Last week, I took my first international trip in 16 months. Swiping my passport at a Global Entry kiosk in U.S. customs felt odd. While I missed travel, I worried about the return to “business as usual” which has contributed to excess carbon emissions and environmental degradation from over-tourism. Now more than ever, I’m looking to patronize businesses that keep these concerns at the forefront of operations.
While in Baja California Sur, I came across the owners of the beautiful Villa Santa Cruz. Not only did the couple quit their jobs in California to open an oceanfront inn on a beach in Mexico, but they’re striving to develop a farm and implement a low waste program to reduce food and trash sent to local landfills.
In today’s “How to Quit Your Job and…” interview, Matt and Jessica Canepa, co-founders of Villa Santa Cruz in Todos Santos, discuss their backgrounds, the day-to-day and big picture challenges of the hospitality business, and offer tips for those hoping to follow in their footsteps.
Where are you both from and how did you meet?
Matt was born in Santa Cruz, CA and grew up in Winnemucca, Nevada, a tiny rural town several hours northeast of Reno. He went to school at the University of Nevada, Reno. After graduation, he went to San Diego and worked as a bartender before flipping homes in the late ‘90s. When the homes would go into Escrow, there would be some time before the money came in for the next project, so Matt traveled. On a trip in 2001, he drove through Baja and discovered the town of Todos Santos where he bought our current property.
I was born and raised in Cardiff by the Sea, California. I attended undergrad at UCLA and law school in San Francisco at UC Hastings. In my 3rd year of law school (2006), I went on a family vacation with my parents to Cabo. They loosely knew some friends of Matt’s, so we spent a few days on the property in Todos Santos. I met Matt. Our connection was instant, and we fell in love fast. He moved to San Francisco to be with me while I finished my law degree and started my big firm job.
What were your lives like before moving to Mexico?
Our lives were hectic. I was a young attorney at a big international law firm, commuting from San Francisco to Palo Alto, and working crazy hours. We were newlyweds, but I was never home, always working. Matt was working in construction management. At that time, around 2007, the housing market was hot, prices were high, and for us, as a new couple starting professional lives, it just seemed impossible to have any real balance in life. I knew I wanted to have children, but I just couldn’t see how it was possible to have a family and work the number of insane hours needed to afford a comfortable life in California. We started considering moving to San Diego, but it seemed that the same issues were there too—same kinds of jobs, same kind of housing prices, etc.
How long did you consider leaving your respective careers and locations before committing to doing it full-time?
Matt was ready to go pretty quickly, but I was freaking out about leaving a secure job, right in the height of the recession. We started considering a move in Spring 2009 and then I gave notice at my firm in August 2009 and we arrived in Todos Santos officially on October 30, 2009.
That spring, I remember sitting at the kitchen table in our apartment with a calculator, trying to figure out how the money would last us, how we would earn money, etc. Lawyers are typically very risk-averse and I was a classic case. On the other hand, I had married an entrepreneur/dreamer and so he had to work to convince me that we would be okay financially without my big firm salary.
Why did you decide on a beachfront hotel in Todos Santos? Can you share your timeline of milestones?
When Matt bought the property in 2001, he knew it was his chance to own beachfront land, but Todos Santos was really nothing; the Hotel California, one of the town’s most popular spots for tourists, hadn’t even been remodeled. There was no nice hotel to stay in the entire town. So, we didn’t really “choose” to have a hotel in Todos Santos, it just evolved over the years, with one decision leading to the next: buying the property in 2001, Matt finishing the Villa in 2006, and us moving down in 2009 to convert it into a hotel.
When we arrived in 2009, the main Villa was done, and we rented it out as a vacation rental on VRBO for a few years. In 2011, we officially opened as a hotel, with 4 rooms and a wedding venue, still doing vacation rental buyouts for larger groups/families.
In 2018, we went big and added the 4 outside bungalows and completed a huge remodel on the pool, and switched over to operate only as a boutique hotel.
In 2020, a pandemic year no less(!), we remodeled a neighboring home on the property, converting it to 3 Ocean View Suites, and then added our 4 new luxury glamping beachfront Tented Ocean Suites. We now have 15 rooms.
What drew you both to the hospitality industry?
It was really the obvious choice! The landscape of Todos Santos and the beautiful Villa is special and attracts people in search of a slower place who want to reconnect with natural rhythms that we forget in normal city life. Things like planning your day around the sunset, noticing the stage of the moon, etc. This is what we were seeking when we left San Francisco and we knew that others needed that, too.
Describe your business from the initial idea, how it has grown, and where you see it in the next 5-10 years.
It has grown enormously! We began with 4 rooms in the Main Villa and have now added 4 Bungalows, 3 Suites in the remodeled North Villa, and 4 Tented Ocean Suites, bringing us to a total of 15 rooms. We also have done a major remodel on the pool, added a beautiful lounge and full bar, started a farm with produce and flowers, planted an Agave field and olive grove, and have started to put in new roadways. In the next few years, we’d like to add a spa and adult pool area and a fine dining restaurant.
How did you handle the financial aspects of the business, especially when designing, building, and opening?
When we did our first expansion in 2018 of the bungalows and the pool remodel, we had a loan from Matt’s family. For the recent expansion, it was through partner contributions and we reinvest any peso earned from the business back into it.
What are your primary day-to-day concerns?
Daily operations keep us busy—we’re up to 34 employees on our team and we are constantly meeting with our departments to make sure everyone has the tools they need to do their jobs well and provide outstanding service to our guests. We are also in the midst of upgrading all our internal systems/software—as we grow the business, every aspect needs to grow with it. Of course, in times of Covid-19, we are concerned about keeping guests and staff safe and healthy and providing warm hospitality to guests, even if behind a mask and at an appropriate social distance.
What are your big picture concerns?
An immediate big picture concern is reducing the amount of trash we produce. We are partnering with an amazing group here in Todos Santos, the Zero Waste Alliance, who are working to keep as much waste out of the dump as possible and create secondary businesses that can use waste in a positive way (i.e. landscape waste can be turned into mulch/compost, glass bottles can be broken down and used as a building material, etc.) I am determined to reduce our impact on the land and hope that our efforts can help teach the community how they can do it too.
Did your family and friends think you were crazy or were they supportive? Or envious?
In the beginning, when I gave notice at my law firm to quit my job, everyone was so shocked (I guess I hid my frustrations with the job well). I remember one attorney looking at me, with a confused look on her face, saying: “You are like the Shawshank Redemption—you are breaking out of prison and going to live on the beach in Mexico.” It is obviously an exaggeration to compare life as an attorney to being in prison, but it did feel like that at times. In general, though, everyone was supportive of our move, but I don’t think they ever thought we’d still be here 12 years later—hard to believe it myself.
Have you ever questioned if you made the right decision?
There wasn’t really ever a time to “question” the decision—we were too busy working here, starting the business, having our kids, etc. And, we had all our money in this basket, so there was no real flexibility to make a change anyway, so it was easier to plod along and make it work. Life in Mexico doesn’t move quickly, but as the days add up and time goes by, you can start to see the changes and it is very rewarding.
What has been the biggest, unforeseen challenge?
Owning a hotel during the middle of a global pandemic was enormously stressful—it was all out of our control. Businesses aren’t designed to come to an abrupt halt and it was very challenging to deal with cancellations, rescheduled weddings, paying our staff a survival salary, creating new sanitary protocols according to government guidelines, etc. But, we did it and used the downtime to get some big construction projects done. The uncertainty was the hardest part.
What benefits have you enjoyed since moving?
We live in a beautiful place. I see the ocean and palm trees outside every window of my home. I fall asleep to the sound of the ocean. While we work hard, when set against a beautiful landscape, it really makes a huge difference (compared to sitting under bright lights and A/C in an office building all day). Also, as owners of our own business, we love that we set our own schedule. I probably work almost as many hours as I did as an attorney, but I can schedule everything around my kids and family – that feels like an enormous luxury. And, the work is so personal and immediately rewarding.
What tips can you offer someone considering following your lead?
First, come with as much money as you can—you’ll need time to work out your life/career in a new place and a financial cushion will help give you the security you need to get settled. And, be patient. Life in Mexico is at a different pace than in the USA and with far fewer conveniences. You’ll have far more success if you learn to go with the flow, rather than fighting against it.
For images from my visit, check out my Instagram page Chasingthevine.
Villa Santa Cruz is open year-round. High-season room rates range from $260 – $700 USD/night + tax, depending on room selection. The front desk is staffed from 6:30 am – 10 pm, 365 days/year.
If you would like to nominate someone for this column, please email me at [email protected]