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Interview with the owner of Resort Svatá Kateřina

Ing. Petr Zempliner, owner of the Resort Svatá Kateřina, talks about the peripeties of investing in tourism, the eternal problem of labour and new Indian trends near Počátky near Pelhřimov.

Can you give us the story of Resort Svatá Kateřina in a nutshell?
We opened the resort in autumn 2007. In the beginning, we conceived it as a place in the middle of nature that provided standard wellness services with a focus on healthy lifestyle and weight loss, using traditional methods - sports and lower calorie intake. Unfortunately, the financial crisis and the recession disrupted this concept right from the start. After the first few months of a successful start, we fell into two years of considerable economic difficulties.

People simply stopped coming. It was a tough start. Then there was some recovery, but the competition for rest, relaxation, wellness, and traditional weight loss began to show up in a big way. We were not able to get any subsidies, neither from the state nor from the EU. Most of the competitors, i.e. resorts and hotels, got subsidies and pushed the prices down. Our profitability was no great glory. So we were forced to think about what to do next.

Well, what did you come up with?
A colleague suggested that we could do Ayurveda. We began to investigate whether it was just a fad or a long-term trend. We concluded that Ayurveda had a promising future. We went to the big Ayurvedic centres in Europe and then to India, where we visited several large Ayurvedic facilities and then established a collaboration with the Kairali group.

Why does Ayurveda have potential in terms of business?
I wouldn't say that Western medicine is in crisis, but with life expectancy increasing, people are becoming more concerned about their health. Yet Western medicine is often unable to provide the services that people want. That is why people in the West are increasingly turning to non-traditional forms of treatment, whether it is Chinese or Indian medicine, i.e. Ayurveda.

What is Ayurveda all about?
Ayurveda is a collection of healing methods with a tradition dating back several thousand years. It is mainly based on the use of certain plants, both in the kitchen in the preparation of food and in massage oils. The oils, which contain very intense plant extracts, are infused into the body by massage followed by a steam bath. The steam intensifies the absorption of the oil into the body. The massage is performed either by one masseur, i.e. two-handed, or traditionally and better four-handed by two masseurs who perform the same movements on both halves of the body. After an hour and a half long Ayurvedic massage you feel a very intense experience.

What does your collaboration with Kairali consist of?
They supply us with Ayurvedic products, such as massage oils, shampoos and soaps, which are made in a natural way. They also endorse our Ayurvedic programmes and supply us with manpower, namely Ayurvedic doctors, cooks and masseurs.

Is the Ayurvedic treatment the same here as in India?
In terms of medical procedures and massage, it is comparable, though not identical. For example, in Ayurvedic medicine, temperature plays an important role, which we cannot provide here.

Is the path you have chosen, i.e. the emphasis on Ayurveda, proving to be the right one?
From an economic point of view, it is proving to be correct. Initially, however, it involved huge investments. The materials are quite expensive and importing them to the country is very difficult. It took a long time to convince the customs administration that massage oils and other plant products are not illegal substances. Now it is quite all right.

And you mentioned that you also have staff from India...
Importing every single worker, like a massage therapist, is a big problem. It takes six months to a year before a person from India can join us, if at all.

Why is that?

In the UAE, for example, it takes a few days to get a work visa...
Ask the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

And how do you find employees in general?
That's a cardinal and eternal problem. We have a fundamental shortage of workers: we don't have cooks, waiters, cleaners, technicians or drivers. In Pelhřimov, Jihlava and other towns there are industrial enterprises that are doing exceedingly well and paying people sums that we can hardly compete with.

How do you deal with this?
We employ people from Bulgaria or Ukraine. We bought and renovated two houses in the nearby village of Počátky at a total cost of around CZK 12 million. We provide foreign employees with quality accommodation and free meals.

You were not in the hotel business before you built Resort Svatá Kateřina.

How did you come to the idea of getting a hotel in the forest in the Vysočina?
It was a coincidence. Before that, I worked in the television and film business and also in the healthcare industry. And the sanatorium, the buildings that now house the resort, had just been privatised. I had never even been to the Highlands before! One spring day in 2005, I got in my car and went to see it, and I loved it. The building itself was very shabby, a classic socialist convalescent home where children went to breathe clean air. And so I bought it in a privatization process and renovated it. The reconstruction took about a year and a half and cost 150 million crowns. We did without subsidies.

Would you do it again?
I would now. Some five or seven years ago, I was much more hesitant to answer that question. Now we are doing well, people like the Ayurvedic programme and we have started to have guests from abroad, from Belgium, Austria, Germany, Switzerland.

How do you prepare for foreign clients?
The basic thing is to have a website in the appropriate language and then to have a language-equipped staff. From the beginning we have been training our staff in the language, especially English, and we are also focusing on Russian clients. The challenge is interpreting medical interviews with Ayurvedic doctors who speak only Hindi and English.

How big is your resort?
Excluding the extra beds, we have about 150 beds and we have about 120 staff. We are gradually adding surrounding land to the resort and today we have almost 60 hectares.

What was the most recent major investment?
The Ayurvedic pavilion, which we decided to get after signing the contract with Kairali. Our investment ideas were fundamentally different from the final amount. We had envisaged some 35-40 million crores and it cost around 65 million crores. It wasn't that we didn't know how to calculate, but as the project progressed we expanded, included more luxurious equipment and made other changes. We opted for a very unconventional method of construction - it is a wooden building set on stone monoliths. That in itself is quite expensive.

What is your relationship with the municipality and the region?
We have very good relations with the municipality of Počátky, as well as with the regional organisation Vysočina Tourism. They promote us and help us in various ways.

Who comes to you?
More and more people are coming who are into yoga and Ayurveda, or wellness and sports. They are mainly from the bigger cities, and especially the middle and upper income class. Most of the visitors are women, about three quarters of them. The vast majority of our guests still come on weekends, which we would like to change; most of our weekends are sold out. We're coming up with longer programs for longer stays of a few days, a week or two weeks or longer.

What does such a program look like in your area?
That depends purely on your individual wishes. You can spend a few days lazing around without any activity, or you can have yoga classes, lectures and treatments from the morning.


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