You know those people from elementary school you reconnect with years later on Facebook? Lori is one of those people on my friends list. We were chatting online about interesting people we knew who might be good subjects for this blog. She put me in touch with her friend Marcel Zuidhof, whose recent adventures characterize the Uncommon Lifestyle.
In 2006, Marcel and Verizon colleague Onno Oostveen decided to bow out of corporate life for a couple of years to volunteer for a large NGO.
“Thinking about it more closely, we decided to set up our own project instead with both a social and economic component,” Marcel said.” Both of us spoke Spanish so we searched for a country in Latin America. The poorest country, Nicaragua, was a logical choice. During a discovery trip, we learned two things about the country: that tourism is growing and that many children either abandon school or don’t start at all.”
They decided to open a small hotel, the Hotel con Corazon in Granada, Nicaragua aimed at adventurous travelers who have outgrown hostels. Profits from the hotel would be invested in local educational initiatives.
“Children who get an education develop themselves early on and still have their whole lives ahead of them,” Marcel said in an interview published in the IESE Business School alumni magazine. “Education is key for their own development and that of the community and economy.”
They found a derelict property in need of major renovations. The first step, though, was to secure funding for their project. Two NGOs provided 180,000 euros; corporate sponsors such as Carlson Wagonlit Travel provided 50,000 euros; and family and friends gave 85,000 euros by purchasing shares in the hotel.
“In reality, you can’t sell shares in a non-profit but we sell shares of 500 euros with a fixed dividend of one free hotel night each year,” Marcel said. “And as one of our Spanish shareholders pointed out, at least this is one investment where the return is fixed.”
Then, 27 friends rolled up their sleeves to transform the property into a lovely hotel with 16 rooms, a bar, patios and a swimming pool. Even rotted wood beams were recreated as tables and chairs. As a boon to the local economy, the duo hired local workers to help with the renovation and use local suppliers for the restaurant’s food. Hotel guests can learn Spanish at a local language school or tour the area through a local travel agency.
Since the hotel opened, it has had more than 2,000 guests and stands to make a profit of $30,000 in 2010 alone. “We use the profits to fund two local, internationally backed NGOs and we pay salaries for professional teachers who do catch-up classes with the youngest kids in a very marginalized neighborhood. We have advertised in some local media but the best promotion comes from Trip Advisor. We have also been included in the Lonely Planet as an author’s pick.”
After a two-year stint in Nicaraugua, Marcel and Onno returned to Europe but continue to serve on the Hotel con Corazon and making plans to open additional non-profit hotels. “In our previous corporate lives, we had worked at large multinational companies but our independent spirits were strengthened through this project,” Marcel said. “Now, we work for small internet companies that are more entrepreneurial.”
Marcel had this advice for those in business who want to use their wanderlust to benefit others:
- Follow your heart and stay close to the things you are good at.
- If what you want to do feels right, don’t be stopped by the skepticism around you.
- The bonus is that doing something different for a couple of years enriches you more than any other thing in your life.
Marcel concluded, “Our enthusiasm for the project kept growing as we went along in the business planning and all at once, we passed the point of no return. It really made it easy to quit our corporate life of working for large multinational companies.”