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THE ACCIDENTAL HOTELIER

Blog: How I became a guesthouse hotelier

I first visited the most beautiful place in the world in 1980s, today I run its only hotel.

Osturňa(Source: Thom Kolton)
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I live in the most beautiful place in the world. This is not hyperbole; I truly believe it. When I first set eyes on the village in the late 1980’s, while Czechoslovakia was still under Communist rule and foreign tourists remained a novelty, I was amazed by the simple wooden structures and the picturesque scenery that I thought could only exist in a painting. But there I was, walking the very same road that my grandparents had walked nearly a century earlier.

To get a broader view, I climbed the hill behind the church as high as I could, where the hills on the other side of the valley give way to the Belianske Tatras and the High Tatras beyond. As I sat on the ground surrounded by yellow and purple spring flowers with views of the Tatra Mountains and the winding village below, I was overwhelmed. “Babka,” I wondered, “why did you never tell us how beautiful Osturňa was?”

I slowly began to understand the few stories my grandmother shared with me about the village, like climbing the hills to play with the Polish children. But in my later years, I also came to understand why my grandparents had left the village at such a young age to explore opportunities in the New World; who had time to gaze upon the mountains when the potatoes and onions needed harvesting? Life was hard, work meant food, and the village offered little opportunity.

Today, Osturňa’s most precious export remains its youth. But instead of travelling to America, the young now remain within the European Union, living mostly in Austria, Germany, and the United Kingdom. The continuing lack of good jobs in eastern Slovakia helps to maintain this cycle. But I am heartened each time I come upon a family pushing a baby carriage on the road, hoping they will grow and prosper in the village.

When I started my business, my intention was to promote tourism, with the hope of bringing needed jobs and new opportunities to the village. But having barely begun, the only guesthouse in the village suddenly closed. The man who had operated it decided it was too much work for so little remuneration. My question then became, “How can I promote tourism to a village when there are no accommodations?”

Following lengthy negotiations and against my own better judgement, I signed a five-year lease agreement with the owner of the guesthouse (who also lives and works in the United Kingdom). Suddenly, I had become a guesthouse hotelier.

Penzión Európa finally opened after a year of renovation. I now have a full-time staff of three, with additional seasonal employees during peak periods. I am aware that the steady salaries I offer help to financially strengthen a few families, and tilt the odds slightly in our favor that these families will remain part of the backbone of our village. So my effort is already reaping benefits.

My journey from visitor to resident and entrepreneur has been… interesting. The work is challenging, but chock full of rewarding moments. In the coming posts, I plan to share with you the thoughts and lessons learned from a foreigner living and running a business in Slovakia. Inspiration or deterrent? You be the judge.

Thom Kolton is an American entrepreneur operating Penzión Európa (www.penzioneuropa.eu) in the village of Osturňa.

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