purchase and renovate the building. While she was conditionally approved for two grants from the CEDC and the Aboriginal Business Financing Program through the Nishnawbe Aski Development Program, banks were wary of offering financing to the Haven Hostel due to the lack of historical data on hostels in Canada. This minor setback didn’t stop Watson for long. “I am relentless in fighting for what I believe in, and fought tooth and nail alongside my business partner and a whole team of people rooting for us to prove that a business like this, in an up-and-coming city surrounded by an outdoor mecca, would be worth it.” Finally, after a long fight, they received the funding they needed to purchase 226 Ambrose Street.

Watson says she was overwhelmed by the amount of support she received from her city, neighbours, family and friends; over 100 volunteers helped get the Haven Hostel ready in time for their first group of guests. “Around every corner we have someone asking and willing to help where they can,” said Watson. “We could not have picked a better city to keep our roots growing.”

Watson wants to show people the wonderful experiences Thunder Bay has to offer. According to Watson downtown Thunder Bay has over 40 locally-owned restaurants, and multiple shops and galleries that showcase the local art and culture. The outdoors is a large part of what Thunder Bay has to offer, and the Haven Hostel is continuing to collaborate with the outdoor tourism industry to help promote the total guest experience. They currently offer stand-up paddle board lessons, kayak rentals, indoor and outdoor rock-climbing adventures, sailing packages and are working on creating ski-and-stay packages. “We are working hard on creating the best possible guest experiences for those who are staying with us and pushing that experience out into the world,” said Watson.

With a range of private suites and dormitory style accommodations, the haven hostel is a welcoming environment for all types of travellers, from groups, to families, to solo travelers.

You can find the Haven Hostel on Facebook and Instagram @thehavenhostel and on their website www.thehavenhostel.ca.

The PARO Centre for Women’s Enterprises is an organization that seeks to empower women, strengthen small business and promote community economic development in Ontario, Canada.