My Friend Nancy: Hotelier, Real Estate Agent, Property Manager
I interviewed my friend Nancy Bergman, an extraordinary entrepreneur and hotelier here in Granada, Nicaragua. At one point Nancy owned and managed four full time businesses: two thriving hotels, a property management agency and a real estate agency. In this interview, we focused on her experience starting and running the Casa San Francisco, one of the first boutique hotels of Granada.
How did the Casa San Francisco get started?
My sister and I came to Granada in January 2002 and the city was just exploding – a real estate boom. We initially didn’t want to start a business together but we realized that combining resources would be the smartest way to go. I had experience in the travel industry, in hospitality, decorating, and had successfully run several different businesses in the States, as had my sister, Terry. And, we both had extensive travel experience. Our Peace Corps experience seemed especially relevant to this environment and we realized we had a lot of skills to offer the community.
Our trip was very short and we were actually headed to the coast, but in the few days we were in Granada, we started looking at real estate and getting ideas. We were staying in a very lousy hotel, and the few good ones were full, so there was an obvious need for good hotels. But, we had no concrete plans at all, and everything seemed to flow and come together organically. When we looked at the property (which is the current site of the hotel) we just realized it was a perfect place for a charming boutique hotel and we started playing around with design ideas. Renovating this large colonial house and turning it into a hotel was a huge renovation and building project.
We knew very little about how to do things here and the few builders we did hear of in town were all busy. We hired a young Nicaraguan (whom we eventually replaced) as our builder, and a good friend, an architect from San Francisco, was kind enough to do our plans and drawings and we went from there.
We learned everything by doing it and by asking around. We had to find the best places to buy paint, tiles, have furniture made, everything. We didn’t even realize at first that we needed building permits, but soon found out and obtained these. Finally, after some problems with our first builder, we were able to get a very reputable contractor who finished the first phase of the hotel.
How long did all this take?
From start to finish, we were able to open in 15 months with four rooms, a restaurant and bar. Six months later we added five more rooms and the swimming pool. We also finished my sister Terry’s house, which has several more rooms that serve as an annex for the hotel as it’s right around the corner.
How did you market the hotel, and how long did it take to be profitable?
Initially we advertised on travel websites, but our biggest marketing campaign was word of mouth. People traveling to and from Costa Rica spread the word. Also, at that time, there were very few similar boutique hotels in Granada so we were filling a specific, needed niche. It took about a year and a half to get into the guidebooks and after that we were continuously full.
To what do you attribute your success?
Our hotel is charming, attractive, and comfortable and the atmosphere is very relaxed. The service is good so people want to come back. The staff is trained to be friendly and helpful. The location is excellent as well – an easy walk to the center, but not too close to be noisy or close to heavy traffic.
What are some of the obstacles you’ve faced as a hotelier here?
There are cultural differences, which we have to be sensitive to, especially when dealing with staff. We try to maintain North American standards and staff who have no personal experience staying in a similar type of hotel have to be trained accordingly. Physical maintenance of the property is challenging due to low quality materials and the tropical climate. We have to deal with water and electricity shutdowns as well. We had to learn the legal system and requirements for operating a hotel and restaurant, and register with the proper offices.
Is it easier or harder to start and run a business in Nicaragua (compared to the U.S.)?
I think it’s much easier here than in North America, because:
- There are fewer laws and requirements;
- Initial capital investment is much less;
- The fees are less – for example, a liquor license is $20 and zoning consists of asking neighbors if they object to your business;
- Despite the stereotypes people have, we’ve never had to bribe anyone to get the right permits, pay taxes, register the property, get health certificates. Everything has been on the up and up.
On the down side, you really have to learn everything as you go, and figure out how the system works here. But you can easily learn by asking for help –there have been plenty of Nicaraguans and foreigners with experience who helped us learn the ropes. It’s also important to obtain residency so you can get a bank account, credit card access, and run your business.
Learn the language, that’s very important for communicating with staff, clients, suppliers and contractors. It’s important to be culturally sensitive, contribute to the community and be open to the needs of your clients and your staff.
Get help when you need it and hire consultants who are professional and will help you learn the ropes, and come recommended. Hire good lawyers for legal matters and beware of the first person who befriends you as there are scams.
Observe and listen to your clients. Based on client needs, we started a small tour agency for day trips in and outside of Granada. Also based on client requests, I started a real estate agency, and opened a second hotel on nearby Laguna Apoyo, as most of our guests wanted to go there and many wanted to spend a couple nights.
Anywhere you go there is always room for more businesses. I often give talks at seminars for relocating abroad or living in Central America, and despite the development over the last several years, I can think of 20 businesses that would fulfill a niche market here.
Also, you should have enough capital to see you through the initial phases of your business. You’re not going to be immediately profitable. It took us a year to break even and a couple of years to be earning good profits.
Interviewer’s comments: Nancy and Terry’s hotels are truly charming and their staffs are well known here for their high standards and caring service. See their websites for more information:
- Starting a Children’s Library
- Expat Life: Starting an Art Gallery
- What I Miss about the U.S.
- Expat Life: Starting a Health Club
- Expat Life – A Typical Day in Granada, Nicaragua