The Baeumlers Talk Renovation Island's Resort And How COVID Affected It - Exclusive Interview

Imagine, if you will, plucking up the courage to take the plunge and try your hand at a huge real estate project. Ok, you might feel a little nervous, but the excitement outweighs any fear, right? Okay, well now add a global pandemic into the mix that halts all international travel — still feeling so chipper? We didn't think so. That is the exact situation that Bryan and Sarah Baeumler of HGTV's "Renovation Island" found themselves in at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Just six weeks before the world shut down, they had opened their beautiful hotel property in The Bahamas, only to face one of the most unexpected challenges way out of their control.

When it came to the early days and weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us did what we needed to do to cope — some of us took up outdoor walks, others took to baking, and some just adopted the sweatpants life right away. But Bryan and Sarah didn't have those kinds of options — they had a brand new hotel to operate, a full staff that had just been hired, and new kinds of challenges that no one was prepared for.

So how did they do it? What will the second season of "Renovation Island" bring to the screen? The List sat down with Bryan and Sarah for an exclusive interview to get all the answers.

How have Bryan and Sarah Baeumler's lives changed since Season 1 of Renovation Island?

So you're going into the sophomore season of the show. Let's start with an easy question. How have your lives changed since the first season?

Bryan: Well, we're both 10 years older. No. Geez. I mean, it depends if you're talking in the context of what you'll see in the show versus in real life. I mean what you're going to see in the show is six weeks after we open. Season 1 kind of finished with the party. Hurray, we're open. And we had planned to start shooting Season 2 a few weeks or a few months later, but six weeks after we opened, we got hit with COVID, zero travel, travel shutdown, the country was locked down, the island was locked down. So we spent seven months at the hotel with our kids and our chef and his kids and a couple of our ground's employees and that was it, locked up for seven months kind of waiting to see what was going to happen with the world. 

And at that point we started filming again, we brought the film crew down, they quarantined, we had all kinds of protocols to go through and we got started on Season 2. And we kind of looked at it and said, "This has to end at some point." We made this massive investment, a lot of stress, craziness is going on in the world and we started to focus on some of the guest experience areas of the hotel, some of the things that we already had material on site for, we had some labor down there and we just kind of made the best of it. But I mean, life as far as changing, we're always up to something crazy, so it doesn't really change.

Sarah: Well, it was a plus we feel like, I think we are so geared up at the end of filming and we were actually excited as well to start shooting Season 2 when the hotel was opening. And I think we said like, "Oh this is going to bring about some new challenges and some interesting dynamics while guests are on site and we're also filming sort of what their experiences are like."

But we never thought what we would actually be filming is part of the crazy shutdown. So I think for us, Season 2 is equally as unknown as we were going into Season 1. We had these goals that we hoped to reach, but as Bryan says, we really, like everyone else in the world, were going month to month saying, "Okay, are we going to reopen now? Will travel open, will people get here?" So we kind of rolled that into filming and it's a little bit of roll with the punches and as we said from beginning, we kind of shoot a little docu-series, meaning that we kind of are shooting what's happening and we're very honest about where we are at the time with our family and the businesses.

Bryan and Sarah reveal what Season 2 of Renovation Island will consist of

What can viewers expect to see in this upcoming season? It sounds like you, and correct me if I'm wrong, but it sounds like you have been able to make a season that's going to feel very authentic to your COVID experience?

Bryan: Yes and no. It's funny because during production we're obviously thinking like, people sitting at home, dreaming about living on an island or taking a vacation don't want to think about COVID. And the interesting thing is with all the travel protocols that were in place to get into The Bahamas, we had to obtain special permission to bring the film crew in. And once everyone quarantined on the island, we were just a herd. We're all living in this little bubble at the hotel and life seemed pretty normal. So we show a little bit of both, some of that COVID-normal life experience and some of the let's-get-back-to-business experience.

Right. That definitely makes sense as well, because pandemic aside, you have a new business opening and to run, which is such a monumental challenge and feat in the future anyway.

Bryan: Yeah.

Sarah: I think it also depends on the type of personality you are as well. And Bryan and I quickly realized, the first few weeks of COVID is one thing. And then we sort of reached a point where we looked at each other and said like —

Bryan: "We're in so deep, we might as well just keep digging."

Sarah: But you have to kind of get up every morning with purpose.

This is how Bryan and Sarah Baeumler stayed focused during the pandemic

[On reopening]

Sarah: We have a property here, we have to keep moving on it, travel at some point will reopen. So we don't want to think about this time as just sitting here doing nothing.

Right.

Sarah: So we almost reached the point and I think even you sort of see that in the show where we're like, "We're doing the same thing every day. We need to break out of this, let's put some projects together, let's keep ourselves just sort of mentally focused." I think that was a breaking point for the two of us that we kind of changed our thought process.

Bryan: I think everybody out there, all around the world, everyone's got to a point except Canada, but everybody gets to a point where they're like, "Okay look this is enough, we can't just sit here on vacation anymore." We kind of sat there for six, seven months, hitting the beach every morning.

Sarah: Not even, by a few weeks we were bored.

Bryan: Fishing ... well, yeah, true, true.

It does get to a point though where, you're right, the pandemic feels like it just keeps going and going and going, but like it will be done at one point and then we're going to have to snap back to some sort of version of normal and it feels very strange.

Bryan: I think it'll be done when everyone kind of does what Florida has done and just says it's over. Yeah, you just declare it over. I don't know. It's just been such a weird thing, but we tried to focus this season on looking forward, getting things ... And not only looking forward, but doing projects that would serve guests outside. We did a lot of outdoor projects, a lot of things that ... Our resort is a place you can go and there aren't 1,500 people there and you're not shoved in elbow to elbow in a massive restaurant. You can walk down the beach, not see another person for 30 miles.

So, I mean it is the ultimate pandemic, safe social distancing kind of place. And we focused on those kinds of experiences because we think the way people travel is changing. I don't think cruises are going to be as popular as they were. I don't think high-density activities. I think people are looking for those experiences where they can get away with family and really connect with family and nature. And that's definitely what we've got.

Is Bryan and Sarah Baeumler's hotel back open for business?

I'm not fully versed as to the status of how travel is getting to The Bahamas, so what's the status of you opening back up? I know that things are slowly starting to get there. And if you have, do you have future resort plans or how you're going to continue with these ideas of creating that kind of family vacation experience?

Bryan: Yeah. I mean we've been open since what?

Sarah: November.

Bryan: The end of November and it's slowly been building it. I mean, to be honest, the last couple of months and forward this year, right up until the new year, I mean the hotel is slammed. There's a lot of people flying in to have that experience and getaway. For Americans that are traveling, The Bahamas is great because we're so close to Florida, Fort Lauderdale, Miami. I mean, there's so many routing options to get in there. And Americans only have to show either that they have a negative PCR COVID test or a vaccination card and they can travel into The Bahamas and they don't have to quarantine. And right at the hotel, we provide —

Sarah: Onsite testing.

Bryan: Yeah, we do onsite testing on the hotel —

Oh that's fantastic.

Bryan: When people arrive and before they depart, they can get the test right there. And it's really simple travel back and forth.

Sarah: We've covered a little bit of that in the show. It was an interesting time during the second season, because as we were filming, our priority was figuring out how to reopen and how to do that safely. So the interesting thing for us, we're sort of following Canadian protocol, U.S. protocol, as well as the Bahamian protocols. So we were very up to speed on every country and what they were doing, but also trying to make sure that there are ways for guests to travel to us safely. And as Bryan mentioned, we were so fortunate that we were already in the position of a hotel that is small, tons of outdoor dining. No elevators or anything. Everything's on one floor with lots of outdoor opportunity. So we were really in a position that we could open, as Bryan said, by November. We had protocol to follow for the Bahamian government, but we were in a good position.

So by the end of the season, Season 2, you actually see us reopen for the second time. But it was a good reopening.

Bryan: The grand reopening, yeah.

Bryan and Sarah reveal just how 'terrifying' the challenges of COVID-19 were for their hotel

I bet that was a really satisfying thing to be able to reopen. You opened and then had to close and there was so much time it seemed, like no one really knew what was going on for a minute. And I'm sure that was a really exciting thing to be able to do again?

Bryan: It was kind of terrifying to dump your life savings into a hotel and six weeks later basically the world says nobody's allowed to travel. So yeah, that was bad. So reopening for us, it was the light at end of the tunnel. And I mean a big relief that we can start to bring some revenue in.

Absolutely.

Bryan: And then a big sense of accomplishment when people started arriving and the feedback was like, "Holy shit this is amazing. You guys did a great job." Because we really hadn't had that before. We had this grand opening, but only for six weeks and we were kind of just testing the waters and still training staff. So now we've got some experience under our belts.

I was going to say, do you feel like you are now better prepared after having that time, as much as it was a discouraging thing to have happen?

Bryan: Yeah there's always a scramble to open.

Sarah: Yeah.

Bryan: You never feel ready and that was kind of like, "Okay, maybe you weren't ready, take a few months and get your act together."

Sarah: Yeah, I think there's positives and negatives to both. When you look at staffing, it was very disheartening for us. I think Bryan and I can both imagine that day and relive that day in our brains where we had to sit down with all of our newly hired staff. We've just gone through training. And for that island, our hotel, we are the major employer on the island. So we felt this sense that just for the group, for the community, for our staff, that we needed to help them get through this time.

So I think that was the hardest point when we first said, "You know what? We have to close, but we want to keep you all on. We'll take you down in hours, we'll find a way to work with you" because the last thing we wanted to do was lose all of our staff and not be in a position to reopen and lose all of that training. So we —

Bryan: And we'd become friends too. I mean your staff becomes friends, and the last thing we want to do is say, "Look, we've got to shut everything down."

Sarah: Yeah. So we really had to pivot and look at how to do that without losing our shirts because, in all honesty, what makes the most sense for a company is to just lay everybody off.

Right.

Sarah: But we weren't on an island where that would be possible. Like it's a very different situation when you're on a small island and you're the people's only opportunity and it's been over a decade with zero employment opportunities, so we really felt this urgent sense to be able to keep our staff on.

What set Bryan and Sarah Baeumler off on their 'unpredictable' real estate path?

I'd love to kind of go back in time a little bit and just generally ask you both really what attracted you to this renovation project initially and how has it evolved in the way in which you thought it was going to, or has it just taken you on a completely unpredictable path?

Sarah: Unpredictable, yeah that's one word.

Bryan: Initially I think it was one of those things that Sarah and I were exploring The Bahamas in the boat with the kids and obviously it's beautiful. Who wouldn't want to just pack up and move to a beautiful island with a gorgeous beach and who wouldn't want to do that? And we kind of threw that out there and said like, "Come on, we should do this." And then really we tried to find reasons not to do it. And I think at the end of the day, we realized whether we did it or not, in 50 years, the end result is the same and a lot of things in life are like that. And getting into my 40s now, I hit my midlife pre-crisis and I said, "Well, the back nine I want to have some fun. I want to do something crazy."

The kids were at the right age where they would stay with us and travel with us. Like if we tried to do this now two of our kids, I don't think would come with us, they're older now, they have friends, the experience wouldn't be there, but it was just the right time in our lives to do it. It felt right. And it was kind of a reset, a recharge and it's been incredible. We've met so many incredible people, it's opened up doors, it's created lots of new ideas. You'll see in the show that ... Do we announce it on the show that we're kind of in Florida back and forth a little bit, no?

Sarah: A little bit.

Bryan: You may or may not see that we've somewhat settled in Florida and it's much easier to get back and forth and it's opened a lot of opportunities, it's created a lot of ideas and we —

Sarah: Oh boy.

Bryan: We've got lots of crazy stuff on the horizon.

Sarah: Once you've done one crazy thing, you're like, might as well just keep going.

Bryan: Yeah — it's kind of addictive.

Sarah: It's an adrenaline boost.

Bryan and Sarah didn't overthink their decision to move to The Bahamas

So what were maybe some of your bigger challenges in moving your family and wrapping your brain around balancing all of these different components of your life, plus a television show?

Sarah: Well, I would say that I think one of the things that probably served us the best is the fact that we didn't over plan or overthink it. But now we probably wish maybe we thought a few things through, but we were in such a time when we saw the property and we decided to purchase it and make this part of our lives, that it was just positive on all aspects. And we sort of came up with the thought process of we're going to figure it out as a family, as we need to. And we really looked at everyday like that in every challenge like that. And I think if we had spent time before even going to the hotel, we probably would've written a list of so many reasons not to do it, that we would have never actually ventured out of Canada.

Bryan: Everyone we know was busy writing those lists for us.

Sarah: Yep. And we sort of looked at them and said we're going to do it. And people are like, "What about this?" We said, "We're going to figure it out as it comes." And I think that was our blessing a little bit, because we didn't get too stuck in the weeds as reasons why not, and trying to solve things that may or may not happen.

Bryan: We also found out that, and I think people find this out, we found it out with our first kid, you're waiting and waiting and waiting until you're ready to do something. And even with the kids, we thought, well, maybe we should wait until they're older and we've got to wait until something, something, but then you have a baby surprise like we did and then you realize that every time is the perfect time.

Right. There's always going to be some reason as to not do something.

This has been the most rewarding part of Bryan and Sarah Baeumler's journey

[On their journey and renovation experience]

Bryan: I mean I think one of the biggest lessons we learned moving down to the island with the kids was that exposing your kids to a different culture and a different, not language, but a different way of doing things, just in a different place is one of the absolute best gifts you can give your kids and expose them to different things, remove the barriers from different things —

Absolutely.

Bryan: ... and allow them to explore the world in a really pure way. And wherever we go, I think the more you travel, the smaller the world seems, and our kids are between Canada and The Bahamas and Florida and the West Coast and we travel a lot. So they realize that the world isn't that big and there's lots of different people, there's lots of different cultures in it, lots of different experiences. And the more you expose your kids and your family to that, the more you realize that wherever you are, if you're all together, it's home.

We share so much in common just as people that I think people forget about that at times.

Bryan: Oh 100%. Yeah. I mean, we got down there and I think we were there about an hour and they point down the beach and there's other kids playing and they were like kids and they were gone, that's it. It's just a great experience for them and I think, especially in modern times of society, when there's so many negative, terrible things going on, it's great to expose your kids to different things. And they realize that you don't have to be scared of other people if they look different, they sound different, they act different, they love different, whatever. It's just everybody at the end of the day loves their kids and wants to feed their kids and take care of their parents and live their lives, and it's great to expose them to that.

That's such a lovely byproduct of this whole experience. I wasn't anticipating that, but I'm sure that was amazing to see as parents?

Bryan: Yeah. I think that was the most fulfilling part to just see the kids just like, "Okay, we're here, let's go to school, let's play with these kids. Let's go for it."

Sarah: It was a very different experience than if we had just traveled there on vacation as well — that I think is unique with each child. When you talk to them about their experience, they think differently, like they've each had something that touched them in a different way. Whether it be integrating into a different school system or just understanding more traditions like, Bahamian traditions, they each got something so different out of the year that we were living there that it's wonderful to see. And I think even though you can vacation and things like that, that opportunity to immerse ourselves on the island with the culture has opened our eyes through our kids' eyes.

What 'wacky' projects are in store for Bryan and Sarah Baeumler?

I was going to ask as well — this is one of the highest, if not the highest-rated show, on HGTV Canada in over a decade. Did you both ever anticipate the show getting as big as it did, as it has, as I'm sure it will continue to grow?

Bryan: We never thought we'd beat the ratings of our last show. No, I think in Canada we've been just growing exponentially over the past 10, 15 years. And I think the reason for that is we got to a point where we're not creating TV. We're not sitting in a room with our production team saying, "Okay, here's the show we're going to create." We're just saying, "Here's a really crazy thing we're going to do and I think it'd be a really good story to tell and share with people and take them on this trip with us." And we're so happy it was well received in the U.S., and there's more to come.

Definitely. Where do you see yourselves, the property, the show in maybe five years time, if you could make a guess?

Bryan: Wow.

Sarah: We've never had that question.

Really?

Sarah: So, isn't that amazing? First time we've ever had that question.

Bryan: The five-year plan.

The five-year plan.

Sarah: I don't think we even know.

Bryan: I mean, ourselves we're actually starting filming on, well for us it's Season 4, for the U.S. it'll be Season 3. I don't think it's been announced down there yet. Because Season 2 hasn't been aired right?

Sarah: No, this is Season 2.

Bryan: Yeah. So we're actually starting Season 4 in two weeks — between Palm Beach and The Bahamas. That's going to take us a little while. There's some really crazy projects on the horizon. Sarah has got some wacky ideas.

Sarah: Oh, your ideas are even wackier.

Bryan: Oh yeah, I'm working on a good one. I think we're just going to continue to operate our existing companies, the hotel. We've got some new brands coming out. We get some different fun things that we're getting into.

The funny way Sarah Baeumler is 'getting younger' on television

[On their production experience]

Sarah: I think it goes to what's at the heart of how we produce television. And it's just that, as we said, it's more, docu-style, it's what we're doing, where we're at, at our lives at this point and that seems to have always worked for us and what we love the most. We're pretty just, you get what you get. You got to get the bad and the ugly. We always just want to sort of share our life with people. So we're going to continue down that path.

Bryan: And every couple of years we stop and we come up for air and we're like, "Phew that was crazy." And then we look at each other and like, "Okay, how do we beat that?" I think we're going to beat it. We've got some fun stuff we're working on.

Well, I'm sure as well, what's amazing about the television experience is that you'll be able to look back on all of this and have this time of your life documented, which I'm sure is going to be a very nostalgic thing

Bryan: It'll be fun. And there's actually three seasons of a show we called "House of Bryan" that will be airing in the U.S. We don't have air dates yet, but you'll see us get younger and have less and less kids as the show progresses.

Sarah: This is genius. I'm going to get younger on television.

Love it.

Sarah: This is perfect.

That's amazing.

This is why people should tune in to Renovation Island

Well, before we wrap up, I just want to ask if there's anything else you want me to know or anything else that I didn't ask that you want to include?

Sarah: I don't think —

Bryan: What do you think, like motivational quotes?

Sarah: Pull out a dad quote.

Bryan: A dad quote, oh God.

Sarah: We'll be here all day.

Bryan: "Put that back where you got it." No, I mean, I think people will really want to tune in because we opened but we had to slam the door shut again. So this is the battle between ... It's that classic line, "What could possibly go wrong?" And the answer is everything, you name it, the logistics of this, and I started reading a book that everyone told me called "Don't Stop the Carnival" and everybody said, "You got to read this. It's the craziest story with these people are trying to open a resort on little Caribbean island, it's just crazy." And I got bored about halfway through the book because I'm like this guy had it easy —

Oh wow.

Bryan: — compared to the real story. So there's lots of great family stuff, there's lots of great adventure. It's very relatable I think to a lot of families, it's very aspirational. And I think secretly there's not a single person in the U.S. who wouldn't want to just pick up and move to a beautiful island and do exactly what we've done.

Sarah: And we'll be here for therapy sessions if they decide to do it. That could be our next show. We'll offer therapy for people as crazy as we are.

I was going to say, you could be teaching some people how to do this, which is also a very cool part of HGTV just in general.

Bryan: Yeah.

Sarah: Exactly.

Watch "Renovation Island" Sundays at 8 p.m. ET/PT on HGTV. New episodes are available to stream on discovery+.